Are these Mets different? Why Buck Showalter and company are better suited to run the Braves

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On June 16, 2021, the New York Mets defeated the Chicago Cubs and moved to a season high of 11 games above .500. They were also sitting on a 5½ game lead in the NL East, the only team to live up to expectations in a confusing divisional tie.

But during that match, world ace Jacob deGrom left with a sore shoulder.

We know how things went from there. The Mets returned to the pack, the Atlanta Braves redid their outfield at the trade UKTN. The Mets finished third in the division at 77-85, then fired manager Luis Rojas and eventually interim general manager Zack Scott after a DUI charge (on which he was later found not guilty). The Braves won the World Series.

A year later, the Mets find themselves clinging to the top spot once again as the slow-starting, hard-charging Braves close in.

Everything about this team is different. For starters, that’s 21 games above .500, the best record in the National League rather than the de facto leaders of a lackluster division. They’ve also done it without deGrom setting foot on a regular-season mound, and have managed to hang on for a month so far without the marquee signing Max Scherzer. On the top step of the dugout, they have Buck Showalter at the helm, a seemingly telling change in leadership that has made the 2022 Mets feel competent in a way few recent editions have.

But this being the Mets, and the NL East being the NL East, there would always be a stress test. The Braves started June on a 15-game winning streak, which finally ended on Friday. A 10.5 game lead fell to 6.5.

So the specter of past summers hovers. Are the Mets going to be the guy to fall flat against The Freeze (again), or is this team really different?

Is it Buck or is it luck?

It’s been a turbulent year for MLB’s old managerial guard. Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon were fired from piloting their respective poorly constructed starships, and Tony La Russa’s Chicago White Sox faltered frustratingly enough that some fans were singing for him to be fired.

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Showalter hadn’t been successful since 2018 when the Mets picked him up this winter, but his grounded seriousness and attention to detail were hailed as transformational.

Perhaps no franchise needed a steady hand in the skipper’s office more than the Mets. For the previous four seasons under new managers Mickey Callaway and Rojas, this team was breathtakingly prone to chaos. A lot of the reason to feel positive about Showalter’s handling of the team has nothing to do with how he handles the team. Just by being high profile, he brings a relief that previous managers haven’t. Like a grandfather’s lightning rod, it absorbs or deflects considerable external energy directed at the team instead of sending it through the clubhouse.

In other words, even if the Mets fail in the playoffs again, maybe they won’t publicly embarrass themselves along the way. That would count as progress, unfortunately.

But that’s not the real goal.

Armed with the second-largest payroll in the sport, owner Steve Cohen and the Mets faithful expect to play in October.

Attributing a team’s success to a manager, or projecting its future success based on a manager, is largely a wild ride in 2022. Major league managers don’t stack the cards in a house in the modern game – front offices do. Their job is to watch, to navigate the heat of the moment without pulling out a critical card. To guard against collapse.

There’s reason to believe that Showalter diverged from previous regimes on this front as well.

Mets manager Buck Showalter had the team in first place in June, but that hasn’t been the problem in recent seasons. (UKTN Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The defining moment of his tenure in Baltimore — leaving Zack Britton in the bullpen as Ubaldo Jimenez lost the 2016 AL wildcard game — was a clear mistake. But it was still unfair to judge his overall acumen or his management of the bullpen on this game.

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During his run in Baltimore before the front office blew him up, the Orioles had one of the best bullpen in the league – landing a park-adjusted ERA top five from 2010 to 2017 and winning more games than any other relief corps.

When it comes to when to use your best reliever, Showalter has clearly moved on and said so in an interview with The Athletic. In recent weeks, he has twice deployed closer to Edwin Diaz in the eighth inning to take on the heart of the opposing order.

Showalter has retained a particular trademark: it goes to great lengths to avoid using relievers on consecutive days. Between 2010 and 2017, only one team fielded fewer relievers on zero days off than its Orioles. In 2022, only two teams have managed to avoid more back-to-backs than the Mets.

It’s not inherently a positive thing, but it’s a sign of strategic thinking well suited to a long season where new enclosure restrictions could potentially be put in place.

And it took concerted effort. The pitching staff has not been the strength of the team, nor a beacon of health. Scherzer and Tylor Megill ran out of time. Chris Bassitt and Carlos Carrasco were solid but occasionally stepped on a landmine. Showalter likely sacrificed some runs – and some overall numbers – in favor of long-term protection.

It will become more difficult. It’s getting harder and harder these days. Especially if Scherzer and deGrom don’t regain their health, reinforcements will be needed.

But mostly, these Mets actually seem inclined to prioritize depth.

Off-season investments pay off for Mets roster

If you really want to dig into a reason why this Mets team might rise above the shadow of recent meltdowns, you have to start with roster depth.

On the day deGrom fell in 2021, injuries had already stripped the Mets outfield of some major leaguers. Players who appeared in the outfield that day were Dominic Smith (a first baseman, ideally), Kevin Pillar, Billy McKinney and Mason Williams. For a competing team, these should be the fourth outfielders, not the four outfielders.

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This offseason, the Mets and new general manager Billy Eppler invested in cohesive and strong major leagues when they brought in Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. This made Robinson Cano redundant, JD Davis a bench bat, and Smith a minor leaguer, for now.

The outfield, where a team can and should prioritize offense, has been a constant source of base runners. The Mets outfielders have a MLB-leading .356 on-base percentage this year after ranking 23rd with a .317 OBP in 2021. They propelled the Mets roster to the top of the overall on-base standings and contributed the feeling that the team is never short of games.

These are the points hit by Pete Alonso, who is heading into a potential career year. As deGrom and Alonso can attest, it’s never a lack of top talent that dooms the Mets. It’s a lack of structural integrity.

There are still obvious areas for improvement. Even with James McCann on the way back from injury, the Mets could improve their receiver situation. They will almost certainly need reinforcement in the rotation and in the bullpen. Given the positional flexibility of Jeff McNeil and Luis Guillorme, they could add a useful bat almost anywhere without qualms.

By one clear indicator of success, the handshake, the Mets offense is among the best in the league. On another, hitting home runs, they’re mediocre. With the weather warming up and the balls flying further, the Mets may need to strike a more balanced balance to hold onto their advantage.

To stay ahead of the Braves, they may need to do all of the above. Preseason projections are even more predictive than results so far, and preseason projections have seen a toss up between the Mets and Braves.

Now the Mets are in a strong position to make the expanded playoff field anyway — their odds are 95.4%, according to FanGraphs — but truly marking a new era in Queens means being strong until the end. . It means to finish first.

As the Mets well know, getting to mid-June first is only a good start if that pace can be sustained.

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