As it stands this morning, there are five teams in the National League that have at least a 50% chance of reaching the postseason, according to our Playoff Odds forecasts. The three top teams are the same three that everyone had winning their divisions before the year began; the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals. The fourth team — or first Wild Card, if you want to make it sound a little better — is the Padres, whose winter moves made the largest splash the world has seen since Noah decided to build an ark. And finally, as you’ve likely surmised from reading the headline, there’s the New York Mets, currently given exactly a 50/50 chance of reaching the postseason this year.
Yep, that puts the Mets ahead of the Pirates and Cubs, the two young darlings of the Central, each with rosters more stacked with young talent. It also puts the Mets well ahead of the Marlins, a trendy pre-season pick to make a run this year, but instead are a team that is reportedly considering firing their manager after getting their clocks cleaned in Queens over the weekend. After that four game sweep, the Marlins now find themselves seven games behind the Mets; it’s the largest gap between any two division rivals in baseball.
Of course, it’s still really early. It’s April 19th, and because the season started a week later this year, that date is even more deceiving than usual. We’re two weeks into a 26 week race. After 13 games last year, the Brewers were 10-3, standing with the best record in baseball; they went 72-77 after that point and finished six games behind the two Wild Card teams. While the games that have been played still count and can’t be taken away, a 10-3 start doesn’t mean the Mets are really a great team.
But that’s the thing about baseball in 2015; they don’t really need to be. They don’t even need to be particularly good, because in this day and age, a hot start and a roster that doesn’t suck makes you a contender.
The NL in 2015 is broken into four distinct tiers: there are the obvious division favorites, the Wild Card contenders, the Wild Card pretenders, and the Phillies. A visual representation might help.
Thanks to a strong start and a legitimately strong pitching staff, the Mets find themselves squarely in the seoncd tier. In reality, they probably aren’t as good as the Padres, Pirates, or Cubs, but the good news is that they don’t have to be. Their 10-3 start isn’t really predictive of anything — especially since their underlying BaseRuns performance suggests that a more normal distribution of those same events would have led to a 7-6 record at this point — other than the fact that the Mets just don’t need to win as many games going forward as their competitors do.
Our forecasts have the Mets as essentially a .500 team, which lines up nicely with their context-neutral performances so far. Their offense is mostly fine — though it will be tested now that they’re losing Travis D’Arnaud and are already without David Wright — with enough decent hitters to make up for the fact that they lack great ones. Their defense is very good at some spots (think center field) and less great at others (yeah, Wilmer Flores is still their shortstop). They run the bases okay. Their bullpen is not horrible, and could be better than that if Bobby Parnell comes back as a contributor.
And the rotation could very well be excellent, especially once they kick Dillon Gee out of it. Matt Harvey and Jacob DeGrom look like a formidable pair at the front, while Bartolo Colon refuses to age, and Jon Niese is a perfectly serviceable mid-rotation starter. With Rafael Montero set to join the rotation soon, and Noah Syndergaard and/or Steven Matz coming later this summer, the Mets have one of the best starting staffs in baseball.
Combine three parts meh with one part awesome and you end up with an alright team that won’t embarrass itself, and in the 2015 National League, that’s a Wild Card contender; especially when staked to an early lead over the other race-runners. I’m not going to argue that the Mets are as good as the Padres, Pirates, or Cubs, because I don’t think they are. The Padres can hit in a way that the Mets can’t. The Pirates have the NL’s best player and a better supporting cast of position players, plus a magical wand that forces opponents to hit the ball directly into their extreme defensive alignments. The Cubs have upside stacked on top of upside. All these things have stuff the Mets don’t have.
But the Mets have 10 wins, which is something that Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Diego don’t have, and it’s not any better to have an extra +3 WAR player on your team than it is to have an extra three wins already in the bank. If you thought the Mets were a .500 team at the start of the year, then their current position is not much different than if they’d traded a Shake Shack Concrete for Ian Desmond on Opening Day.
We go through this every April, but it’s always worth repeating; regression to the mean doesn’t mean that a team (or player) that has had a good run is due for an offsetting bad run in order to even things out. That’s the gambler’s fallacy, and life doesn’t work that way. The Mets haven’t played well enough that we should dramatically alter our expectations of what they’re going to do going forward, but now, .500 ball for 24 weeks gets you an 85 win finish. And while 85 wins probably doesn’t get you the Wild Card, that’s the mean forecast out of a range of expected outcomes, and it doesn’t take very many things going New York’s way before that 85 turns into 88 or 89.
They could almost get there by taking the ball away from Dillon Gee and being aggressive on the trade market early in the year, limiting the number of at-bats and innings that have to go to replacement level players. Right now, we’re projecting 357 plate appearances for John Mayberry, because we don’t think Michael Cuddyer or Curtis Granderson can play the outfield all year long. You don’t have to look too terribly hard to find an outfielder better than John Mayberry, and if the Mets can scrounge up a solid fourth outfielder, all of the sudden this is a team projected to end the year with 86 or 87 wins.
In reality, the Mets are probably still the 7th or 8th best team in the National League, but they’ve already collected 10 irrevocable wins, and the 4th, 5th, and 6th best teams in the NL aren’t exactly monsters. The NL Wild Cards will be won by two flawed teams that likely over-perform their actual abilities by a half dozen games or so. The Mets are already further down that path than anyone else, and while it’s easy to look at this roster and see a bunch of question marks, there really does appear to be enough here to make September interesting at Citi Field.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.