Mets Lose Scherzer and, Momentarily, Their NL East Lead

© Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Mets flexed their muscles by taking two out of three from the Dodgers — the majors’ top team by won-loss record, run differential, and most other measures — at Citi Field. On Wednesday morning they awoke to a new reality. Not only were they tied for first place in the National League East with the Braves, but they had to place Max Scherzer on the injured list due to an oblique injury on his left side for the second time this season; later that day, they announced that Starling Marte had suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right middle finger as well. The confluence may not rate as a crisis in Queens, but playoff races have certainly turned on less.

The Braves’ claim on a share of first place marked the first time since April 11 — and just the second time all season — that the Mets did not have sole possession of the division lead. By the day’s end, however, the Mets again had the top spot to themselves thanks to 5-1 and 10-0 poundings of the Pirates in Pittsburgh, running their record to 87-51, while the Braves beat the A’s to improve to 86-51.

As for Scherzer, with a chance to notch his 200th career win, the 38-year-old righty left Saturday’s start against the Nationals after just five innings, 67 pitches, and one run allowed. Following the final out of the inning — during which he got an assist on a routine groundout by Ildemaro Vargas — Scherzer motioned to pitching coach Jeremy Hefner to follow him into the dugout tunnel, then gave way to reliever Tommy Hunter to start the sixth.

Afterwards, both the pitcher and the Mets characterized the early exit as a precautionary move. Via’s Joe Trezza:

“I don’t have any strains,” Scherzer said. “The left side was just getting more tired than usual. This was a precautionary move, considering the history of the oblique. Was there a scenario where I could go out there and pitch the sixth and be OK? Yeah. That could’ve happened. But if I went out for the sixth and got hurt, I could never come in here and look the guys in the face and say I made the right decision. It was better to be safe than sorry in this scenario.”

Said manager Buck Showalter: “He didn’t ask to come out. We didn’t think it was a good idea to push it, and we’re hopeful he can make his next start.”

An MRI taken on Tuesday revealed continued inflammation on Scherzer’s left side, so the Mets decided to put him on the IL retroactive to Sunday, meaning that he’s eligible to return on September 19. “This is days not weeks,” said the pitcher before Wednesday’s doubleheader. “This is not a significant injury… It’s not a strain.”

In what I might enshrine as Jaffe’s First Law, there are no insignificant injuries for 38-year-old pitchers who are being counting on to make multiple postseason starts in the following month, because even a minor setback can derail those plans. Old guys, even Cooperstown-bound superstars, don’t heal as quickly as they used to no matter how stiff they keep their upper lips, and if you need a reminder, recall that last fall, Scherzer struggled to rebound from a similar kind of postseason relief cameo that he’d done just two years earlier (against the Dodgers, no less). That’s why a pitcher who was on five days of rest after throwing 112 pitches against the Rockies at home — as Scherzer did on August 28 — is reporting fatigue in the first place: his body can’t do quite everything it could a few years ago. Welcome to the club, buddy.

The Mets, who had to live without Scherzer for nearly seven weeks after he landed on the IL with a left oblique strain in late May, recognize this. Given the team’s Wilpon-era penchant for mismanaging injuries, that recognition counts as good news. It’s certainly better than letting Scherzer linger on the roster for several more days without pitching, or exacerbate the situation with a short start or a more severe injury. As it is, he’ll miss two starts, and better it’s two in early-to-mid September, when the Mets are facing a soft patch of schedule — they’ll face the Marlins, Cubs, and Pirates before Scherzer becomes eligible to return — than October.

Regardless of his age, Scherzer has pitched especially well in his first year with the Mets, posting a 2.26 ERA and 2.53 FIP in 127.2 innings, 10.1 short of what’s needed to qualify for the ERA title. Among NL pitchers with at least 120 innings, his ERA is second only to that of Tony Gonsolin, whose 2.10 mark in 128.1 innings is similarly below the cutoff and will remain there because he’s laid up with his own maybe-not-so-minor forearm strain. That leaves Julio Urías (2.29 ERA in 145.2 innings) as the official leader, with Sandy Alcantara (2.36 ERA in 190.2 innings) and scoreless-streaking Zac Gallen (2.42 in 152.2 innings) within striking distance.

Thanks in part to Carlos Carrasco’s return from an IL stint due to an oblique strain on Sunday, the Mets cycled through six starters (Taijuan Walker, Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt, David Peterson, and Scherzer being the others) over a six-game stretch. Most likely, the way forward in Scherzer’s absence is to stick with Peterson, who has pitched to a 3.32 ERA and 3.54 FIP in 95 innings this year, with a 2.53 ERA and 1.85 FIP in four starts totaling 21.1 innings in August and September. Righty Trevor Williams (2.92 ERA, 4.07 FIP) is another option, but he’s started just once in the second half, maxing out at 71 pitches.

