NL Wild Card Series Preview: Mets vs. Padres

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Despite spending 175 of the season’s 182 days atop the NL East, building a 10.5-game lead by the end of May, and winning 101 games, the New York Mets lost out in the division race to a red-hot Atlanta Braves team that has played at a .696 clip since the start of June — and lost out via a tiebreaker, a 10-9 season series disadvantage. Now they’ll have to take the long route through the new postseason format, one that includes a potential matchup with the top-seeded, 110-win Dodgers if they advance beyond the Wild Card Series.

That can’t be taken for granted. Even with Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom available to start in this best-of-three series, all of which will be played at Citi Field, they can’t overlook the Padres, who can offer some top-notch starting pitching themselves and who beat the Mets in four of the six meetings between the two teams. Not that such results are predictive — and it’s worth noting that the aforementioned pair combined for one start in the six games (Scherzer in a 4-1 loss opposite Yu Darvish on July 22) — but they do illustrate the range of possibilities here. The ZiPS Playoff Odds pegged this as the biggest mismatch of the Wild Card round, narrowly edging out the Mariners-Blue Jays series, but with the Padres still having a 42.4% chance of scoring an upset.

Both deGrom and Scherzer looked all too human last weekend during the Braves’ division-s(t)ealing sweep, combining to allow five home runs and seven runs in 11.2 innings. If there’s good news, it’s that manager Buck Showalter didn’t have to send deGrom to the hill in Game 162 in hopes that the Mets would win and the Braves would lose, because that would have ruled him out of the Wild Card round had they lost.

As for the 89-win Padres, president of baseball operations A.J. Preller gave his team a dramatic makeover ahead of the August 2 trade deadline, acquiring Juan Soto and Josh Bell from the Nationals, Brandon Drury from the Reds, and Josh Hader from the Brewers while sending out Eric Hosmer, Taylor Rogers, Luke Voit, MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, and more. Far from yielding dramatically better results, those four incoming players fared worse with their new team than their old ones (more about which below), and the Padres additionally had to deal with the demoralizing loss of Fernando Tatis Jr. to a PED suspension while he was gearing up to return from wrist surgery. While the team’s offense still improved after the deadline, the pitching took a step back, and their winning percentage dipped:

Padres Before and After the Trade Deadline
Period W-L Win% RS/G AVG OBP SLG wRC+ RA/G ERA FIP
Through Aug. 1 58-46 .558 4.36 .240 .316 .376 100 4.02 3.74 3.72
Since Aug. 2 31-27 .534 4.34 .243 .322 .392 106 4.17 3.94 3.88

Rotations

Mets vs. Padres Probable Starting Pitchers
Gm Mets IP K% BB% HR/9 GB% BABIP Barrel% HardHit% ERA xERA FIP
1 Jacob deGrom 64.1 42.7% 3.3% 1.26 39.4% .258 8.4% 33.9% 3.08 2.24 2.13
2 Chris Bassitt 181.2 22.4% 6.6% 0.94 48.8% .282 9.3% 31.8% 3.42 3.46 3.65
3 Max Scherzer 145.1 30.6% 4.2% 0.81 31.1% .276 6.6% 32.8% 2.29 2.87 2.61
Gm Padres IP K% BB% HR/9 GB% BABIP Barrel% HardHit% ERA xERA FIP
1 Yu Darvish 194.2 25.6% 4.8% 1.02 36.9% .250 6.0% 32.4% 3.10 3.54 3.31
2 Blake Snell 128.0 32.0% 9.5% 0.77 36.6% .307 9.0% 37.0% 3.38 3.19 2.80
3 Joe Musgrove 181.0 24.9% 5.7% 1.09 44.6% .276 7.4% 38.9% 2.93 3.26 3.58

Scherzer will square off against Darvish in Friday’s opener, but both Showalter and Padres manager Bob Melvin are maintaining flexibility beyond that. If the Mets win Game 1, they will likely follow up with Bassitt in Game 2 and hold deGrom back, either for Game 3 or the Division Series opener if they sweep; if they lose Game 1 they can switch the order, with deGrom in what could be a do-or-die game. On the Padres’ side, Melvin is believed to lean towards following Darvish with Snell, keeping Musgrove back for a potential Game 3.

