Oh god, the Mets are going to win this division, aren't they?
Going into the season, the NL East was billed, somewhat optimistically, as a four-team race. Even better, all four teams are really, really interesting! The Phillies were the favorites, the big-market team that won 102 games last year. We just finished up against the Nationals, and saw first-hand how their young players are going to destroy us all, and we didn't even have to deal with Stephen Strasburg. The Braves have Steve Avery's left arm encased in amber underneath Turner Field, and they're using it to clone stud pitching prospect after stud pitching prospect. The Miami Marlins are not so much a team as they are an elaborate social experiment to uncover the weirdest thing that could happen in or near a baseball game. So with all these talented, exciting baseball teams in the NL East, of course the Mets are going to win the division. No one trolls quite like the Baseball Gods.
It's already started too. Despite a roster that features few recognizable stars, the Mets have started off with a better-than-expected 13-12 record that puts them well within striking distance early. They're going to go on a run in mid-to-late May that puts them in first place, spawning a whole bunch of "Are the Mets for real" articles from the NY Post. Then they'll briefly lose the lead in August, but get it back with a well-timed run in September. And then we'll all have to pretend to be interested in Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada in the playoffs while Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins sit at home.
Actually, I think I just talked myself into rooting for the Mets.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
Ok, fine, maybe claiming the Mets are going to win the divisions was a bit presumptive, considering that they've actually been outscored by 30 runs already this year. Their solid record is due primarily to a 6-2 record in one-run games (that must be nice...). Their team strength has been a balanced lineup that has seen production come from unexpected places. They have the second-highest team BABIP in baseball at .329, so whether they can keep it up is an open question, but the team has to be happy from some of the young players they have relied on so far.
Remember when the Mets were a big-market team that had stars up and down the lineup? Yeah, so 2006. New York replaced Carlos Beltran in center field with something called a Kirk Nieuwenhuis, which is 24, and it currently has done nothing but hit since being given the starting job. His BABIP of .439 suggests that his early success is not sustainable, but he should stay a decent option as a starter or a fourth outfielder. Similarly, Tejada is playing the role of Jose Reyes at shortstop, and so far he's actually done a pretty credible impression, with an OPS+ of 118 as a 22-year-old. Again, his BABIP is .387, so it probably won't stay for long, but he's a contact hitter with speed, so it's not unreasonable for him to maintain a BABIP well over .300.
In a world of change in Queens, David Wright remains the one constant in the lineup. But after a couple seasons of declining production, Wright looks like he might be back to where he was in 2008, when he was one of the best position players in baseball. He currently has a batting line of .394/.495/.582, and even though it's supported by a BABIP of .444 (Holy hell, have the Mets played all of their baseball games against a team of Wily Mo Penas?), but it has to be encouraging to see him flashing the patience and power of old.
Is it not fashionable to be angry about the Scott Hairston trade any more? I mean, yeah, the team has plenty of outfield depth now, and we traded him in 2007, and he's kind of mediocre, but HE WAS FROM ARIZONA AND HE COULD HAVE BEEN SOMETHING AND ALL WE GOT WAS LEO EFFING ROSALES! I don't think it's hyperbole at all to suggest that the franchise has never recovered from this. Meanwhile, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, and Ike Davis are all young(ish) players who have hit well intermittently and who should all probably be designated hitters somewhere. Davis in particular is worth keeping an eye on, if only because he's had a brutal start to the season, to the tune of -0.7 fWAR in 95 PAs.
Insightful Commentary: Wade Miley is an example of how quickly we make up our minds about young players. Last year, he was 24 and threw 40 innings in the majors and we all decided that he was a nothing pitcher. This wasn't an Enright or a Collmenter situation either, Miley was actually a well-regarded prospect. But all it took was forty mediocre innings before we decided he would be a place-holder in an organization that has plenty of pitching depth. Shame on us. Notice here that I am using the royal we.
Gee started last year 9-0, which made him a bit of a celebrity among fans who were born in 1942 or earlier. He didn't pitch great last year, but he held onto a starting spot for 2012. So far, his results haven't improved at all, but his peripherals clearly have. His strikeouts are up, and his walks are down, and as a result his FIP is down to 3.40. He'll probably start allowing more walks, but he's getting more swings and misses this year, so it's not unreasonable that his uptick in strikeouts is for real.
Saturday: Pat Corbin (1-0, 4.76) vs. Johan Santana (0-2, 2.25)
Insightful Commentary: Corbin's first start for Arizona was a bit of a mixed bag: he pitched into trouble, generally pitched out of trouble, and came within an out of getting a quality start. Marlins' Park is a pitcher's park, and Miami's lineup was not a potent one, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against a team that is in more of a groove on offense.
Remember when Johan Santana was one of the very best pitchers in baseball? Yeah, the Mets were good back then too. It's an easy joke to make, but it sort of ignores the truth of the matter: that Santana is still a pretty darn good pitcher. He's never had an ERA above 3.33, and even that was in his last year in Minnesota rather than for the Mets. His stuff has deteriorated a bit, both from age and injury, but it's not like he's dropped off the face of the earth the way the New York Media (TM) would have you believe. If he stays healthy, he's still a front-line pitcher.
Insightful Commentary: Cahill had probably his best start as a Diamondback on Tuesday, holding the Nationals to one run in 7.1 innings. Cahill's one of those annoying pitchers who, when he pitches well, looks like he should be doing that every game. When, say, Rodrigo Lopez pitched well, it was exciting, but it was never something that seemed repeatable. Cahill, when he's on, pounds the bottom of the strike zone, gets ground balls to go with a smattering of strikeouts while limiting walks. It's not fair to him, but it looks easy and repeatable, until he has one of those starts where his sinker doesn't sink and/or can't stay in the zone.
You've probably heard Dickey's story: the Rangers drafted him to be part of the future way back in 1996, until they found out he was missing his UCL. When his arm problems forced him to scale back his fastball, he began turning to a hard knuckle ball to get hitters out. He bounced around the league before settling in New York, where he's improbably become one of the team's best pitchers. I can't remember the Diamondbacks facing a knuckleballer in the past few seasons, so I really don't even have a framework for knowing how they'll do, but it should be fun to watch.
Final Verdict: The Mets are half a game better than the Diamondbacks so far this year, but Arizona is probably the better team here. I wouldn't say I trust the trio of Miley, Corbin and Cahill yet, but they can perform well enough for the Diamondbacks to take two of three.
Head over to Amazin' Avenue to get the Mets' perspective.
(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)