Is it crazy to say that, with a little bit of luck, the New York Mets are contenders this season?
Going off history, yes it is. The Mets have lost in breathtaking fashion for the last half-decade.
Through one-third of the season, the Mets have already witnessed a cavalcade of problems sweep through the locker room. The team has dealt with a number of nagging injuries, a lineup of .200 hitters and an inconsistent bullpen, yet they currently sit just 4.0 games back of first place in the National League East.
This year’s team, though, is different from previous years.
To begin, the starting pitching is incredibly deep. The Mets have a seemingly endless supply of quality pitching talent in or near the majors. And no matter how bad the offense has been, the starting pitching has kept the Mets competitive in more games this season.
Playing in more close games is great, but a team still cannot win with an anemic offense. Right now, the Mets are 28th in the majors with a combined .235 team batting average.
On the surface, this suggests the Mets are doomed to fail. The baseball season is long and grueling, especially for pitchers. While the Mets are young and motivated with a great leader in David Wright, eventually the starting pitching will weaken under the pressure of one-run games every other day.
But even with such a poor batting average, the Mets are still second in the majors in walks, tied for fourth in stolen bases and 19th in the majors in both on-base percentage and runs.
What if the Mets offense is not terrible, just simply bad at converting scoring chances late in games?
In the final three innings of games this season, the Mets average just a hair over one run on offense, ranking 26th in the majors. On the other hand, in the beginning of games this season, the Mets offense has gone from one of the worst to one of the best.
Last season, the Mets ranked second to last in the percentage of games they scored a first-inning run, at 22.2 percent. This year, the Mets are the best in the majors, scoring a first-inning run in an astonishing 40.0 percent of games so far.
That means the Mets are getting players on base but aren’t able to convert those chances into runs. They are dead last in the majors this season in runners left in scoring position per game, at approximately four.
Not surprisingly, the Mets are also 8-18 in one-run games.
If the team were even just .500 in those games, it would be in first place in the division by a game. Yet the inability of this team to convert viable chances into runs has been crippling.
At one point, they were even 6-for-43 with bases loaded as a team.
Notice a theme yet? The Mets offense, criticized daily for its inability to score, is unable to compound runs but is arguably not as bad as many suggest.
The Mets bullpen, also criticized regularly, quietly has made a dramatic improvement since the beginning of the season.
Formerly led by aging veterans like Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth, the Mets bullpen looked like…a Mets bullpen. Before Jenrry Mejia stabilized the closer position, converting his first six saves and counting, the Mets had already blown 11 saves, which is still tied for worst in the majors.
Speaking of Mejia, look at the utter dominance he is enjoying in his new role:
|Jenrry Mejia, Starter vs. Reliever in 2014|
In one month, Mejia has turned the closer position from one of the Mets’ most glaring weaknesses to one of their biggest strengths. He is giving up fewer hits, striking out more batters and issuing fewer walks.
Success breeds success, too.
Jeurys Familia, effectively the new setup man for Mejia, has allowed just four earned runs in his last 22 appearances, including a 1.93 ERA in May. He now has a 2.79 ERA and 23 hits allowed in 29.0 innings in 2014.
As a whole, the Mets bullpen has logged the seventh-most innings of any team this season. They also rank very respectably at 12th in the majors in bullpen ERA, at 3.30. Only three of the bullpens that have logged more innings have a better ERA than the Mets.
The primary concern for the bullpen is home runs. Despite the recent run of success, the Mets bullpen is still tied for eighth worst in the majors with 18 home runs allowed.
To make the playoffs, the Mets would at the very least need the bullpen to produce more consistently and the offense to convert more of its chances into runs. Considering the team has scored four or more runs in only half of its games, that may be a tall order.
But not an impossible one.
The Mets appear to at least have the opportunity to make a playoff run. Starting pitching will carry them for the coming months, but only time will tell whether the offense and bullpen can catch up.
It helps that the rest of the division is underwhelming, as well.
The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves both have deep starting pitching and fantastic bullpens, but both lineups are underachieving. The Miami Marlins are on a surprising run but lost Jose Fernandez for the year and look too inexperienced to maintain this hot streak. Lastly, the Philadelphia Phillies look like one of the worst teams in the majors.
With the rest of the division this vulnerable, now is the best time for the Mets to make a playoff run.
Injuries notwithstanding, if the offense and bullpen can develop confidence and consistency, the Mets just may have a chance to earn a playoff spot.
Stats via ESPN.com, MLB.com, Baseball-Reference.com
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathantessler