On June 16, 2021, the New York Mets beat the Chicago Cubs and moved to a season-high 11 games over .500. They were also sitting on a season-high 5 1/2-game lead in the NL East, the only team even remotely living up to expectations in a muddled division division.
But in the course of that game, world-beating ace Jacob deGrom left with shoulder soreness.
We know how things proceeded from there. The Mets crashed back to the pack, the Atlanta Braves remade their outfield at the trade deadline. The Mets finished third in the division at 77-85, then fired manager Luis Rojas and eventually acting GM Zack Scott after a DUI charge (on which he was later found not guilty). The Braves won the World Series.
Flash forward one year, and the Mets again find themselves clinging to first place as the slow-starting, hard-charging Braves close in.
Everything about this team feels different. For starters, they are 21 games over .500, the best record in the National League rather than de facto leaders of a sluggish division. They have also done this without deGrom stepping foot on a regular season mound, and have managed to hang on for a month so far without marquee signing Max Scherzer. On the top step of the dugout, they have Buck Showalter at the helm, a seemingly revelatory change of leadership that has made the 2022 Mets feel competent in a way few recent editions have.
But this being the Mets, and the NL East being the NL East, there was always going to be a stress test. The Braves started June on a 15-game winning streak, which finally ended on Friday. A 10.5-game lead has shrunk to that 6.5.
So the specter of summers past looms. Are the Mets going to be the guy who falls flat on his face against The Freeze (again), or is this team really different?
Is it Buck or is it luck?
It’s been a shaky year for MLB’s managerial old guard. Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon were dismissed from piloting their respective shoddily constructed starcrafts, and Tony La Russa’s Chicago White Sox have faltered in frustrating enough ways that some fans chanted for him to be fired.
Showalter hadn’t managed since 2018 when the Mets scooped him up this winter, but his grounded gravitas and attention to detail have been hailed as transformational.
Perhaps no franchise needed a steady hand in the skipper’s office more than the Mets. Across the previous four seasons under first-time managers Mickey Callaway and Rojas, this team was breathtakingly prone to chaos. A lot of the reason to feel positive about Showalter’s stewardship of the team has nothing to do with how he’s handling the team. Simply by being very prominent, he is providing relief that previous managers didn’t. Like a grandfatherly lightning rod, he absorbs or deflects the considerable external energy directed at the team instead of sending it careening through the clubhouse.
In other words, even if the Mets again fail to make the playoffs, perhaps they won’t publicly embarrass themselves along the way. That would count as progress, unfortunately.
But that isn’t the real goal.
Armed with the sport’s second-largest payroll, owner Steve Cohen and the Mets faithful expect to play in October.
Attributing a team’s success to a manager, or projecting its future success based on a manager, is largely a fool’s errand in 2022. Major-league managers don’t stack the cards into a house in the modern game — front offices do that. Their job is to keep watch, to navigate the heat of the moment without pulling out a critical card. To guard against collapse.
There’s reason to believe Showalter has diverged from previous regimes on that front, too.
The watershed moment of his tenure in Baltimore — leaving Zack Britton in the bullpen as Ubaldo Jimenez lost the 2016 AL wild-card game — was a clear mistake. But it was always unfair to judge his overall acumen or bullpen management on that game.
During his run in Baltimore before the front office blew it up, the Orioles had one of the league’s best bullpens — notching a top five park-adjusted ERA from 2010-2017 and winning more games than any other relief corps.
In the matter of when to use your best reliever, Showalter has clearly evolved, and said as much in an interview with The Athletic. In recent weeks, he has twice deployed closer Edwin Diaz in the eighth inning to face the heart of the opposing order.
Showalter has carried over one particular trademark: He goes to great lengths to avoid using relievers on back-to-back days. Between 2010 and 2017, only one team deployed fewer relievers on zero days rest than his Orioles. In 2022, only two teams have managed to avoid back-to-backs more than the Mets.
That’s not inherently a positive thing, but it is a sign of strategic thinking well-tailored to a long season where new bullpen restrictions could eventually be put in place.
And it has taken some concerted effort. The pitching staff has not been the strength of the team, nor a beacon of health. Scherzer and Tylor Megill have missed time. Chris Bassitt and Carlos Carrasco have been solid but stepped on the occasional landmine. Showalter has probably sacrificed some runs — and some overall numbers — in favor of protecting the long run.
It will get harder. It’s getting harder right now. Especially if Scherzer and deGrom don’t get healthy, it will require reinforcements.
But crucially, these Mets actually seem inclined to prioritize depth.
Offseason investments paying off for Mets lineup
If you really want to drill down on a reason this Mets squad might outrun the shadow of recent collapses, you have to start with the depth in the lineup.
On the day deGrom went down in 2021, injuries had already stripped the Mets outfield bare of sure-thing major leaguers. The players who appeared in the outfield that day were Dominic Smith (a first baseman, ideally), Kevin Pillar, Billy McKinney and Mason Williams. For a contending team, those should be fourth outfielders, not the four outfielders.
This offseason, the Mets and new GM Billy Eppler invested in consistent, sturdy major leaguers when they brought in Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. It made Robinson Cano superfluous, J.D. Davis a bench bat and Smith a minor leaguer, for the moment.
The outfield, where a team can and should prioritize offense the most, has been a consistent source of baserunners. Mets outfielders have an MLB-leading .356 on-base percentage this year after ranking 23rd with a .317 OBP in 2021. They have floated the Mets lineup to the top of the overall on-base leaderboard and contributed to the feeling that the team is never out of games.
They are the runs being batted in by Pete Alonso, who’s clubbing his way to a potential career year. As deGrom and Alonso can attest, it has never been a lack of top-end talent that dooms the Mets. It has been a lack of structural integrity.
There are still obvious areas for improvement. Even with James McCann on the way back from injury, the Mets could stand to improve their catcher situation. They will almost assuredly need backup in the rotation and in the bullpen. Given Jeff McNeil and Luis Guillorme’s positional flexibility, they could add a useful bat almost anywhere without qualms.
On one clear indicator of success, making contact, the Mets offense is among the league’s best. On another, hitting homers, they are middling. With the weather warming and balls flying further, the Mets may need to strike a more even balance to maintain their edge.
To stay ahead of the Braves, they may need to do all of the above. Preseason projections are still more predictive than the results so far, and preseason projections saw a toss-up between the Mets and Braves.
Now, the Mets are in strong position to make the expanded playoff field either way — their odds are at 95.4%, according to FanGraphs — but truly marking a new era in Queens means running strong through the end. It means finishing first.
As the Mets know well, getting to mid-June in first is only a good start if that pace can be sustained.