2021 has been a bit of a mixed bag for the New York Mets. On one hand, a three-game division lead heading into July sounds great; on the other, they are currently in a 6-9 skid and are showing some concerning signs on both sides of the ball.
While the pitching has started to slide recently, largely due to injury, it seems this team will live and die by their offensive performance the rest of the way.
2021 Mets: Elite Pitching?
How does a team with one of the league’s worst offensive find themselves 41-34? Simple, just have a pitching staff with the best ERA in MLB. The Mets have done this in no small part thanks to their starting pitching led by Jacob deGrom (0.69), Taijuan Walker (2.38), and Marcus Stroman (2.45). These account for 3 of the top 14 best ERAs in the league.
Unfortunately for the Mets, they simply cannot count on this formula to continue succeeding in the second half. Based on their career numbers, it’s hard to believe that these three will continue on this pace for the remainder of the season. Stroman and Walker both have career ERAs in the 3.6 range, and while nothing seems impossible for deGrom anymore, an ERA nearly half a run better than Bob Gibson‘s record seems like a bit much to expect.
Even if you believe that these guys have all made significant improvements this year, various measures of pitcher performance indicate that this group is allowing fewer runs than would be expected by their peripheral stats. Fielding independent pitching (FIP) evaluates pitchers based solely on the number of strikeouts, walks, or home runs given up, and converts it to an ERA scale. This is meant to dispense with the effects of defensive quality that are outside of a pitcher’s control. According to Baseball-Reference, each of these 3 has an ERA lower than their FIP, indicating they are likely to show some regression over the course of a full season. Stroman in particular has a FIP of 3.59, compared to his 2.45 ERA.
Pitcher performance can also be measured using a pitcher’s batted ball data. Statcast calculates expected statistics based on the exit velocity and launch angle when a batter makes contact. According to Baseball Savant, each of the Mets top 3 pitchers plus David Peterson, all have expected weighted on-base averages (xwOBA) higher than their wOBA.
To be sure, the differences in ERA and FIP, as well as xwOBA and wOBA are at least partly due to the Mets’ excellent defense. The Mets currently rank 7th in the majors in DRS, despite playing several fewer games than most teams. Though it still remains hard to believe that these three will all continue to have career-best seasons.
2021 Mets: Where is the Offense?
If there was one aspect of the team Mets fans could be confident in going into this season, it was the offense. In the last full season in 2019, the Mets were 8th in MLB by OPS+. Then in 2020, the Mets were tied for the best OPS+ in baseball with the world champion Dodgers. This was in no small part due to fantastic seasons from Brandon Nimmo, Dominic Smith, Michael Conforto, and Jeff McNeil, all with OPS+ north of 130. The Mets then proceeded to add Francisco Lindor, a career 115 OPS+ hitter, averaging 5.6 WAR per 162 game season.
All signs indicated the Mets should have a young, exciting, well-performing offense. If you told me in March that the Mets would have the best team ERA in baseball, I’d have guessed their record was one of the best in the league, not 41-34.
It’s truly shocking that nearly every member of the offense has underperformed this year. It certainly doesn’t help that the two hottest hitters in April (Brandon Nimmo and J.D. Davis) have been sidelined with mysterious injuries for the last two months.
Interestingly, Conforto, Alonso, and Smith all have OBPs right in line with their ZiPS projections, but are missing 100 points or more off their projected slugging percentage. That’s been one of the primary issues for the offense this year, which is 29th in SLG, and 28th in home runs.
It’s likely that at least some of this regression is due to the not-so-transparent changes MLB is making to the baseball, as well as the potential proliferation of illegal substances like Spider Tack in the early season, however, it seems like the Mets are getting uniquely unlucky, as 2020’s top offensive teams are largely still performing well this year. Of the top 14 offenses in 2020 by OPS+, all but three remained in the top 14 in 2021 thus far.
Those three teams are the Phillies, dropping from 9th to 17th, Braves (6th to 16th), and the Mets, who dropped from a tie for first, all the way back to 18th. The Phillies have an excuse, with many of their key position players having missed time due to injury, and the Braves lost the offensive production of Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud. The Mets on the other hand added Francisco Lindor and James McCann. While the Mets have had similar injury issues as well, the Phillies’ primary bats are still hitting when healthy. Outside of Alonso and the still injured pair of Nimmo and Davis, all of the Mets starters have an OPS+ below league average.
2021 Mets: The Turnaround
It’s hard to believe the Mets’ offense will remain this bad over a full season. In the same way that we can’t expect three pitchers to all keep up career-best paces, how could five or more hitters all be having career-low seasons at once?
Again, their batted ball data indicates a significant level of unluckiness. The Mets’ five most disappointing hitters, Lindor, Alonso, Smith, Conforto, and McNeil, all have xwOBAs at least 30 points higher than their wOBA. Conforto in particular is one of the league’s unluckiest hitters, ranking 6th in MLB in xwOBA-wOBA. That being said, there are a variety of factors that could be at play here, but it gives at least some hope that the Mets offense will simply “get hot” in the coming weeks.
A bleaker explanation lies in the possibility that maybe some of these hitters just simply aren’t what the Mets thought they would be. McNeil, Alonso, and Smith all broke through in the big leagues at the height of the juiced ball era, which is generally seen to have ended as the ball has been “de-juiced” in 2021. Pete Alonso‘s magical 2019 campaign feels unlikely to repeat again, and how much stock can be put in Smith’s 2020, limited to just 60 games?
Either way, Mets management now has just about 30 days to decide if this offense is the real deal, or if they need to scramble for an offensive upgrade at the trade deadline.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images