At the all-star break, the New York Mets were sporting a record of 46-40. Despite losing a series to the floundering Chicago Cubs before entering the break, things were looking up for the Mets. They had seriously outperformed all expectations in the season’s first half. In the beginning of the year, baseball analysts universally predicted the Mets to consistently hold the 4th or 5th place spot in the N.L. East division. But after setting the tone by going undefeated in the first four games of the season, the Mets maintained a record that never dipped below .500 for the entire first half of the season.
Though this may seem like damnation by faint praise, it’s not. In the offseason, the Mets lost all-star shortstop Jose Reyes and all-star closer Frankie Rodriguez. They did get word that Johan Santana would be returning from a year-long-plus stint on the disabled list, though they did not know what to expect from him. Their opening day lineup consisted of Andres Torres, Daniel Murphy, David Wright, Ike Davis, Jason Bay, Lucas Duda, Josh Thole, Ruben Tejada, and Johan Santana. Of these players, only three (Murphy, Wright, and Thole) were regulars in the 2011 season. The rest were either injured (Davis, Bay, Santana), minor leaguers (Duda, Tejada), or elsewhere (Torres).
Of these starters, five would end up injured within a few weeks, four within a few weeks of the start of the season.
Torres and Tejada were quickly sidelined with hamstring injuries, Bay and Thole got concussions, and Santana would later have ankle problems. Even the team’s backups weren’t safe. With the loss of Ruben Tejada, manager Terry Collins was forced to look to backup infielders Ronny Cedeño and Justin Turner for help at the position. Both Cedeño and Turner promptly got injured, forcing the Mets to find a fourth-string replacement by the name of Omar Quintanilla to play shortstop. The outfield was equally difficult to organize with starters Bay and Torres injured. Bench players Scott Hairston, Jordany Valdespin, Vinny Rottino, and Mike Baxter were all called upon to play with increased regularity.
To make matters worse, the Mets’ bullpen was responsible for 20+ losses, and was ranked the worst in the Majors. On the back of relievers Jon Rauch and Tim Byrdak, the bullpen got off to a hot start, but quickly faded as each pitcher encountered difficulties. The collective problem the bullpen faced was poor pitch location, leaving most everything out over the middle of the plate, making for high batting averages and high E.R.A.s.
A team of Triple-A bench players and a completely unreliable bullpen is not a formula for success, and yet, the Mets managed to stay afloat and contend in the first half of the season. Credit for this goes in large part to the Mets’ starting rotation, headed by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who, at the all-star break, led the league in wins and E.R.A., and was second only to Steven Strasburg in strikeouts. The team’s successes were also attributable to consistent clutch hitting. The Mets led the league in 2-out runs, which means that when they had an opportunity, they almost always seized it. Somehow, the Mets managed to be close to the top of the league in runs per game, as well as close to the top of the league in combined starter E.R.A. This is a formula for success.
But now, the Mets find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. After the all-star break, the Mets had two separate six-game losing streaks, eventually dropping a season-low four games below .500, and making a playoff bid nearly impossible. Suffice to say, they have, once again, collapsed.
The obvious questions are 1. What happened? and 2. What now?
In terms of what happened, in short, what the 2012 Mets were supposed to be just caught up with them. R.A. Dickey’s streak of dominance ended, as all streaks of dominance do. David Wright stopped batting at historic levels, his batting average dropping to a (still very impressive) .333 from around .360 at the all-star break. The rest of the league figured out the Mets’ rookies, resulting in Lucas Duda’s demotion to the minors, Josh Thole’s underproduction, and Ike Davis’s serious struggles. Thole and Duda both ended up batting around .240 for the season, and if it weren’t for the Mets’ shortage of reliable catchers, there is a good chance Thole would be back in Triple-A with Duda. To accompany the bullpen’s continuous struggles, the starting rotation has undergone a lot of renovation. Chris Young has been very inconsistent, Santana was recently placed back on the DL with an ankle injury, and Dillon Gee will miss the rest of the season after surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his shoulder. The Mets have since been platooning pitchers, trying out bullpen hand Miguel Batista, minor leaguer Jeremy Hefner, and prospect Matt Harvey to fill out the rotation. Batista failed both of his starts, and Hefner has been inconsistent. Harvey is perhaps the only bright spot in this unfortunate second half, pitching 5.1 scoreless innings in his major league debut, as well as 6 terrific innings in his second start, striking out a combined 18 batters.
