A Look Back At The 2016 Mets and What Happens Next?
There is hatred and ignorance in the air and it couldn't have been better illustrated than in Monday nights Political debate and the social media insanity that streamed live and followed after.
But, back to baseball where judgement and criticism, insults and "debate" often devolve into mudslinging and derogatory characterizations as well. That's called social interaction, especially in this day of social media.
A microcosm of that has happened to me this season in regards to one of my bolder 2016 predictions; that the New York Mets would miss the playoffs and to be honest, I like it. I don't care for vulgarity or ignorant insults, but I thrive on dispute and disagreement so the backlash from Mets fans about my projections is a welcome part of any given day. Its an enjoyable topic for discussion. That being said, my analysis has been right, but my prediction that they would miss the playoffs is still undecided and I wanted to look at it 159 games later to see how its held up.
I said from Day One that the Mets would miss the 2016 playoffs because their staff was too good and their offense was too weak, their 2015 division was too shameful in and without a herculean miracle from Yoenis Cespedes they don't get in anyway. If they didn't void the Carlos Gomez trade they don't even make the playoffs, never mind the World Series. With that backdrop, lets look at 2016 and the train of thought behind my caustic prediction.
The foundation for my prediction was multi-layered, which made it that much easier to defend and to feel confident in its validity.
1. The Division
In 2015 the Philadelphia Phillies lost 99 games, the Atlanta Braves 95 and the Miami Marlins 91, while the Washington Nationals only won 83 games in a season many predicted 95-100. The Nationals had to be better in 2016 and while I did not predict that either of the three cellar dwellers would be playoff teams, improvement was a safe bet. The Braves (63-92) are on pace to match their 2015 record while the Phillies (70-86), Marlins (78-78), and Nationals (91-65) will all win eight to 10 more games this season. If three teams within your own division win 30 or more games this year than last it is going to be difficult for you to win the same amount or more. Some of those 30 are going to come out of the Mets hide and then there was their record outside the NL East.
The Mets (90-72) were 47-29, against their National League East division rivals while they were a combined 6-20 against the Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs and Giants, a few of the better teams on their 2015 schedule. They played .500 baseball outside the NL East and were 18 games above it inside it. They won their division because they dominated it and entering 2016 it was pretty clear to me that that was not going to be the case. If they struggled against the better teams on their schedule outside the division and the NL East was going to be a more difficult division to navigate in 2016 then wheat was the alternative path to 90 wins?
2. 2015-2016 Mets Off Season
Lets start with how their off season impacted this season. In 2015, the Mets ranked fourth in the National League in team ERA (3.43) and seventh in runs scored (683). In order for the Mets to match that record they had to find places where they could improve and the most room for improvement was on offense. What did they do? They re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and signed Asdrubal Cabrera, traded for Neil Walker and possibly the biggest non-move, they let their second best offensive player (Daniel Murphy) leave via free agency. They didn't add a meaningful piece to their bullpen or trade pitching depth for offensive or defensive upgrades or depth. I suspect they tried and we heard rumors that Dillon Gee and Jon Niese were both very much available, but they didn't succeed in an area that they had to. Entering 2016 with Cespedes scheduled for 75 to 120 starts in center field and Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, even though he is a defensive upgrade from Wilmer Flores, were not plans that were going to help the Mets win games purely on the defensive side of the ball. Neil Walker was a defensive upgrade from Daniel Murphy and while he had a solid 2016 season before his injury, fans should have expected an offensive downgrade and offense is not where the Mets could afford to be downgrading.
In house, the Mets had high hopes for rookie outfielder Michael Conforto after a successful taste of major league baseball in 2015 and first baseman Lucas Duda coming off back-to-back, 30 and 27 home run seasons. Rookies typically struggle with inconsistency and at best, traditionally, are replacement level players so expectations probably should have been conservative, but it was understandable for Mets fans to think they had two good batters here. However, David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were expected to play larger roles and while "larger" seemed like a safe expectation, predicting an NL East title relying on them was an act of Fantasy. Anything they provided the Mets was gravy and not the meat and potatoes of a championship season so this thought was misguided by any fans that were hanging their hats on them.
