The New York Mets have the best record in baseball. The Mets, whose biggest free-agent signing was a player from last year’s 70-win team, are 10-1 on the season. The Mets, whose two biggest pitching acquisitions have compiled 2.1 totals innings so far this season, are 3.5 games up in their division and have already swept presumptive favorite Washington Nationals.
As Jeff Sullivan detailed earlier this week, no team has improved its playoff odds since the season began as much as the Mets. Winning 10 out of 11 games is certainly a surprising way to start. It would be surprising for any team — even the Astros have around just a 3% chance of winning 10 out of 11 games — but it isn’t all that surprising that the Mets are good right now. They should expect life to get tougher as the season goes on.
To provide a sense of how unlikely the Mets were to start 10-1, the graph below shows the odds of each win total from zero to 11 based on the assumption of the Mets as an 85-win team.
Eighty-seven times out of 100, the Mets end up with four to eight wins — with a one-in-120 shot at winning 10 games. I should also note that their schedule has been roughly neutral thus far, with the series against the Nationals balanced out by games against the Marlins. As for this version of the Mets, it might seem improbable after last year’s difficulties, but the Mets probably weren’t as bad in 2017 as their record ultimately suggested.
Consider a brief list of the factors that contributed to the Mets’ woes last year:
- A mere 30.1 innings from ace Noah Syndergaard, who was projected for 5.6 WAR.
- A mere 81 games from Yoenis Cespedes, who was projected for around three wins.
- Combined replacement-level production from the bottom of the rotation. Chris Flexen, Robert Gsellman, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Tommy Milone, Tyler Pill, Zack Wheeler, and Adam Wilk made 88 starts, put up a 6.12 ERA, and recorded -0.2 WAR.
- Despite good performances from Addison Reed and Jerry Blevins, one of the worst bullpens in baseball.
- Almost no production from the third-base position, which produced a 93 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR.
There are other factors, but those appear to be the main issues that caused the Mets to lose more than 90 games. We will look at what has changed or not changed in a bit, but first let’s consider that the Mets’ 70 wins might not have been a good representation of their talent level even with the issues above. The graph below shows team WAR in 2017 along with team wins from last year.
Notice first the very clear linear relationship. The more WAR a team accumulates, the more wins they get. If someone doesn’t believe in WAR, they are ignoring a very close relationship between WAR and wins. The relationship isn’t perfect, of course. Some teams (the ones above the trend line) outperformed their WAR totals, while others (below the line) underperformed them. Looking at the distance from the line can provide a sense of how much a team over- or under-achieved. The Mets show up as one of the biggest underachievers. The five teams with the closest WAR totals to the Mets — the Angels, Mariners, Marlins, Rockies, and Twins — won an average of 81 games last year, with the Marlins’ 77 wins representing the lowest figure. Even with the poor performances in the rotation and the bullpen, the Mets should have been better last season.
As for why the Mets underachieved their WAR, the bullpen can provide some of the answers. If you look at the six teams along with the Mets who underachieved the most– the Cardinals, Giants, Phillies, Reds, Tigers, and Yankees — three of them (the Giants, Reds, and Tigers) all had really bad bullpens. The Yankees had the best bullpen in baseball, but along with the decent bullpens in Philadelphia and St. Louis, mistimed their good performances, as seen in lower Win Probability and bottom-five Clutch scores. That’s not a complete answer to the Mets’ troubles, but it likely contributed.
As to what is different this year, there are a number of factors. Noah Syndergaard is healthy. Yoenis Cespedes is healthy, even if he isn’t contributing. Todd Frazier’s presence at third base, meanwhile, has ensured the team doesn’t have a hole there.
As for the rotation, the early-season schedule has played a positive role at the top end of the rotation and the bottom. The Mets’ two best pitchers by a pretty wide margin are Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. If we assume a typical 32 starts from each pitcher this season, those two aces will account for about 40% of the Mets’ starts. So far this season, New York’s co-aces have made six starts, or 55% of the Mets’ games thus far. They would each need to start 44 games this season in order to keep up that pace.
Steven Matz and Matt Harvey both look like they should be better than last season, which will be a help to the rotation, but the team has also benefited by only starting one game by their fifth starter. Zack Wheeler returned to action last season after two full years off, but he didn’t have a great year, making 17 starts with a FIP and ERA both over five. His spring performance was poor enough that he started the season in Triple-A. His one start this season was quality, though it did come against the Marlins.
Skipping the fifth starter has also served to help out the bullpen. As a team, the Mets have a 1.49 ERA and their 2.06 WPA leads the majors, though they have gotten some good fortune, too: their 3.31 FIP is still solid, but not out of this world. Closer Jeurys Familia leads Mets relievers in innings with eight and has pitched very well, though he is currently on pace for 118 innings. After Familia, the Mets’ top two relievers are pitchers who were in the rotation for much of last season. Mike Petriello recently discussed how Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have taken their work as starters and amped it up in the bullpen. Familia, Lugo, and Gsellman have pitched half of the Mets’ reliever innings thus far in 2018 to great effect.
The Mets entered the season as a pretty strong club. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprise that they’ve had some success so far. Some of their fortune is unsustainable. There are going to be some concerns with the rotation after Syndergaard and deGrom and the current bullpen usage can’t continue. Perhaps Jason Vargas can help out shortly, but if the team has to dip down to Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, that’s going to hurt the success of the rotation and a bullpen that’s been so good thus far. It’s that lack of depth on the pitching side that puts the team still behind the Washington Nationals when it comes to projecting the division; however, the Mets’ strong start has made it a much closer race than initially thought.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.