Mets' moment in the sun may not last
Johan Santana's no-hitter on Friday night was the biggest story of the Mets' weekend, given both the pitcher's comeback and the franchise's lack of a no-no in its first half century, but Saturday and Sunday were pretty good, too. Behind R.A. Dickey's shutout on Saturday and Jon Niese's career-high 10 strikeouts on Sunday, the Mets held the Cardinals — who came into the series as the NL's highest-scoring team — to one run in the first three games of their four-game wraparound series that concludes Monday afternoon. In doing so, they moved into a three-way tie atop the NL East.
They shouldn't get too comfortable there.
Even by beating the Cardinals by a combined score of 19-1, the Mets' run differential for the season is −6 runs; they've been outscored 245-239, though their record is 31-23. No team in either league has outdistanced their expected (Pythagorean) record by a wider margin than their 5.1 wins, or posted a better winning percentage in one- and two-run games than their .727 (on a 16-6 record). And perhaps none has outdistanced its preseason expectations than the team that began the year under one of the darkest financial clouds in recent memory, not to mention the indignity of losing free agent Jose Reyes, the franchise's marquee player, to the division-rival Marlins.
Despite the weekend's lockdown of the NL's top offense, run prevention has been the Mets' weak spot. Their 4.54 runs per game allowed is the league's third-worst, but that's not all on the pitching staff. Rather, their ranking parallels their 14th-ranked defensive efficiency (their rate of turning batted balls into outs); their .676 mark is 14 points below the league average. That showing may reflect the cost of making offense-first decisions at second base (Daniel Murphy) or having them made for them by injuries (Kirk Nieuwenhuis for Andres Torres in centerfield, several players for Ruben Tejada at shortstop). Fortunately, the staff's 8.2 strikeouts per nine is third in the league, minimizing the number of balls in play, and their other peripherals are closer to average.
The rotation has been better than expected, buoyed by the return of Santana (2.38 ERA, 9.0 strikeouts per nine) and sterling work from Dickey (2.69 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per nine, and a league-best 91 percent quality start rate), both of which have helped offset the loss of Mike Pelfrey to Tommy John surgery. Niese (9.0 K/9 and Dillon Gee (8.1 K/9) have both missed bats as well, but inflated home run rates have driven their ERAs above 4.00. In all, the unit's 61 percent quality start rate is tied for fourth, while their Fair Run Average (runs per nine, adjusted for defense and bullpen support) is seventh at 4.34.
The bullpen has been the bigger problem; its 4.60 Fair Run Average ranks 13th, as does its 35 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. That said, closer Frank Francisco hasn't been as bad as his 5.82 ERA suggests; he has converted 14 of 16 save opportunities despite being scorched for a .383 BABIP, and his FRA is just 2.64. He's one of four Mets relievers with a BABIP above .350, along with Manny Acosta, Ramon Ramirez and Bobby Parnell.
On the other side of the ball, even given injuries to Torres and Jason Bay — two-thirds of their starting outfield — and a dreadful slump from Ike Davis, the offense's 4.43 runs per game ranks fourth in the NL. That's driven by a .336 on-base percentage, the league's third-best mark — itself a combination of a .323 batting average on balls in play (fifth in the league, nine points above average) and an 8.4 percent unintentional walk rate (both tops in the league); meanwhile, their .392 slugging percentage is 10th. In other words, it's patience and a bit of hit-'em-where-they-ain't luck, particularly with runners in scoring position, where their .264/.359/.409 line has been good for the league's third-best OPS, helped along by a .319 BABIP, 34 points above average in that situation.
Leading the offensive charge has been David Wright, who ranks second in the National League in on-base percentage (.468), third in batting average (.363), and eighth in slugging percentage (.581) — marks much closer to his career line (.303/.384/.511) than last year's disappointing performance (.254/.345/.427), which wasn't helped by his missing two months with a stress fracture in his back. His 3.1 Wins Above Replacement Player is not only second in the league, it's more than three times the value of last season's mark.
Wright has gotten the most help from Nieuwenhuis (.301/.366/.405), Murphy (.307/.359/.390), and shortstop Ruben Tejada (.305/.362/.400), little of it expected at the outset. Nieuwenhuis, a 24-year-old rookie, has filled in admirably for Torres and Bay, first after the former strained a quad on opening day and missed more than three weeks, and then after the latter broke a rib when he tried to make a diving catch on April 24. Manager Terry Collins will have to find Nieuwenheis playing time once Bay (.240/.316/.460) returns from a rehab assignment, perhaps as soon as this weekend. Tejada is on the DL as well due to a quad strain, but the oft-injured Murphy has been a lineup mainstay, starting 49 games (tied for the team high with Wright).
One way that Collins could fit Bay and Nieuwenhuis into the lineup would be to bench or farm out Davis, who is hitting just .166/.230/.284, and to play rightfielder Lucas Duda at first base. The book appears to be out on the 25-year-old Davis, who was limited to 36 games last year due to an ankle injury; he's seeing fewer fastballs than any hitter this side of Bryce Harper, and is flailing at breaking balls outside of the strike zone as he struggles to control his long swing. A minor league stint would appear to be in order (he has options remaining), and while Collins has said the team has no plans to ship him out, the brass may have to reconsider. Such a move could help the defense as well, since a variety of defensive metrics agree that Davis has been subpar at first, while Duda has been brutal in the outfield. The Mets' run differential and record in close games both suggest the team's ride at or near the top of the NL East will eventually come to an end. Even after St. Louis leaves town their next 18 games come against teams with winning records, namely the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Reds and Orioles. But for a team that most expected to finish the year in the basement, and perhaps up for sale, this weekend's triumphs are worth savoring.