Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Post-Mortem for the 2022 New York Mets

Jacob deGrom looking off into an uncertain future.

With baseball engaged in its final series before the 2022 season ends, I feel compelled to collect my thoughts on the Mets season now with this being the third consecutive full MLB season in which the NL pennant went to a Mets rival from the NL East. In other words, since 2019 every NL East team has won the pennant except the Mets and the Marlins. 

Incredibly, by most measures the Mets in 2022 had their second-best season ever. Yet those results represented the lower end of this team's range of outcomes. These Mets won 101 games, eclipsed by only the legendary 1986 Mets (one of the best teams ever) who won 108 games. Buck Showalter's Mets squad finished 40 games over .500 in his first year as manager. Buck seemed to help shift the franchise toward a more respectable vibe than recent vintage. This was a polished all-around ballclub led by a deep lineup full of hitters with different styles from the power of Pete Alonso to patient bats like Brandon Nimmo and Mark Canha to the throwback contact skills of 2022 NL batting champion Jeff McNeil. Francisco Lindor had the best season of any Mets shortstop ever, Starling Marte added a jolt to the lineup with his power-speed combo. The starting rotation consistently shoved, the bullpen had fewer meltdowns than any Mets team I can remember thanks mostly to a Cy Young-level historically dominant year from Edwin Diaz closing games. 

The 2022 Mets held onto first place for the vast majority of the season, they always seemed to fight back after a loss, and they kept pace with the scorching hot Braves as summer turned to fall. Yet by the end the story of these Mets soured with the Braves barely edging them out in the final week much like they did in 2021 when the Mets led the division for almost five months until collapsing. This year the Mets' collapse was milder, more gradual, more complicated. Hardly a collapse, more of an increasingly uninspired, perhaps exhausted tread that tripped and tumbled til the Mets were fighting for their lives in a do-or-die game against the Padres and complaining about Joe Musgrove's shiny ears (reminiscent of the '86 Mets flipping out over Mike Scott scuffing the ball when he dominated in the 1986 NLCS). Thus an otherwise great Mets season ends up fitting into a narrative pattern alongside their last few years of agonizing almosts and embarrassing ineptitude.

In 2021 the Mets were in first place with six weeks left in the season and then imploded so badly they ended up in 3rd place, 11.5 games behind the division-winning Braves. Even in the 2020 Covid-shortened season the Mets just barely missed out on the postseason despite a larger than normal playoff pool. The 2019 Mets season was memorable for several superstars putting up big numbers and lots of dramatic wins only to fall just barely short of the playoffs due to several egregious meltdowns from the bullpen. 

The 2022 Mets were paradoxical in that they hardly suffered any meltdowns. They were a winning team every month, they played well both at home and on the road. Their "collapse" happened in September when they had a .577 winning percentage. Problem was they were being chased by a red-hot Atlanta team and needed to be perfect in the final weeks playing against the weakest schedule in baseball. They had so many opportunities to clinch a division title and first round bye in the postseason but couldn't seal the deal. Even after missing that chance, they still had repeated opportunities to end on a high note, instead they went 1-5 across six season-defining games to end their season (3 vs the Braves in Atlanta, 3 vs the Padres in NY) with all their top guys healthy. 

Now that the Phillies have snatched the 2022 NL pennant, what's weird in retrospect is that the Mets won 14 of 19 against the Phils this year. They no-hit the Phillies, dominated them, had an epic 7-run comeback in the 9th inning in a game in Philly. And that dominance of the NL pennant winner does not matter. Why? Because the Mets only won 9 of their 19 games against the Braves and that divisional matchup is essentially what determined the final outcome of their whole season. The Mets vs the Braves meant everything in 2022. This was because MLB for the first time in modern history did not have the game 163 tiebreaker to decide division winners, so the head-to-head results meant everything. To have the NL East come down to a tie atop the division in the first season with no game 163 was horrible optics for MLB. Fans were robbed of that opportunity. And yet the Braves' winning the NL east by the smallest of margins was a Pyrrhic victory anyway, since they immediately got knocked out in the first round by the Phillies. 

The postseason chaos on the NL side caused a lot of philosophical contemplation among baseball fans about what playoff baseball is supposed to be exactly. The system in the era of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's unpopular rule changes seems to have rattled the coherence and meaning of baseball games and outcomes, impacting fans' ability to take the regular season results all that seriously despite baseball having the longest regular season in pro sports. So many teams engage in tanking and a handful of others so steadily stand among the elite that the playoff contenders are practically set in stone before the season begins. It's just a matter of whether they can keep their best players healthy over a six-month slog playing against many teams that have no playoff hopes. In the final weeks when the Mets had a playoff spot clinched but were playing against the Cubs, A's, Nationals, Pirates, I just kept hoping they'd make it thru those games without any major injuries. 

The Mets were fine. Besides the final two weeks, this was the least stressful season for Mets fans to follow that I can ever remember. The 2015 and 2016 Mets made the playoffs and were super exciting teams but both relied on late season surges to make up for a rough start, and both teams had weaknesses that often kept their games at nail-bitingly close margins. The 2006 Mets were a dominant team but they were mostly reliant on a powerful lineup and deep bullpen whereas the rotation was always a little bit shaky. The 2022 Mets hardly had any major weaknesses. 