Lets look at the pitching, because it was the strength of the Mets roster entering 2016 and a key part of why it was unlikely that the Mets would meet expectations this season. I said it was a problem "because it was so good." They were fourth in ERA in 2015, so there wasn't a lot of room for meaningful improvement while some regression was possible and injuries have become the norm for the Mets organization.
Optimistic expectations had Zach Wheeler in the rotation by the fourth of July and Steven Matz throwing 175 healthy innings. They also had deGrom being deGrom and Harvey being something close to dominant and Syndergaard emerging as the Ace he looks like he could be. Most of these expectations aren't "silly talk," especially for deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard, but expectations for Matz and Wheeler had a whiff or implausibility.
Sabremetricians would scream that there is no evidence to support the thought, but too expect ALL of these things to go right felt to me like wishful thinking rather than responsible analysis and that's why the Mets chances of repeating their 2015 performance on the mound was unlikely. They were always going to be good, even very good, but to be AS good or possibly better this season than last, that was asking too much. Analysis should be conservative. You don't shoot for the moon.
Fast forwarding ahead to present day, after 159 games played, the Mets have pitched worse (3.48), scored less (659 runs scored) and won fewer games (85) than they did in 2015, but they are one and a half games ahead in the Wild Card standings as the Cardinals and Giants fold under the late season pressure. The division was a walk away for the Nationals and 90 wins is a mathematical impossibility for this years Mets.
Statistically, my predictions were all correct. The pitching staff has been very good with some regression, while the offense had to be significantly better to find those 90 or so wins and it wasn't. There was a chance the offense could have been slightly better rather than a little worse if Lucas Duda stayed healthy and Michael Conforto had a solid year rather than a wasted one. Even if both of those scenario's went the Mets way the offense wasn't going to score the 50-75 more runs they would have needed to match or improve on their 90 win 2015 season.
Now, lets get back to the division argument and see how my pre-season predictions fared.
The Mets have a losing record against the Nationals (7-12) and Braves (9-10) and a winning one against the Phillies (10-6) and Marlins (12-7) with three divisional games against the Phillies remaining to finish the season. Their divisional record as of September 29, is 38-35, three games above .500 as opposed to 18 games above in 2015. Best case scenario they are going to win at least 12 fewer games with the potential to win 15 fewer games in the division and they might still miss the playoffs.
The Mets have had a favorable final week schedule with six games, all on the road, against the Marlins, who are dealing with a personal tragedy that could galvanize or sink them and the Phillies who are 10-15 in September. They have a two and a half game lead on the Cardinals and a one and a half game lead on the Giants, with two spots between three teams up for grabs. The Cardinals have four home games, (1 vs. Reds and 3 vs. Pirates) while the Giants also have four home games (1 vs. Rockies and 3 vs Dodgers)
Why didn't the rest of the media see this like I did?
It appeared glaringly obvious to me in March and yet nobody agreed. I was criticized by readers and "twitterers" and looking back it seems pretty obvious my rational was sound. The one mitigating factor is that at the end of the day I predicted that the Mets would miss the playoffs and it looks now like they are going to get in, but I digress.
The foundation of my prediction was that they wouldn't be as good in the division, that they didn't do enough in the off season to get better and that there wasn't going to be enough improvement on offense for this team to meet or exceed their 2015 performance and I was correct on all of those predictions. I also argued that their pitching staff had little room to grow and some room to regress, which would only make the task even tougher for the Mets.