Even given the soft schedule, whoever fills in for Scherzer will step into the heat of the NL East race. The Mets went 34-17 in April and May, building a 10.5-game lead over the slow-starting Braves (23-27). Since then, the defending champions have outplayed even the Dodgers:

Top NL Teams Since May 31
Team W L W-L% GB RS RA pythW-L%
Braves 63 24 .724 476 300 .699
Dodgers 61 26 .701 2 463 281 .714
Phillies 54 32 .628 8.5 412 345 .580
Mets 53 34 .609 10 377 320 .574
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The Mets have played at a 97-win pace since the start of June… and it hasn’t been nearly enough to ward off the Braves, who caught them by playing at a 117-win pace over that span. The Dodgers are the only other team that has played .724 ball over an 87-game span this year, doing so in two overlapping stretches, the more recent of which started on May 16 and ended on August 21. In other words, it took a sustained effort as good as any team has mustered this year in order to catch the Mets, who are still on pace to win 102 games, both based on their overall .630 winning percentage, and via our projections. Our Playoff Odds give them a 62.5% chance of winning the NL East, and a virtually identical chance of clinching a first-round bye, though both of those are down 22.9 points relative to a week ago, when the Mets still had a three-game lead.

Though their three-game losing streak from Saturday to Tuesday matched their longest skid of the season (they also lost three in a row from June 26-29 and July 17-23), the Mets are nonetheless 23-14 (.621) since the start of August, and 40-22 (.645) since the start of July. September aside, they’ve posted a winning percentage of .633 or better in every month except June, when they went 13-12 (.520), a period when, not so coincidentally, they were without both Scherzer and deGrom, and when Francisco Lindor hit .202/.255/.362 (77 wRC+) amid what has nonetheless been an MVP-caliber season. Lindor, as it turns out, fractured the tip of his right middle finger when it got shut in a hotel door on June 1. The injury escaped my memory when I examined his fine season a couple weeks back, in part because he missed just one game, but that may well have contributed to his struggles.

Let’s look at that standings table again, this time since the start of July:

Top NL Teams Since June 30
Team W L W-L% GB RS RA pythW-L%
Dodgers 47 14 .770 354 187 .763
Braves 42 18 .700 4.5 321 200 .704
Mets 40 22 .645 7.5 277 205 .634
Cardinals 38 21 .644 8 299 233 .612
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s a lot less separation between the two NL East rivals, who have been playing at 113- and 104-win paces over that 10-week span. Both pitching staffs have been particularly stingy during that stretch, with the Braves allowing 3.33 runs per game, the Mets 3.31. The difference is that Atlanta has scored 5.35 runs per game during that stretch, while New York has scored 4.47 per game.

Speaking of Lindor and broken fingers, Marte was hit on the right hand by a 96-mph Mitch Keller fastball on Tuesday night and was diagnosed with a partial non-displaced fracture of his right middle finger on Wednesday. For the moment he’s considered day-to-day, though he could wind up serving an IL stint and would indeed be missed. The 33-year-old right fielder has matched last year’s career-best 134 wRC+ by hitting .292/.347/.468 with 16 homers and stealing a team-high 18 bases.

If he’s not able to play, Tyler Naquin is the likely fill-in. Naquin has hit .248/.302/.465 (107 wRC+) overall and a more lopsided .254/.293/.521 (129 wRC+) since being acquired from the Reds on July 28. The 30-year-old lefty does need a platoon partner, but right now the only righty-swinging outfielders on the roster are pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore, who has just one plate appearance since 2019, and Darin Ruf, who has just four innings in the outfield since being acquired on August 2; additionally, he’s hit just .163/.208/.233 in 48 PA as a Met. The closest thing the team have to a credible righty-swinging outfield option at Triple-A Syracuse is Mark Vientos, their eighth-ranked prospect, but he’s actually a corner infielder with all of 13 games of experience in left field, in 2021. Particularly given rookie third baseman Brett Baty’s right thumb surgery, Vientos has been considered for a call-up, but with Luis Guillorme on the IL as well, the team opted to go with the shortstop-capable (if 27 major league innings in the past six seasons can be counted as capable) Deven Marrero instead. After straining his groin in mid-August, Guillorme went on a rehab assignment on Tuesday, and could be activated soon.

Who mans the short half of a platoon during an absence that may prove hypothetical is a comparatively minor concern relative to the Scherzer injury, which itself may prove to be as minor as the pitcher and team are suggesting. The good news is that the Mets have played exceptionally well for most of the season, and while the Braves have caught up, Atlanta has a much rougher schedule the rest of the way, with three against the Mariners and seven against the Phillies before they face New York in Atlanta from September 30 to October 2. The Mets’ only other games against teams .500 or better are the three they’ll play in Milwaukee from September 19–21. All of this is already baked into the odds. By being cautious with Scherzer, the Mets are doing their best to make sure they remain in their favor.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 months ago

The Mets are up to +7 in Baseruns, largest in the league. Wonder how that stacks up to previous seasons.

But with the advantage in schedule (and the likely tiebreaker over the Braves), they have a clear shot to the division.

4 months ago
Reply to  TimBrownU

it’s tough because the Braves get the Mets at home second to last series. If it’s within a game, I’d favor the Braves at that point. I don’t think it will be- my bet is for the Braves to drop this coming series to the Mariners and regress a bit.

Christopher Lukemember
4 months ago
Reply to  TimBrownU

The 2015 Cardinals were +11 of I remember correctly.

I do think the thought that the narrative on the Mets beneficiaries of good fortune has a funny framing. They’re more or less a ~98 win team playing at a 100+ win pace while being 9th in xwOBA this season and having a top 5 pitching staff. This season they’re just…. good.

4 months ago

Oh yeah definitely. I wasn’t trying to suggest they aren’t a really good team. Pre-Scherzer IL stint, I think Fangraphs had them tied with the Dodgers for second best team (assuming I’m reading Depth Charts correctly) and they’re still third