Scherzer was limited to 23 starts this year by oblique injuries, though the second was much milder than the first, diagnosed as fatigue and costing him 15 days instead of a strain that cost him seven weeks; he made three starts after returning. While he has been dominant at times, even in proximity to both outages, he allowed four runs apiece to the Braves (twice) and Yankees over his final seven starts, posting a 3.16 ERA and 3.13 FIP for that stretch, compared to marks of 1.93 and 2.40 prior. On a positive note, his four-seamer averaged 94.6 mph in September, his fastest month of the season. Among NL pitchers with at least 120 innings, his overall ERA and FIP both ranked fourth, and his 26.4% strikeout-to-walk differential was tops. Even at 38 years old, he’s still an ace.

The 33-year-old Bassitt set career highs in starts and innings this year. He doesn’t miss a ton of bats but does a great job of preventing hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground; his barrel rate was in the 63rd percentile, hard-hit rate in the 87th, and 85.7 mph average exit velocity in the 95th. Of the starters in the series, he’s the one most vulnerable to lefties, with a .325 wOBA allowed this season; none of the others were above .285. That could be a big deal against Soto, who had a very wide split in his atypical season, with a 168 wRC+ against righties and a limp 107 (with a .356 SLG) against lefties.

After not pitching in the majors for nearly 13 months due to a UCL sprain and a scapular stress reaction, deGrom was quite dominant in his first seven starts off the injured list, posting a 1.66 ERA and 1.48 FIP in 43.1 innings and only twice allowing more than one run. The 34-year-old righty allowed just three homers in that span, with a 5.9% barrel rate and 29.4% hard-hit rate. Over his past four starts, against the Cubs, Pirates, A’s and Braves, he reached double digits in strikeouts three times but was lit for six homers and 14 runs in 21 innings, accompanied by a 15.9% barrel rate and 36.4.% hard-hit rate. A blister on his right middle finger may have contributed to those woes, and his average fastball and slider velocities have been trending downward:

It’s an unsettling trend, even given that he was generally working on five or even six days of rest in eight of his 11 starts, and it may explain why Showalter is holding him back instead of keeping him on turn. Still, you could do worse than sending a two-time Cy Young winner with a 42.7% strikeout rate and a 2.13 FIP to the hill with the season on the line.

Darvish is coming off his best full season since 2013, his second year since coming over from Japan. The 35-year-old righty remained healthy all season, missing time only for a paternity leave in late August, and finishing fourth in the NL in strikeout-to-walk differential (20.8%), sixth in innings and strikeout rate, ninth in WAR (4.2), 10th in FIP, and 11th in ERA. He closed the season on a high note, earning NL Pitcher of the Month honors for September via a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings.

While he didn’t miss as many bats as in years past, Darvish got better extension on all of his offerings by about five inches, and generally gained velocity and movement. All six of his pitches — four-seamer, sinker, splitter, cutter, curve, and slider — had negative Statcast run values, which is to say that they prevented more runs than average, with his slider (-12), cutter (-6), and four-seamer (-5) the most effective by that measure. Batters produced a .220 wOBA or lower against all but the sinker (.266) and cutter (.375). Platoon-wise, he showed a reverse split, with lefties held to a .239 wOBA, righties .284, and over the last three seasons, he’s got about a 15-point advantage versus lefties (.267 to .282). In a lineup that could feature four lefties (Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Daniel Vogelbach and either Luis Guillorme at second or Tyler Naquin in right, with McNeil manning the other spot) and two switch-hitters (Eduardo Escobar and Francisco Lindor), that’s worth bearing in mind.

Snell was limited to 24 starts by a groin strain suffered while warming up for his first start of the season. While he carried a 5.22 ERA into the All-Star break, he closed with a flourish, with a 1.76 ERA and 2.09 FIP from August 30 onward. He cut his walk and homer rates significantly from 2021, and ranked third in strikeout rate among all NL pitchers with 120 innings. As Chris Gilligan noted recently, Snell’s fastball gained steam as the season progressed, averaging 95.8 mph overall (up 0.7 mph from 2021). He added 2.4 mph to his slider (to 88.9 mph), and it was particularly lethal against righties, holding them to a .147 AVG and .257 SLG with a 47.4% whiff rate. Where he had sizable platoon splits previously, including a massive one last year (.207 wOBA vs. lefties, .334 vs. righties), this year he was about even (.282 vs. lefties, .285 vs. righties).

Musgrove had a very good season as well, with similar ERA, FIP and innings totals to last year. While his strikeout rate dipped from 27.1% to 24.9%, his walk rate fell with it, and he did a much better job of preventing hard contact, with his barrel rate placing in the 73rd percentile, hard-hit rate in the 89th, and 86.4 mph average exit velo in the 90th. His xERA ranked ninth among ERA qualifiers.

