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How the New York Mets became relevant again

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15 wins in 16 games has the Mets in the thick of wild card contention

Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The New York Mets have struggled for the bulk of the 2019 season, at their worst 11 games under .500 and 14½ games behind in their division. But a three-week hot streak has inexplicably pulled the Mets into real, live playoff contention.

As the Mets try to salvage what was once a lost season, let’s take a look at what is real and just how New York finds itself in this suddenly advantageous position.

The shiny, new object

New York even with their scorching hot streak is just four games over .500 on the season, on pace for 84 wins. That fits perfectly in line with preseason projections at FanGraphs (83.7 wins) and (85.5 wins). Baseball Prospectus was more optimistic, pegging the Mets at 89 wins, which is still within their reach with a hot finish. But the point is, for the most part, taking the season as a whole, the Mets are who we thought they were: a team on the fringe of contending that could play in October if things broke their way.

But because of how they have distributed their wins — 14 out of 15 before a stumble on Sunday — New York is the fresh hot thing right now. Our brains tend to emphasize short-term performance over a season’s worth of data, which gives us wonderful quotes like this:

Good lord, the National League is imploding

The Dodgers are the runaway leaders in the NL, with a record nine games better than the Braves, the NL East leaders and currently the No. 2 seed. After that, the race for the remaining three playoff spots is a jumbled mess.

National League wild card standings

Team W-L Pct GB
Team W-L Pct GB
Nationals 62-55 .530
Cardinals 61-55 .526 ---
Brewers 62-57 .521 ½
Mets 61-57 .517 1
Phillies 60-58 .508 2
Diamondbacks 59-59 .500 3
Giants 59-60 .496
through August 11, 2019

Nobody has been able to grab hold of either the NL Central or either of the wild card spots. The race is so wide open even the obvious trade deadline seller Giants were talked into keeping hold of their most prized trade chips. San Francisco is just 5-7 since the trade deadline but even now sit only 3½ games out of a playoff spot.

Which brings us to the Mets, who all but declared themselves sellers earlier in July. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen followed up his preseason “Come and get us” boast with a conciliatory “They came and got us.”

But then, those selling Mets weren’t sellers at all. They kept Noah Syndergaard, they kept free agent-to-be Zach Wheeler, and then shocked everybody by nabbing one of the prized few starting pitchers on the market, acquiring Marcus Stroman from the Blue Jays for a song.

It’s the pitching, stupid

We’ve known all season if the Mets were going to do anything, it would require their starting rotation to remain healthy. For the most part they have, with Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard and Wheeler all in the top 30 in MLB in innings pitched. That trio plus Steven Matz are on pace to make 124 starts as a group, and that was before adding Stroman.

At the time, the Stroman move appeared more geared for 2020 than anything, but could end up helping them this year, too.

The improved pitching started a month before the trade deadline. Since July 1, Mets starters are third in the majors in ERA (3.04) and lead baseball in FIP (3.10) and innings per start (6.10).

New York’s bullpen has been its Achilles heel, with a 5.13 ERA on the season that ranks 26th in the majors. But since the All-Star Break Mets relievers have a 3.46 ERA. During their 15-1 run, the entire Mets pitching staff allowed just 2.88 runs per game, fewer than any other National League team.

Don’t forget about the offense

Pete Alonso already tied the NL rookie record for home runs (39), with 44 games left to play. He and Jeff McNeil have been the Mets’ two best hitters in 2019, with a healthy dose of outfielders Michael Conforto and J.D. Davis doing their share of heavy lifting, too.

Since the break, the Mets offense has been even more potent, thanks to help from some friends.

Offense heating up

Player pre All-Star break wRC+ post All-Star break wRC+
Player pre All-Star break wRC+ post All-Star break wRC+
Pete Alonso 160 106
Jeff McNeil 147 158
Michael Conforto 120 169
J.D. Davis 115 194
Amed Rosario 88 140
Robinson Cano 73 126
Source: FanGraphs

The Mets in their 15-1 stretch averaged 5.75 runs per game, second in the NL only to the Braves, who lead the Mets by eight games in the NL East.

Robinson Cano tore his hamstring just as he was heating up, putting his return this season in doubt. The Mets signed former Giants infielder Joe Panik to fill that second base void. But in a very mediocre National League, nearly every team has major flaws. You don’t have to be perfect to make this year’s postseason, you just have to be good enough.

New York won’t be winning a division title in 2019, but with their playoff odds improving from a minuscule 3.9 percent on July 24 to 47.5 percent today, the thoughts of the Mets playing in October aren’t nearly as laughable as they once were.