In today's edition of Hit and Run, Jay Jaffe takes a look at the Mets' newly-explosive offense and the return to form of Kris Medlen with Kansas City.
1. Potent offense driving Mets
Earlier this season, the Mets' lack of punch made for a daily punch line even as their strong rotation kept their postseason hopes alive. Suddenly, however, their revamped lineup is steamrolling opponents as the team opens up a sizable NL East lead. In Monday night's 16–7 drubbing of the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, they took things to the extreme, setting franchise records for homers (eight) and extra-base hits (15) and perhaps catharsis, as measured by the combination of joy and relief unleashed by David Wright's towering home run in his first big-league plate appearance since April 14.
Wright's homer came after the Phillies' Ryan Howard clubbed a three-run shot off Jacob deGrom, and even after Juan Lagares added a solo homer in the third to counter that of Cameron Rupp, Philadelphia opened up a 7–2 lead in the bottom of the third via another three-run homer, courtesy of Domonic Brown. From there, however, the Mets scored 14 unanswered runs via a pair of homers by Wilmer Flores plus additional ones by Travis d'Arnaud, Michael Cuddyer, Daniel Murphy and Yoenis Cespedes; d'Arnaud also contributed a two-run double and Lagares an RBI single. Via the Elias Sports Bureau, the 10 different players homering for the two teams set a major league record, while the combined total of 11 homers was the most in a major league game since June 18, 2006, when the Cubs and Tigers combined for 11 at Wrigley Field.
Meanwhile, the Mets' 16-run output set a season high, bettering the 15 runs they scored against the Dodgers on July 25. It was the third time in four games and fifth time this month that the Mets reached double digits in scoring, something they did just twice in their first 97 games, through July 24. The 49 runs they've scored over their past four games has only been topped twice in franchise history, once in 1990 (50 runs) and once in 2011 (52 runs). Suddenly, they’re a real-life version of the Gas-House Gorillas, with an offense that resembles a conga line:
That July 24 date may mark the turning point of Mets' season. Prior to that night's 7–2 loss to the Dodgers, general manager Sandy Alderson finally placed a gimpy Cuddyer—who had been limited to six starts and 31 plate appearances over the previous 18 games—on the disabled list due to a bone bruise in his left knee and recalled 2014 first-round pick Michael Conforto, who made his debut in the lineup that night but went hitless as the team fell to 48–47. Via that loss, the Mets' season-to-date offensive output fell to 3.41 runs per game, the lowest it had been since April 13, when they had just seven games under their belts. Lineups like their July 20 one against the Nationals, which featured Anthony Recker at catcher, Eric Campbell at first base and John Mayberry Jr. in leftfield, looked like the travel team for a split-squad spring training game.
After the July 24 loss, the Mets announced that the had also swung a trade with the Braves, acquiring both Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson for a pair of minor leaguers. Both were in uniform the next night, with Conforto going 4-for-4, Johnson homering and Uribe collecting his first hit as a Met as well. Including that win, the Mets have gone 19–8, tied for the NL's second-best record in that span, and they’ve turned a three-game deficit in the NL East race into a season-high 5 1/2-game lead over the Nationals. Thanks to the acquisition of Cespedes from the Tigers just moments before the July 31 non-waiver deadline—the culmination of a crazy 48 hours that saw a deal for Carlos Gomez scuttled—the revamped offense has cranked out 6.11 runs per game as the team has outscored opponents by 66 runs, or 2.44 per game.
Granted, a significant chunk of that outburst has come at the expense of the hapless Rockies, whom the Mets outscored 56–24 while going 7–0, but the team also went 6–4 against the Dodgers, Orioles, Nationals and Pirates. They escaped with a four-game split against Los Angeles, split a pair in Baltimore and swept their division rivals, but dropped three to Pittsburgh. They all count, however, and as measured by the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, their chances at reaching the postseason have more than doubled in that span, from 41.8% through July 24 to 88.4% today.
Cespedes has been the most impactful of their additions. He's hit .312/.354/.570 with six homers since the trade, good for a 152 OPS+, and collected a three-homer game on Friday in Colorado. Conforto has hit .270/.365/.508 with three homers and a 140 OPS+, well ahead of Cuddyer's .255/.307/.391 (93 OPS+) showing. Neither Uribe (.175/.241/.413 with five homers) nor Johnson (.210/.258/.371) have lit up scoreboards to the same extent, but both have collected big hits, and their offensive performances have nonetheless trumped the 62 OPS+ provided by Campbell, who was optioned to Triple A when the pair was acquired; likewise for their glove work, at least via the small sample defensive metrics.