So what now? The trade deadline has come and gone with little to nothing going in or coming out. The obvious places the Mets need to focus on are bullpen and power hitting. The Mets rank 21st in the league in Home Runs, and while this is in large part a function of playing in the deep-fenced Citi Field, it is also a function of their expected power hitters—Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, and Jason Bay—hitting very few. The bullpen is ranked last in the MLB, and while this is in part due to Frank Francisco’s long absence on the DL, all of the team’s offseason acquisitions (Jon Rauch, Tim Byrdak, and Ramon Ramirez) have been totally unreliable. Byrdak and Rauch started the season strong and then fell off. Hard thrower Bobby Parnell has since been assumed into the closer’s role, and has blown five of his nine opportunities. Ten of the Mets’ bullpen pitchers have E.R.A.s over 4, including Manny Acosta and Pedro Beato both sporting E.R.A.s over 10. The Mets are looking forward to bringing up developing pitchers Henry Mejia and Zach Wheeler, as well as continuing the success of Matt Harvey. But to put it bluntly, the Mets will not experience sustained success with eight or nine unreliable pitchers in their bullpen.
Another danger the Mets will soon face is losing David Wright. Wright’s contract is up after this season. With the current and repeated woes of the team, many people are questioning whether Wright wants to remain with a team that seems to always be rebuilding for next year. Personally, I don’t think Wright will leave. The Mets will have to pay up, but Wright is the undisputed leader of the New York Mets. To let him go would be to essentially admit defeat, and would also give Mets fans very little reason to watch. Wright is a veteran and an all-star, and a player the Mets will likely do all they can to hold onto.
There are 57 games left in the regular season. Though the Mets have faded, a diehard fan like me still feels there is something to hold onto. They are 11 games out of the division, a deficit that does not seem surmountable, especially considering the sustained success of the Washington Nationals. They are 8.5 games out the wild card, though in order to make their way up that ladder, will need to top the streaking Braves and Pirates in this final stretch. Does it seem likely? Not at all. Is it impossible though? Well…considering some of the stretches this team had in the first half, it is not impossible. But in my opinion, for this to happen, they will need to see increased consistency from several key players: Bobby Parnell, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana.
Parnell is being groomed as a closer, and with the uncertainty surrounding the return of regular closer Frank Francisco, will be asked to return to that closer’s role frequently in the remainder of the season. If he can regularly close the door on one-run games, the Mets will likely pick up some ground. Jason Bay has been a continual disappointment, batting .157 this season with a .284 on base percentage. If the Mets are going to thrive this season or in the future, Jason Bay will at very least need to get his average up above .200 and his on base percentage above .325. It seems that Bay will never be the hitter the Mets expected him to be, but he can still be useful if he learns to operate more like Andres Torres, who despite a low batting average (.237) has cultivated a very impressive on base percentage (.351). Santana needs to be successful for as much of a conceptual reason as a statistical one. Along with Wright, Santana is a veteran and a leader. He pitched opening day, and for the most part, has been dominant, but was another player whose dominance faded after the all-star break. His success invigorates the team. And from a statistical perspective, another starter who can go 7 or 8 innings will keep the ball out of the hands of the unreliable bullpen.
So can we expect the Mets to make a World Series bid this year? Probably not. But just remember, when they won the Series in 1969, they were 9.5 games back of the Cubs in mid-August. Instead of investing in a bullpen, or a right-handed bat, maybe the Mets should invest in a well-timed black cat.
Stranger things have happened.