Bullpens

In case you haven’t heard from Timmy Trumpet, Edwin Díaz is back, and has a claim as the game’s top closer. While converting 32 of 35 save chances, he struck out an absurd 50.2% of hitters, tied with the 2012 version of Craig Kimbrel for the third-highest rate among all relievers since 1974 (as far back as our splits go), with the fourth-highest K-BB% (42.6%) and the fifth-lowest FIP (0.90) to go with a 1.31 ERA. In the six times Showalter asked him to get more than three outs, he didn’t allow a run or even an inherited baserunner to score.

Driven by Díaz, the bullpen ranked third in the NL in ERA (3.57) and FIP (3.65), but both were a distant third behind the Dodgers and Braves. Of their setup men, Adam Ottavino was very good (2.06 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 30.6 K%) but Seth Lugo was mediocre (3.65 ERA, 3.76 FIP after a rough September); Lugo, Drew Smith and Trevor May, their other mid-to-late inning righties, combined for 0.2 WAR. Mychal Givens, who struggled after being acquired from the Cubs, just returned from a bout of COVID-19 and finished with 11.1 consecutive scoreless innings, so could land on the roster. Joely Rodríguez, their top lefty, wasn’t great either (4.56 ERA, 3.23 FIP), though he did hold righties to a .280 wOBA to go with a .295 mark against lefties. David Peterson is another option against lefties (.283 wOBA), and Lugo fared very well against them (.226 OBA) but righties were more successful against both.

Hader finished the season with a 5.22 ERA and 3.45 FIP, with post-trade marks of 7.31 and 3.42, respectively; his 37.0% strikeout rate and 9.6% walk rate are his worst marks since his 2017 rookie season. I wrote about his slump here; the crux of it, which was explored in even more granular detail by Baseball Prospectus‘ Michael Ajeto, was that his throwing his sinker from a higher arm slot gave him more velocity but less deception. His vertical release points have been inconsistent even lately, but he does seem to have ironed things out, allowing just two runs (one unearned) and walking just two in 11.1 innings since August 31 while converting seven out of eight save chances, that after giving up 12 runs in his first 4.2 innings with the team.

The Padres’ bullpen as a whole ranked among the league’s top five in ERA (3.83) and FIP (3.81). If there’s an advantage the team has in this series, it’s in getting the game from the starters to the ninth inning in the event of the lead. Once Hader enters, all bets are off, but righty setup men Nick Martinez (2.67 ERA and 3.72 FIP as a reliever), Robert Suarez (2.27 ERA, 3.21 FIP), and Luis Garcia (3.39 ERA, 2.60 FIP) have generally been effective. Righty Pierce Johnson, who missed 4 1/2 months due to elbow tendinitis, has been gaining favor since returning on September 10 as well. Lefties Adrian Morejon and Tim Hill have been effective against lefties, with wOBAs allowed of .220 and .253, respectively; of the righties, Suarez has been the most effective against lefties (.268).

Offenses

Mets vs. Padres Offensive Comparison
Team RS/G HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wRC+ vs L wRC+ vs R
Mets 4.77 171 8.3% 19.7% .259 .332 .412 116 109 119
Padres 4.35 153 9.3% 21.4% .241 .318 .382 102 103 100

These are two of the NL’s most contact-oriented teams, with the Mets striking out at the league’s lowest rate and the Padres the fourth-lowest. Beyond San Diego’s higher walk rate (third in the league), however, just about all of the numbers favor the Mets, who tied for third in the league in scoring and ranked second in wRC+ compared to the Padres’ eighth in the former and seventh in the latter. The teams ranked eighth and 12th in homers — which take on outsized importance in the postseason — and the Padres were only 11th in road homers, noteworthy since none of these three games will be played at Petco Park.

With the exception of catcher, where Tomás Nido and James McCann are easy outs, and right field, where the month-long absence of Starling Marte due to a fractured right middle finger has loomed large, the Mets have above-average hitters at every position. Even if Marte is unavailable (his roster status is pending), the lineup includes five hitters with a wRC+ of 125 or better, led by 40-homer slugger Pete Alonso (.271/.352/.518, 143 wRC+), and the NL batting champion, McNeil (.326/.382/.454, 143 wRC+), not to mention an MVP candidate in Lindor (.270/.339/.449, 127 wRC+). The shortstop leads the team in WAR (6.8, fifth in the league) and is second in homers (26) and steals (16). Nimmo (.274/.367/.433, 135 wRC+) and Mark Canha (.266/.367/.403, 128 wRC+) are the other two; the former has been red-hot in September (168 wRC+) as has Escobar (176), which has helped push his season wRC+ to 106.

