Power Shift: Mets Are Quickly Overtaking Yankees as NYC's World Series Contender

Zachary D. RymerApril 20, 2022

New York Mets' Francisco Lindor celebrates his solo home run with manager Buck Showalter, right, during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 10, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

These are strange times. Up is down. Left is right. And the two Major League Baseball teams in New York are trading places.

Meet the new New York Mets, same as the old New York Yankees.  

New York has been ready to become a Mets town for a while now, as Quinnipiac University found that their fans outnumbered Yankees fans in the city as far back as 2017.

Not bad, considering that the only thing that the Mets have in as much abundance as the Yankees have wins and World Series championships is tragicomic backpage headlines in the New York Daily News.  

It can only help the Mets' cause, then, that the franchise's apparent new goal in life is to out-Yankee the Yankees.

Even if Steve Cohen's first season as the owner of the Mets in 2021 wasn't as successful (or as uncontroversial) as he hoped, he at least succeeded in what the Wilpons never even tried to accomplish when they owned the team: climbing into the same payroll stratosphere as the Yankees. He's since forced the organization into an even higher stratosphere in 2022, and this time it's paying off accordingly. As the Yankees are just 6-5 out of the gate, the Mets are 9-3.

The 2022 season isn't even two weeks old, so it's perhaps too early to flip-flop the Yankees and Mets in the race for New York's first World Series apperance since 2015, much less the city's first championship since 2009. Or rather, definitely too early according to FanGraphs' World Series title chances. The Yankees are at 10.1 percent, compared to 8.8 percent for the Mets.

And yet, it's hard not to feel like the winds of reality are blowing squarely in the latter's favor.

What's Going Right for the Mets

Honestly, so much is going right for the Mets that this section could simply read, "Good job, Mets. No notes."

Even setting aside how they've actually played so far, they're to be applauded for what they did to get ready for this season. After recording a disappointing 77-85 in 2021, the Mets deliberately pointed themselves toward better days by hiring a competent general manager in Billy Eppler and an eminently qualified manager in Buck Showalter.

The latter hiring might not have happened without three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who reportedly lobbied for Showalter after signing a record-breaking three-year, $130 million contract. The Mets spent nearly another $130 million to sign outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha and infielder Eduardo Escobar and later worked the trade market to bring in All-Star right-hander Chris Bassitt.

Basically the only blow the Mets have been dealt since the end of the 2021 season is the loss of two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom to a stress reaction in his shoulder. So far, though, it's a blow that they have yet to actually feel.

Starting pitching has been driving the Mets so far in 2022, and not merely in a satisfactory fashion. Scherzer, Bassitt and company have a 1.56 ERA, which is actually up from the historic 1.07 ERA they had through their first 10 outings:


50.1 IP<br>6 R<br>1.07 ERA<br>0.75 WHIP<br>11 BB<br>59 K<br><br>The Mets' rotation is off to the best start of any MLB unit in the last 109 years <a href="https://t.co/3ScWs8P0J8">https://t.co/3ScWs8P0J8</a> <a href="https://t.co/Xj0XJTnBG1">pic.twitter.com/Xj0XJTnBG1</a>

This is obviously unsustainable but not entirely unbelievable. Even without deGrom's help, Mets starters boast the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio and third-best hard-hit rate in the majors. 

Meanwhile, on offense, the Mets lead the league in on-base percentage at .350 and are second (by a hair) in walk-to-strikeout ratio, and they haven't been turning down the pressure when they have opposing pitchers in trouble.

  • Bases Empty: .364 OBP 
  • Runners in Scoring Position: .390 OBP

For all that can be said about the collective, by far the most encouraging development for the Mets offense concerns Francisco Lindor, specifically.

The star shortstop was such a letdown in his debut season with the Mets in 2021 that he eventually heard boos. He now boasts a 1.061 OPS and three home runs and heard nothing but cheers upon knocking a game-winning single in the first half of a doubleheader sweep against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday:

New York Mets @Mets

.<a href="https://twitter.com/Lindor12BC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Lindor12BC</a> with the walk-off winner! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MetsWin?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MetsWin</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LGM?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LGM</a> <a href="https://t.co/F68mk2v6X4">pic.twitter.com/F68mk2v6X4</a>

So thorough has been the Mets' dominance on both sides of the ball that their plus-29 run differential is the best in baseball. It's all reflected in the club's odds, as their chances of winning the National League East and the World Series are now about neck-and-neck with Atlanta after starting the season at just 23.1 and 5.2 percent, respectively.

What's Going Wrong for the Yankees

If you were to look strictly at dollars and cents, you'd swear that the Yankees were right there with the Mets with the effort they invested over the winter. At a hair under $246 million, their payroll is almost $50 million higher than in 2021.

