By all accounts, the New York Mets have been one of the feel-good stories in the major leagues. Preseason expectations had them billed for a last-place National League East finish and slotted as one of the weaker teams in the NL. But to the shock of many -- and yes, it's only mid-June -- the Mets have been in the thick of the NL East race all year. A week ago, they were a season-high seven games above .500, 31-24.
Now 62 games through, still a respectable 32-29, but now a season-high 4 1/2 games behind first-place Washington, the harsh reality is that this is not a very good team; it's been a club playing over its head. The Mets were swept in three games by the New York Yankees this weekend and have just one win in their last seven contests.
I don't anticipate 1-7 streaks to be the norm, and in fact, I'd love to see them stun the baseball world and make a play for the postseason. The fact of the matter is, this is a .500 team at best, and their deficiencies were exposed against two of the better teams, the Nationals and Yankees, in their last two series: lack of depth in the lineup, poor defense and league-worst relieving. Nobody will ever question the heart and effort from Terry Collins' group, that's for sure. But that attribute often can only take a team so far.
The first thing to realize is that the Mets have a negative-19 run differential, and they've been in the negatives even during their winning ways. That's not a predicator of sustained success; for instance, every team that made the playoffs last season had a plus run differential. The Amazins are not particularly great at scoring runs -- they rank 13th in the league in runs scored -- nor are they good at preventing them -- 281 is the sixth highest in the league.
It's a little amazing the Mets have scored as much as they've put up this year. When you take a look at their lineup, only David Wright is a slam-dunk starter, and an All-Star caliber one, for most teams in the majors. At this point, he's been a one-man wrecking crew, which makes it all the more impressive. Without Jose Reyes, there are no table-setters. Ruben Tejada was off to a nice start, but he's been sidelined with an injury and it remains to be seen what someone with his inexperience could do long-term atop the lineup. There's also very little team speed; the Mets rank third-to-last in that category and Wright leads them in steals, so they're really putting the pressure on opponents on the basepaths.
Protection for Wright is also limited -- Ike Davis has been the worst regular in the major leagues, with a .167/.248.285 line. Lucas Duda has pop (his 10 home runs leads the team), but is young and vulnerable without much lineup depth around him. Daniel Murphy has 250 plate appearances, has no home runs and has a .073 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average). And everyone knows, no matter how much they hope and pray, the Jason Bay is toast and a long ways away from his Red Sox days. Kirk Nieuwenhuis has been a pleasant surprise, but there's only so much you can expect a rookie with a limited ceiling to do. The lineup in general is also susceptible to lefties -- a .244/.319/.379 line compared to .259/.333/.394 doesn't do the struggles justice because those statistics include every single player on the team who's had an at-bat.
Overall, the Mets get on base at a good clip -- their .828 on-base percentage is eighth-best int he league. But their .254 team batting average (15th) and .388 slugging percentage (21st) leaves a lot to be desired.
It's one thing to be a fringy offensive club. New York could get by with this offense, if they were good at keeping runs off the board. The starting pitching hasn't been a huge issue -- the staff has generated the second-most quality starts in the league. Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey have been All-Star-caliber starters this season, one of the best one-two punches in the game -- each striking out nearly a batter an inning. Dickey has a 2.44 ERA and Santana with a 2.96 mark. Dillon Gee, even with his 4.42 ERA has been better than that ERA indicates -- improving his K/9, lowering his walks and inducing more groundballs. Of the starters, those three are the only ones with a WAR of one or higher.
Their bullpen, however, has been abysmal, racking up the worst rates in the majors by a long-shot. Its 5.59 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and 13 blown saves lead the league. Sandy Alderson invested the most of his available resources into this area this past offseason, and it's failed miserably. Of relievers who have tossed at least 13 innings, only Miguel Batista has an ERA below three. There is nobody who can be trusted in the bullpen right now. One-two-three innings are rare.
Their overall pitchers' 4.28 ERA, when using the sabermetric stat, FIP, which takes fielders out of the equation and factors in the aspects only the pitcher can control, is 3.87 and that would put the Mets in the middle of the pack, instead of 22nd.
The problem with using those stats is that the Mets aren't a good fielding team, either, so they're rarely likely to save their pitchers any runs. Davis is probably the team's best defender but he's taken his plate struggles into the field and advanced metrics say he's been below average. Nobody in the field is considered great with the glove. Their negative-24.3 ultimate-zone rating is the worst in the league, while their 47 errors rank fifth. The defense has already cost them a few games over the last week -- and it's probably not likely to be winning them any games anytime soon, either.
While nobody can question their character -- it's what has made this group so much fun to watch -- and nobody can take back their strong start, even if it's dipped to 32-29, over the long haul, talent does matter, and right now, other than Wright, Dickey and Santana, there just isn't a lot of it on the Mets' roster. The law of averages will play out, and that means the next 101 games likely won't be as friendly as the first 61.