Through the first month of the season and, really, up through about this time last week, a humorous storyline to follow was basically: "Does anyone even want to win the NL East?"
The Phillies have shown signs of life and obviously we aren't going to be writing off the Braves any time soon. But the toast of the division right now would be the New York Mets, working their damnedest to shed that "LOLMets" tag.
The Mets sit idle Thursday while riding a seven-game winning streak. They have a four-game lead in the loss column in the East. They also face a tough test in the days ahead. They'll visit Tampa Bay for three games before a four-game series in Atlanta and then three in Miami.
To really announce their presence with authority, the bats need to wake up.
Obviously, they need ace Jacob deGrom back at full strength as soon as possible, but overall the pitching has really shown itself as the backbone of the ballclub. Heading into Thursday, the Mets are second in all of baseball in ERA at 2.89, second in WHIP at 1.10 and first in FIP at 2.87, suggesting they haven't been overly lucky or anything. The long-maligned bullpen had a few meltdowns early in the season, but has really settled in, sporting a 2.18 ERA in May. The only blown save came on May 2 and that ended up a win anyway.
The offense is the key here. The Mets fired their hitting coaches on May 4. In and of itself, that's not going to immediately solve anything. Even if the approach -- Chili Davis' "old school" all-fields, line drives approach -- was a large part of the problem, it's going to take time to change habits under a new regime. Now that I mentioned the approach, it's time for lots of people to be up in arms and tell me how amazing the old school approach is. After all, it's become cool for the old guard to hate on "exit velocity" (literally just how hard you hit the ball) and "launch angle" (driving the ball in the air as opposed to hammering it into the ground), even though neither concept is particularly new, even if the terms are.
Look at the Mets' current slash lines. Their .238 average is sixth among the 15 NL teams. Their .330 on-base percentage is second. It seems like their offense is good! So why is their 3.58 runs per game 27th in all of baseball, ahead of only the Nationals, Pirates and Tigers? Well, their .350 slugging percentage is 14th in the NL. Some might want to point to the .233 average with runners in scoring position (22nd in MLB), but I'll note that the .323 slugging percentage with RISP is 26th in the majors. RISP stats aren't predictive, either. They can tell you how we got here, though, and the Mets haven't been good at all in those situations.
Bottom line, it seems to me the issue is power, whether with runners in scoring position or not.
Pete Alonso leads the team in home runs, but he only has five. That's tied for 23rd in the NL. Jeff McNeil has three homers. No one else has more than two. Among qualified hitters, Alonso ranks 25th in the NL in slugging. You won't find another Mets hitter until 58th (McNeil).
The Mets are also dead last in the NL in doubles and only have three triples.
I honestly believe some of it was the hitting coach. And if you want to point out last season, when the Mets were fourth in slugging in the NL, I'll point out Davis opted out of the season.
Also, the Mets have only played 31 games and they dealt with a ton of schedule adversity early in the season.
I expect this offense to rise to the occasion here in the coming months. Here's why:
- Alonso is fine. There's no reason to believe he can't get scorching hot here very soon.
- Lindor was dealing with a change of scenery and cold weather in the early going, in addition to likely putting a lot of pressure on himself with that huge contract. He now has a modest six-game hitting streak going, during which he's hitting .400/.500/.600. In 2018, he had 42 doubles, two triples, 38 homers and a .519 slug. In 2019, it was 40 doubles, two triples, 32 homers and a .518 slug. He's 27 years old. He's striking out at the lowest rate of his career and walking at the highest rate. I sense that he's going to stay hot here for a second.
- Smith played in 139 games between 2019-20, hitting .299/.366/.571 with 31 doubles and 21 homers. He's been mostly bad this season and hasn't hit the ball hard at all. He might need some time with the new hitting coaches, but the talent is there. Maybe a second-half surge?
- From 2017-20, Corforto posted a 133 OPS+. He hit .322/.412/.515 last season with nine homers in 202 at-bats. He's getting on base, but not hitting for average or power right now. One problem is he's hitting the highest percentage of groundballs in his career. Regardless of the actual issue, I'm trusting the track record here on a 28-year-old with big upside. He's already started, too, hitting .283 with a .433 slugging in his last 17 games. He'll get hotter, too.
- J.D. Davis has a left hand injury and will be back at some point in the near future. He was hitting .390/.479/.610 through 14 games. Sure, that won't keep up, but his return will help.
- Brandon Nimmo might be ready to return from the injured list Friday. He's more an on-base machine than a power guy, but he also averages 27 doubles, seven triples and 17 homers per 162 games in his career.
- McNeil was a career .319/.383/.501 (139 OPS+) hitter before this season. He's 29 years old and hitting .234/.333/.362 (98 OPS+) this season. Like Lindor, he has the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career. Like Conforto, he's sporting the highest groundball rate of his career. He's also already started to get hot. In his last nine games, he's hitting .314/.400/.429.
There's also a trade deadline and a very hungry owner who wants to win now. We aren't fully sure what big bats might be available at this juncture, but Mets fans can dream of the red-hot and very versatile Kris Bryant, right?
For now, the Mets are playing like the best team in the NL East. In order to keep that going, they'll need some of the bats they have to wake up. The sooner the better, too, because it's a tough road trip starting Friday.