That said, the lineup has two question marks of note. The lefty-swinging Vogelbach (.238/.360/.433, 128 wRC+ overall) has become a fan favorite for locking down the long half of the DH platoon, but righty and fellow deadline acquisition Darin Ruf has struggled mightily to the point that top prospect Francisco Álvarez has gotten a very late look, going 2-for-14 with a homer since debuting last Friday. Will Showalter give the 20-year-old slugger the start against Snell? And will Marte, who hit .292/.347/.468 (135 wRC+) with 16 homers and 18 steals, go straight from the IL to the lineup, or will the Mets make do with Guillorme or Naquin? Showalter sounded as though he’s preparing to go without Marte, saying on Wednesday, “You can’t swing a bat, you can’t throw a ball, it’s going to be hard” in reference to the outfielder’s limitations in resuming baseball duties. One other factor worth noting: the Mets are likely to roster pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore, who’s 3-for-3 in steals this year and 5-for-6 in postseason steals for his career.

For the Padres, Soto and MVP candidate Manny Machado are the two big boppers; the former hit .242/.401/.452 (145 wRC+) with 27 homers even in a down season, while the latter hit .298/.366/.531 (152 wRC+) with 32 homers and a league-high 7.3 WAR. Soto appears to have righted the ship after a ghastly 3-for-48 slump (offset by 14 walks) that I covered here, hitting .302/.413/.524 in 75 PA from September 16 onward.

Drury probably qualifies as a bopper as well given his 28 homers to go with his .263/.320/.492 (123 wRC+ overall but 105 post-trade) line. At the very least, he and Bell (.266/.362/.422, 123 wRC+ overall but just 79 post-trade) are the only other Padres regulars with slugging percentages of .400 or better. If we’re counting what Bell — who’s mostly DHing these days, with Drury or Wil Myers playing first base — did in Washington as well, the Padres do offer regulars with a 100 wRC+ or better at every position save for center field (Trent Grisham, with an 83 wRC+, is the lineup’s biggest drag) and catcher (Austin Nola’s at 89 and Jorge Alfaro 90), but left fielder Jurickson Profar, second baseman Jake Cronenworth, and shortstop Ha-Seong Kim are all guys with batting averages in the .240s and .250s, OBPs in the .320s and .330s, and SLGs in the .380s and .390s. They’re solid, but they don’t scare anybody.

Defenses

The Mets were a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, ranking just ninth in the league in defensive efficiency (.691), seventh in Defensive Runs Saved (9) and fifth in Statcast Runs Above Average (7). They’re good in the middle infield — watching Lindor rove to his left past second base is one of my favorite things in all of baseball — but Escobar is a weak link at third base (-11 DRS, -6 RAA), and the outfield is average at best; most notably, Nimmo had -4 DRS but 5 RAA. Nido is an excellent framer, ranking ninth in the majors in runs (7.1) despite placing just 19th in innings (766.1), and McCann was above average as well.

Defensively, the Padres get mixed reviews from the metrics, ranking second in defensive efficiency (.705) and RAA (25) but just 10th in DRS (2). Grisham can go get it in center (6 DRS, 11 RAA) and the Machado-Kim left side is particularly impressive. At the other end of the spectrum, the catching tandem ranked 29th via our pitch-framing stats (-12.8 runs).

In all, this is a matchup that features a whole lot of quality starting pitching and a couple of MVP candidates, but the Mets have a much deeper and more potent lineup. Anything can happen in this goofy best-of-three format, but I do expect the 101-win team to prevail.





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.

39 Comments
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sadtrombonemember
1 month ago

I can’t believe they got rid of the one-game playoff. SMH.

cowdisciplemember
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The one thing about the previous format that everybody liked was the play-in game.

JohnThackermember
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

In the AL, it’s particularly ridiculous, as not only do the #4 and #5 seeds both have a better record than the #3 seed, but the extra rest day before Game 2 of the ALDS guarantees that the Wild Card round winner will be able to use their #1 and #2 starters on normal rest in Games 2 and 3 even if the Wild Card round goes 3 games.

There was talk about doing some kind of advantage for the higher seeded team, which came to nothing, but they actually moved backwards on that by getting rid of the “use up your ace” effect.

Last edited 1 month ago by JohnThacker
kojo
1 month ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

#3 seed doesn’t have a worse record than the #4 and #5 seeds.

1.Astros 106-56
2.Yankees 99-63
3.Guardians 92-70
4.Blue Jays 92-70
5.Mariners 90-72
6.Rays 86-76

If you use team records to determine seeding, the Guardians went 5-2 versus the Blue Jays, so they should be seeded ahead of them (as they are).