The playoffs are within reach for the Mets because the 2015 National League powers all had unexpectedly significant down years. The Giants are having the same year this year than last while the Pirates and Cardinals hemorrhaged enough victories for the Mets to swoop in and ride them to the playoffs. The Pirates are struggling to get to 80 wins while the Cardinals will likely make the playoffs if they can find a way to win 85. In 2015, the Pirates (98) and Cardinals (100) combined for 198 wins. That is as many as 35 fewer wins for two 2015 playoff teams in 2016. In 2015 the Chicago Cubs were the second Wild Card with 97 wins and the Giants missed it with 84. With four games to go the Mets have 85 wins. If this was 2015 the Mets season would have been over before the NFL season started. it was reasonable to think that the Cardinals wouldn't win 100 again and that the Pirates would regress from their phenomenal 98 win campaign, but for the Cardinals to possibly win 15 fewer games and the Pirates 20, thats well below what should have been reasonably expected and that is why the Mets are likely to make the playoffs.
The Mets future? Yoenis Cespedes is going to opt out and Mets fans know that Sandy Alderson and ownership is unlikely to make the significant financial investment needed to extend him with a big money contract in a poor free agent class. The Mets traded for Jay Bruce more as a hedge against losing Cespedes than to win the Wild Card. it serves both purposes, but, like the Red Sox trading a top prospect for Drew Pomeranz, team control was the deciding factor. The Mets might need pitching with all of the injury concerns in that organization and they definitely need to improve their centerfield and shortstop defense, but this free agent class is unlikely to provide that for them. The Mets desperately need offense on this team and that is the best argument for overpaying to keep Cespedes, but if they can find a plus defender and add offense at another position with the savings, the Mets will be better off going in that direction in 2017.
Terry Collins. it is common place in baseball for teams to win with bad tactical managers and to lose with good ones. Statistical models and Moneyball and the Ivy league brain trust that commonly occupy significant parts of baseball front offices these days aside, the Mets for the most part perform for Collins. The Nationals have performed for Dusty Baker and the Red Sox have for John Farrell even though they are widely consider two of the worst tactical managers in baseball, while the Giants are stumbling to the finish line for Bruce Bochy who might be the best Manager in the game.
Mike Scioscia has long been praised for his managing abilities (to my dismay and confusion) and the Angels are one of the worst teams with one of the best players in baseball. The Mets aren't the most talented team, on paper, in baseball and yet they did win 90 games and played in a World Series last year and could follow that up with a Wild Card birth this one. I think the Mets probably would be just as good if not better if Collins was golfing in 2017, but I don't think there is any evidence to confidently suggest that the Mets would absolutely be better.
Michael Conforto. The handling of Michael Conforto is baffling and it is an argument for the firing of Terry Collins. He was better than I expected in limited at bats in 2015, but 2016 has been a complete and utter disaster and that needs to be fixed. He has to be an above average full time player in order for the Mets to win in the future. He can't be a platoon against right handed pitching or a Triple-A afterthought like he was this season. Where they play him is going to continue to be a problem with Granderson, Bruce, and possibly Cespedes in the outfield and Duda at first base (a theoretical position change to get Conforto's bat in the lineup here), but he has to be a contributor for this team moving forward.
The Pitching Staff
Steven Matz: At this point you have to seriously consider putting him in the bullpen. The Mets aren't there yet, but it is at a point where contingency plans need to be firmly in place. Expecting 170-175 innings in 2016 was much too much and the same goes for 2017. The stuff is plus at its best, but he can't hold up and the next time it does will be the first.
The Mets need to have contingency plans and handle their entire staff the same way that they handle Matz's future. It's impossible to know what the Mets will have when they finish Spring Training and even more difficult to know how many innings they could get from Harvey, deGrom, Wheeler and at some point even Bartolo Colon has to show his age. It wouldn't surprise me if Noah Syndergaard had a physical setback in 2017 as well. We know he is pitching through a bone chip issue and he hasn't looked like the same guy after that was announced than he did in June or July. Free Agency isn't going to be the place to find these solutions so it will be interesting to see how they handle Cespedes and what they choose to spend their winter meetings money on.
I hated the Mets when they beat my Red Sox in '86 and I still twinge and twerk slightly when I see them now, but the fact is that I was fair and accurate in my analysis of them entering 2016. Will I be right about them in 2017? I will let you know when I write more on them in the coming months. Stay Tuned.
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