The New York Mets are not usually a club that strikes fear into opponents’ hearts, at least not recently. Ever since going 45-28 down the stretch of the regular season and postseason en route to the 2015 World Series, New York is a combined 375-386 — 11 games below .500. The most the Mets have managed to do is excite their beleaguered fan base at times with flashes of potential … only to immediately dash those hopes in increasingly farcical ways.
But after they split this weekend’s series with the talented San Diego Padres on the road, maintaining a 3.5-game lead in the National League East race, the question must be asked: Are these New York Mets actually legitimate championship contenders?
Let’s break down three reasons why they might be — and one reason why they might not.
Their stats are better than their record
At a baseline, the Mets are a decent-looking team. They have the 11th-best record in baseball, with the 10th-best runs-per-game differential. New York ranks second in fewest runs allowed per game, though they rank 29th in runs scored per game — a big offensive weakness that has left their overall scoring margin just barely above water, at +11.
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However, a deeper dive suggests the Mets are better than those numbers indicate. According to base runs, a metric that estimates the number of runs a team “should” have scored or allowed based on the the individual offensive events (i.e., singles, doubles, walks, etc.) it produced or gave up, New York has been the unluckiest team in the league so far this season. From their underlying stats, we would expect the Mets to be scoring 0.25 more runs per game (tied for the third-biggest shortfall in MLB) and allowing 0.28 fewer runs per game (also third-worst), which adds up to more than a half-run per game of differential that New York hasn’t capitalized on:
|Runs Scored/Gm||Runs Allowed/Gm|
|Team||Base Runs||Actual||Diff.||Base Runs||Actual||Diff.||Tot. Diff.|
If we rank off base runs’ expectations instead of the actual numbers, New York still ranks 28th in scoring but easily has the best run-prevention corps in MLB — a full half-run better than the No. 2 Dodgers. Those numbers give the Mets MLB’s fifth-best expected winning percentage according to base runs — placing them in contending territory alongside the Tampa Bay Rays and resurgent Houston Astros, rather than merely being just another decent ballclub. (They also rank fifth in OPS differential — another metric designed to convert a team’s underlying stats into a stable measure of team performance.)
Base runs can be useful in the middle of a season because it uses more information than simple wins and losses or even run differential, giving us a better picture of how a team has been playing after stripping away the luck of sequencing and performances in close games. Though the Mets may not fully fit their runs scored and allowed to base runs’ expectations over the rest of the season, it’s a good bet they’ll move some in that direction — and win more as a result.
related: The Astros Are Good Again. That’s Complicating Their Story. Read more. »
They’ve lost key players to injuries
Even by Mets standards, this year’s team has been struck by a significant number of injuries. As recently as a few weeks ago, the New York injured list contained Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso, Taijuan Walker, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Carlos Carrasco, J.D. Davis, Seth Lugo and Kevin Pillar — all either stars or players the Mets were at least counting on to make an impact this season.1 While some of those have since returned to action, New York has lost the most wins above replacement (WAR) to injury of any team this year, according to ManGamesLost.com — and it isn’t especially close.
While reports are that neither Nimmo nor Davis is making quick progress, most of the important players currently on the New York IL are targeted to return by the second half of the regular season. That could mean the version of the Mets that shows up for the stretch run is stronger than what it’s been for most of the early part of the year.
Similarly, even among healthy Mets, there is potential for better performance going forward. It’s no secret that shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was acquired in a January megadeal, is off to a rocky start with his new club. But he’s not the only player on the team who’s producing below his ability level: Alonso, left fielder Dominic Smith, catcher James McCann and pitcher David Peterson are all among the Mets who’ve failed to meet the expectations of their recent track records, at least according to WAR.2 Positive regression to the mean is no guarantee, but we’ve already seen Lindor start to improve as the season has progressed; he and his teammates have the capacity to play a lot better than they have so far.
They could be scary in the postseason
We detailed earlier in the year just how great deGrom has been as the Mets’ ace — but all he’s done since is lower his ERA to 0.62, heightening speculation that he could challenge Bob Gibson’s post-deadball era record of 1.12 for the lowest ERA in a season. Provided he stays healthy (again, he briefly hit the IL with side tightness in early May), deGrom headlines a roster with top-end talent that few teams would relish facing in a postseason series.
After deGrom, the Mets would send Marcus Stroman and Walker to the mound — both of whom have also been very good so far this season. With that trio, New York is one of just seven teams with at least three pitchers on pace for 3.5 or more WAR. Figuring out the fourth starter will be a challenge; Carrasco hasn’t pitched all season, Peterson has been downright awful (-1.2 pitching WAR per 162 games), and the rest of the rotation is on pace to collectively generate a scant 0.2 WAR. But you can do a lot in the postseason with just three high-quality starters.
And a full-strength Mets lineup wouldn’t be a treat for opposing pitchers to face — in theory, at least. Their season-opening starters (against righties) consisted of six players who played at a 3.6-WAR pace or better in the shortened 2020 campaign, plus another — Alonso — who put up 5.1 WAR in 2019 (while setting a new rookie record with 53 home runs). As we noted above, most of those players either have been hurt or have underperformed so far in 2021, but New York does have no shortage of scary talent on paper to bring to a playoff series.
But can they beat the best?
The single biggest piece of evidence against the Mets’ contender status might be their very stark split in performance against good versus bad opponents. New York is 25-11 against teams with a sub-.500 record but 4-12 against teams that are .500 or better. (Half of their wins against those opponents came against the Padres this weekend!)
That’s certainly not a good look for a team with unapologetic October aspirations. New York’s dip of 444 points of winning percentage (!) between those two types of opponents is easily the largest drop-off of any team in baseball so far this season, more than 100 points worse than the second-lowest team, the Arizona Diamondbacks:
|vs. Winning Teams*||vs. Losing Teams|
The good news for the Mets is that they may not need to improve much against top competition in order to win the NL East. Pegged as one of the tougher divisions on paper going into the season, the East has been thoroughly mediocre at best, with four teams under .500 and a collective 74-87 record against clubs from other divisions. Through all of the injuries, underperformance and struggles against winning opponents, our forecast model gives the Mets a 68 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 62 percent chance to win the division. No other team checks in with better division odds than Atlanta’s 21 percent probability. But New York will need to work out its problems against better competition if the team does get to the postseason.
The Mets are far from a perfect team, though they are in a good situation. They’ve played better than their basic indicators would suggest, and they’ve weathered the kinds of injury storms that would have sunk them in previous seasons. They have strong playoff odds, in part because the rest of their division has offered little resistance. While it’s always premature to start making plans for a deep postseason run in Queens, this year’s Mets are in solid shape now and have the signs of a team that could potentially make more noise as the season goes on.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.