The holdovers have more than done their parts as well. Lucas Duda hit nine home runs in an eight-game span from July 25 to Aug. 2, though a small thoracic disc herniation landed him on the DL on Saturday. D'Arnaud has hit .246/.329/.523 with four homers since returning from a six-week absence due to a left elbow sprain, and Flores (.338/.372/.595 with four homers), Curtis Granderson (.283/.366/.594 with eight homers), Murphy (.337/.357/.596 with five homers) and Lagares (.333/.364/.588) have helped make the lineup one where opposing pitchers can hardly catch a breather. The return of Wright, who missed four months due to a hamstring strain and then a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, should help as well, but he doesn’t have to carry the team; instead, he only has to supplement the suddenly supercharged offense.
It's a remarkable turnaround in all, one that has pushed the Mets' scoring to exactly 4.0 runs per game (ninth in the league), and one that—particularly this past week—has shown that the team can win even when deGrom and company have an off night. The Mets aren’t going to keep putting up football-like scores in such routine fashion, but the days of punch lines related to the offense are over in Queens.
2. Medlen shines for Royals
Though they have the AL's best record, the Royals' rotation remains the team's most vulnerable spot, even after the pre-deadline addition of Johnny Cueto. On Monday, the team showed off their latest upgrade, as two-time Tommy John surgery recipient Kris Medlen made his first regular-season start in nearly 23 months and offered some hope that he can provide an additional lift.
Facing the Orioles in Kansas City, the 29-year-old Medlen survived a shaky first inning in which he served up a leadoff double to Manny Machado and then a homer to Adam Jones two batters later. From there, however, he yielded just two more singles and an RBI double by Steve Clevenger. He needed just 69 pitches to get through six innings, striking out six without a walk. The Royals' offense, which managed just one run over the first five frames, erupted for seven runs in the sixth, chasing Ubaldo Jimenez and going on to win 8–3.
The 29-year-old Medlen, who was drafted and developed by the Braves, emerged as one of the NL's top pitchers in the span between his first Tommy John surgery in August 2010 and his second in March 2014. After 38 relief appearances in the first four months of the '12 season, he joined Atlanta's rotation and posted a 0.97 ERA with an 8.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 12 late-season starts, a performance so good that manager Fredi Gonzalez tabbed him to start the NL Wild-Card Game against the Cardinals. The Braves lost that game, but in '13, Medlen helped the team to an NL East flag, posing a 3.11 ERA, 3.48 FIP and 3.3 WAR in 31 starts and one relief appearance totaling 197 innings. Last year's elbow injury wasn't the only reason the team sank out of contention for the first time since '08, but it didn't help.
Though he made just $5.8 million in 2014 and still had one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, the Braves non-tendered Medlen last December. He soon signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Royals, one that includes the opportunity to earn an additional $10 million in incentives in '15–16, with a $1 million buyout on a $10 million mutual option for '17 as well. As his $2 million base salary for this year suggests, Kansas City signed him with the expectation that he wouldn't have an immediate impact, and that he likely wouldn't even join the team until after the All-Star break. That allowed Medlen to rehab at a slower pace, in line with the evolving protocol for second-time TJ recipients.
Medlen joined the Royals after the All-Star break and made seven appearances out of the bullpen, thee of which were at least three innings, helping him to build up his pitch count; only in his debut, when he was cuffed for four runs in 3 1/3 innings, was he scored upon, so he came into Monday riding an 11-inning scoreless streak. For what it's worth, the average velocity on his four-seam fastball (92.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball) was his highest in any start since May 7, 2013, while that of his sinker (92.6 mph) was his highest in any of his 62 regular-season starts.
Medlen's start pushed Jeremy Guthrie out of the rotation, something manager Ned Yost clearly had reservations about doing despite Guthrie's 5.65 ERA through 23 starts. Including that work, the unit's 4.27 ERA ranks 11th in the league, their 4.32 FIP 12th, their 44% quality-start rate 14th. Cueto (3.00 ERA, 2.93 FIP) has been strong in his five starts, and Edinson Volquez (3.40 ERA, 3.73 FIP) has been the team's most consistent starter, showing that last year’s rebound in Pittsburgh was no fluke. On the other hand, Danny Duffy (4.18 ERA, 4.59 FIP) and Yordano Ventura (4.64 ERA, 3.94 FIP) have both underachieved, with the former missing time due to biceps tendinitis and the latter struggling to the point of being briefly optioned to Triple A. Jason Vargas's torn ulnar collateral ligament granted him a reprieve from a minor-league stint, however, and Ventura has delivered four quality starts out of six since, matching his total through his first 16 starts.
With a 13-game lead in the AL Central, the Royals don't need Medlen to carry them into the playoffs, but they could certainly use another option for their postseason rotation. With a few more starts like that of Monday night, you can expect to see him in October.