They got to choose between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom to start game 1 of the playoffs and chose Scherzer (probably should've kept with deGrom as their #1 but I won't go into that). Their world-class closer Diaz was healthy, the bullpen was actually pretty solid overall, it felt like there were far fewer late inning meltdowns than ever. The hitters were relatively healthy although all were probably dinged up like Starling Marte who played the final series with a broken finger. The Mets set the MLB record for being hit by pitches and had several close calls with guys getting hit in the face including their two biggest offensive stars Alonso and Lindor who both took heaters to the face during the season, yet both stayed in the lineup all year and into the playoffs. They didn't suffer any of their typical back-of-the-rotation erosions or Jerad Eickhoff-ian sinkholes, instead they regularly ran out a deep pitching staff. 

The one frustrating thing about the 2022 Mets is they stacked up the team in every area except the catching position which has been their biggest weakness and a source of frustration for years now. This weakness has been evident for a while, we all knew it was a problem going into the season, they failed to address it in the offseason or at the trade deadline and it arguably ended up costing them. The fate of the most recent Mets team could conceivably be rooted in their failures to sign an elite catcher back before the 2019 season. At that point, the Mets needed to sign free agent All Star catcher Yasmani Grandal but he signed with Milwaukee instead and had a huge year with them. The following winter the Mets were expected to make a big run at trying to sign All Star catcher J.T. Realmuto but they botched it and he signed with the rival Phillies instead. Losing out on Realmuto was devastating because there was a pretty steep dropoff after Grandal and Realmuto to the rest of the available catchers not only in 2019 but looking ahead. The Mets instead signed James McCann, typically a backup catcher, to a four-year deal worth $40 million.

Ironically, the 2022 Mets' best catcher Tomás Nido actually had one of the top defensive seasons of any catcher in MLB this year. He might win a Gold Glove. Only problem was his bat was so bad it hurt the team's chances---as a hitter Nido actually had the Mets' lowest Win Probability Added, a metric that reflects game situation, meaning he was at the plate in pivotal moments and failed to get the job done. And the less said about their other catcher James McCann, the better. Overall in 2022, encompassing offensive and defensive value (including pitch-framing stats), the Mets' performance from all of their catchers amounted to 1.2 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. J.T. Realmuto playing for the Phillies had the best season of his career with 6.5 wins above replacement. The vast difference between Realmuto and the Mets' catching corps is evident in every season since the Mets lost out on signing him. Perhaps more painfully, the Mets did have a catcher of some promise named Travis d'Arnaud who helped lead them to the 2015 NL pennant, but the previous ownership regime rage cut d'Arnaud early in 2019 after he got off to a rough start returning from injury, and d'Arnaud regained his form, went on to win a World Series for the Braves and has regularly tormented his old team since. The Mets ranked 26th in MLB in OPS from the catching position in 2022, the Braves ranked 1st, the Phillies ranked 3rd.

The Mets developed the top catching prospect in MLB this year, the 20-year-old Francisco Álvarez, but kept holding back from calling him up to the big league team until a moment of desperation before their final series in Atlanta. Álvarez looked overmatched in that series. After that he only got a few at-bats playing in front of the home crowd, but he impressed in limited time, blasting a home run and a double. It shouldn't be overlooked that the Mets had such a potent bat sitting in the minors while the big league club had a gaping offensive hole at the catching and DH positions. Had the Mets given some of Nido, Darin Ruf, or James McCann's September at-bats to Francisco Álvarez instead, maybe this season would've had a different result. 

And so the Mets add another gut-wrenching disappointment to their deep history of such collapses, especially in the 21st century. Observe the results since then:

2000: won NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Subway Series 4-1
2001-2005: missed playoffs for five straight years
2006: won NL East title, season ends with gut-wrenching loss in NLCS game 7
2007-08: two historically bad end-of-season collapses to miss playoffs
2009-2014: missed playoffs for six straight years
2015: magical run to win NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Series 4-1
2016: won Wild Card spot, lost winnable wild card 1-game playoff at home
2017-2021: missed playoffs for five straight years
2022: won 101 games, made playoffs, Wild Card loss in first round at home

Although it did feel like the Mets could've done better in the first round against the Padres had they been more willing to take their starters out of the game at the first sign of trouble (a clearly gassed Scherzer was left in the game too long in game 1, same with Chris Bassitt in game 3), by then the offense had gone into a slump and their fate was sealed. They had succumbed to the usual Mets shit.

Now that fans have had time to process the disappointing end to an incredible season, I think what we are all hoping for now is that the Mets don't follow up their successes with another extended drought. They've had a pattern. After their 2000 NL pennant, they sucked for a good while. Their 2006 division title seemed the first of many, but was followed by eight seasons of ineptitude and embarrassment. The aftermath of the 2015-16 contending teams was similar. The core of the 2022 Mets has so much promise, but will inevitably look different next year.

Adding to the disappointment of their late season failure is that much of the team will now disperse because so many guys will become free agents this offseason. It's completely up in the air whether the Mets will re-sign franchise stalwarts like Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz, or Brandon Nimmo, let alone solid contributors like Taijuan Walker, Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Chris Bassitt, or Carlos Carrasco. The Mets might look very different next year. They'll have to completely rebuild their relief pitching since almost all of those guys will be on their way out, which will be tough to do after a season when, for once, they had a very good bullpen. It will be an interesting offseason to watch what mega-billionaire owner Steve Cohen decides to do. Not only are lots of key players becoming free agents, but crappy players like McCann and Ruf have guaranteed contracts next year that the Mets really need to figure out how to buy their way out of. Having watched an NL East rival go all the way to the World Series yet again, it's possible Steve Cohen gets mad and just dumps piles of money into the team for a turbo-boost. Regardless, the 2022 season has taught us that regular season success offers no guarantees for the short series playoffs. This was the best Mets team I've ever watched in my life and their season ended in a snap. 

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