Paradoxically, though, the most notable part of the Yankees' winter was how much they didn't spend. Their free-agent expenditures didn't even crack $35 million. Much of the new money on their payroll came from their trade for Josh Donaldson, who's owed $50 million through 2024.

The Yankees might have saved face by extending slugger Aaron Judge before his self-imposed deadline on Opening Day, but that didn't pan out either. It's to the team's credit that it at least made a competitive offer at $230 million over eight years but decidedly not to its credit that we only know this because they blabbed about it. What they called "transparency" was really a case of deflecting blame.

Thus, the Yankees dove into a veritable hive of bad vibes with the season looming. As much as anything, their modest start feels like karmic retribution.

What makes it look even worse are the details, specifically with regard to an offense that's become a shell of the home run-hittingrun-scoring force that overwhelmed the opposition between 2017 and 2019:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

The Yankees have scored 30 runs in their first 10 games, their fewest through 10 games since 1977. <br><br>Sunday was the first time they were shutout by the Orioles since 2016. <a href="https://t.co/bKsenN4bgE">pic.twitter.com/bKsenN4bgE</a>

In what's become a familiar refrain, manager Aaron Boone is already pointing to a breakout that's just over the horizon. As he told reporters last Thursday: "I feel like a number of our guys are in a pretty good place as far as at-bat quality, how they're hitting the ball. I think hit into some tough luck at times."

The 132-point gap between the Yankees' expected slugging percentage and actual slugging percentage does lend some credence to Boone's position. Yet it's also undercut by the reality that his guys aren't actually having good at-bats.

The team's walk and strikeout rates are worse relative even to last year's just OK offense, while it's out-of-zone swing rate is the second-highest in baseball. Two notable offenders are Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton, both of whom are also running a strikeout rate north of 33 percent. 

Though the Yankees are faring better on the mound—their 2.48 ERA leads the American League—their two most important pitchers aren't helping. Gerrit Cole has a 6.35 ERA after three starts, while closer Aroldis Chapman had concerning outings on April 14 and 15.

These would look like mere small-sample-size blips were it not for how Cole and Chapman fared after MLB finally chose to enforce its ban on pitchers using sticky stuff last June. Cole, who basically didn't bother defending himself from accusations, has fallen off like so:

For Chapman, things began to unravel when he coughed up four runs without recording an out on June 10 of last season. He had a 0.39 ERA in his first 23 appearances of 2021. His ERA in 44 appearances since then is 4.78.

In spite of all this, the Yankees' chances of making the playoffs, winning the AL East and winning the World Series have actually gone up since the start of the season. There should be no doubt, however, that they're not going to do any of these things if they keep doing what they're doing.

The Key Difference Here Is Philosophical

Say what you will about late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner—who incurred bans for illegal campaign contributions and hiring someone to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield—but he had the right mindset during a wildly successful 37-year run before his death in 2010.

"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," he was once quoted as saying. "Breathing first, winning second."

Steinbrenner's son, Hal, also cares about winning...to a point. He made this clear in March when he found himself on defense against a fanbase that wasn't convinced that the team had made the most of its offseason:

James Wagner @ByJamesWagner

"That's my job every year, to make sure that we're financially responsible. I've got a lot of partners &amp; banks &amp; bondholders &amp; things like that I answer to. But at the same time, it's always a goal to win a championship … We got a pretty good history of having high payrolls."

In saying these things, Steinbrenner wasn't as condescending as Cincinnati Reds president Phil Castellini when he chided the team's disgruntled supporters by asking "Where you gonna go?" and challenging them to come up with ways to make business "more profitable."

The general message, though, is pretty much the same: What fans want for the team (i.e., wins and a championship) is supplementary to what the team really wants (i.e., profits).

The Yankees, of all teams, should be better than this. And not just because of their prestigious history, but even more so because of their financial standing within baseball.

They had baseball's highest payroll annually between 2000 and 2013, in which time they went to four World Series and won two of them. Even as their franchise valuation has ballooned to $6 billion, they've had baseball's highest payroll just once since 2014. And yet they've yet to win a World Series and have just two trips as far as the American League Championship Series over the last eight seasons.

As for Cohen, the things he said at his introductory press conference in Nov. 2020 remain relevant. Not just the part about wanting to win a World Series "in the next three to five years," but more so this part: "I'm not in this to be mediocre. I want something great."

It was this attitude that led Cohen and the Mets to Scherzer, and the ace apparently appreciated it as much as their generous offer. "He looks at this like he wants to win a championship, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win," Scherzer said of Cohen. "You don't hear that from owners too often these days."

There might have been a time when Scherzer would have heard that from the Yankees, but they're simply not interested in being the big bad anymore. The Mets clearly are, so it was perhaps just a matter of time before they started actually looking the part.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.