The New York Mets have not yet made history, but it smiles kindly upon them.
There’s just no declaring a division winner on June 1, but every available metric – and the surrounding environment – suggests that the Mets’ 34-17 start and the reinforcements on the way strongly suggest this National League East race is over.
It also doesn’t hurt that their top competition has flailed to reach .500 and appear fatally flawed.
They are one of just seven teams since 1960 to forge a lead of at least 10 games by June 1, and all of those clubs won their divisions. Three of the previous six won 100 games. Two of them – most recently the 2017 Houston Astros – won the World Series.
Heck, we can’t get that far ahead of things now, but we can start to wonder why this is happening in a place – Citi Field – ostensibly cursed by poor ownership and general calamity.
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It’s nothing talent can’t overcome, apparently. With that, five reasons why the Mets can’t be caught in the NL East:
The lineup surges with Lindor
The second year of Francisco Lindor’s shortstop reign in Queens is as impactful as his get-to-know-you year was forgettable. The dynamic shortstop, only now starting the first year of a 10-year, $341 million deal more closely resembles the man the Mets thought they acquired.
Perhaps it’s luck, and a regression is due, but Lindor has bumped his batting average 30 points – to .260 – at a time the league average is historically low. Consequently, his adjusted OPS has leaped to a career-best 127 after he was exactly a league average performer last year, even as his hard-hit ball, barrel, strikeout and walk rates remain flat or down.
Yet you can’t ascribe the Mets’ offensive greatness to luck. Grab a tissue, old heads, because you’ll love this squad: The Mets’ .268 average is tops in baseball, while their 47 home runs are one dinger below average.
Jeff McNeil and Pete Alonso are each on pace for 175 hits; Alonso pairs that with 13 home runs and a .894 OPS (155 adjusted), while McNeil’s is .827 and he’s third in the NL with 18 multi-hit games. Alonso, Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Lindor all have at least 13 multi-hit games.
In short: Their everyday lineup avoids slumps and, through a third of the season, has controlled the hardest thing to do in sports, at arguably the hardest time to do so.
No Hall of Famers necessary
Yep, it’s still true: Two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom has not thrown a pitch this season, while $43 million man Max Scherzer has been shelved since mid-May and would be fortunate to return before the All-Star break. In another year, that would be disastrous.
In this one, the Mets don’t need five combined Cy Young winners to flourish with that aforementioned offense. Mere competence is just fine.
The Mets are a combined 14-7 when Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and David Peterson start games, and in a season where the lockout has resulted in starters getting spoonfed innings early on, they’ve touched at least thet sixth inning in 10 of 21 starts. Tylor Megill, the original Scherzer replacement, gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of his seven starts before suffering biceps tendinitis.
New York will undeniably be better when deGrom returns from a scapula injury and Scherzer is back on the hill. A setback for either would be demoralizing, particularly when the club sets sights on bigger things, such as elbowing out the Brewers or Dodgers for a first-place bye.
But the arms on hand – and the bats supporting them – have more than weathered the storm.
Billy Eppler’s checkbook
OK, so enough about owner Steve Cohen’s largesse. (Well, maybe not. That luxury tax payroll exceeding $290 million is, um, nice). Yet money without competence is just a billionaire’s bluster, and first-year GM Billy Eppler has deftly constructed a commanding team around the no-brainer, big-bucks Scherzer deal.
Signing Canha to a two-year, $26.5 million deal was perhaps the least-heralded of Eppler’s pre-lockout maneuvers, but the left fielder has posted a .307/.376/.407 line, and he can play a competent center field rather than force Brandon Nimmo to play through injury. Right fielder Starling Marte’s speed/power/defense combo has already produced 1.5 WAR. Fellow 33-year-old Eduardo Escobar has been merely league average offensively, but stability and respected veteran vibes have been sufficient at third base.
And the March trade for Chris Bassitt took the Mets from intriguing contender to potential force – while providing an ace during the deGrom-Scherzer down time.
Eppler’s first trade deadline as Mets GM will be fascinating. He had to operate with a handful of owner Arte Moreno’s contractual albatrosses on his back in Anaheim, as the Angels’ playoff drought neared a decade before his firing. Now, both money and opportunity shouldn’t be wanting as the club seeks to deepen its rotation and add more sock to the lineup.
The NL Least
Let’s face it: That 10 ½ -game lead is almost as much the doing of others as the Mets. The Phillies have again been disappointing, this time catching a passel of injuries and bad breaks to depress their .500 win likelihood; they’re now 21-29.
The defending champion Braves still have yet to win three consecutive games and the 88 wins they cobbled together to win this division and then the World Series won’t be enough this year.
It doesn’t hurt that the Mets have already exhausted nine of their 19 games against the woeful Nationals (winning seven) in this, the final year of the unbalanced schedule. Yet they’ve already won nine of 12 against Philly, split four against the Braves, are a combined 9-5 against the Cardinals and Giants.
And there’s 19 games left against the punchless Marlins.
Certainly, the Mets have earned that record. Circumstances surely haven’t hurt, though.
Look up at the end of the season, and the Mets’ statistics may not jump out as a likely 100-game winner. Alonso might hit 40 homers. McNeil and Co. could give 200 hits a run. Closer Edwin Diaz might top 40 saves for the first time since 2018.
Yet with 34 wins in the barn, the Mets have already gotten what they needed, when they needed it, whether it’s enough offense on a night the starters scuffle. Or a deep outing on a day the bullpen is gassed. And, they hope, a pair of Cy Young winners coming back to the rotation when they need them the most.
You can’t plan nor predict this stuff, and the same charmed existence that enabled them to lap the NL East field could go awry in the season’s final two-thirds. Yet the Mets already have history on their side.
Contributing: Scott Boeck