After a franchise-best 10-1 start, even modest success puts the 2018 New York Mets in the thick of a playoff race.
Sometimes things can change in an instant. A little over a week ago, questions surrounded the New York Mets entering a new season under brand new manager, Mickey Callaway, who had never managed a major league game.
The Mets had gone just 10-18 in Grapefruit League play and there was a sense of uncertainty as the Mets took the field against the Cardinals on March 29 at Citi Field.
The starter they brought in as a free agent to bolster their rotation was on the disabled list, joined by their starting center fielder. The first baseman coming off back surgery barely hit in the spring and the bullpen was in flux.
They then proceeded to win two of three against the Cardinals, sweep the Phillies at home, then do the same in Washington and Miami, resulting in a six-game road winning streak.
Now, all of a sudden, the Mets are unlikely but legitimate playoff contenders and Mickey Callaway looks like the greatest managerial genius since John McGraw.
Everything has gone right for the Mets.
They haven’t needed Jason Vargas or any fifth starter due to scheduling, Michael Conforto is back a month earlier than expected and hitting. Adrian Gonzalez has won a game with a grand slam.
The bullpen has been a pillar of strength, led in part by two former starters, rookie Jacob Rhame, who earned his first MLB save and the briefly banished Hansel Robles, who replaced new acquisition Anthony Swarzak, hurt in just his second outing of the year.
.500 ball gets Mets to 85 wins.
— Metrbocker (@metrbocker) April 11, 2018
No, that kind of luck won’t last.
Frankly, it doesn’t need to. This start has given the Mets something every team covets—breathing room and a mathematical advantage. This start has not only given them momentum but placed the law of averages and numbers on their side.
Even if they Mets play just .500 baseball the for the rest of the season, they would finish with an 84-78 record, which would amount to a 14-game improvement over last year’s 70-92 ballclub.
That might not be enough to make it to October, but that pace put them right in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Entering play Wednesday, FanGraphs projected the team to play .519 baseball the rest of the way, finishing the season 87-75. That works out to a 78-74 record through the end of the regular season. It’d also be, per their projections, the fourth-best record in the NL and result in a playoff game being played at Citi Field.
As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs notes, the Mets have already increased their projected win total by 4.5 games and their playoff odds by 24 percent. Currently, the Mets have a two-in-three chance (66.6 percent) of making it to the playoffs in some fashion and about a one-in-two chance (50 percent) of making it to the Division Series.
In other words, from an analytics perspective, the Mets playoff picture has markedly shifted in a little over a week.
Albeit, it is just 11 games into the season. Projections are just that and prognostications are to be taken with a grain of salt. But the reality is that the Mets have put themselves in prime position to, at the very least, battle for a playoff spot.
This hot start has been crucial not only in the fact that it has given this club and its new skipper an air of optimism and given the Mets an early lead in the National League East, but it has set them up to be in contention even under modest circumstances.
This is not a perfect team. Who knows if Gonzalez, 35, will hold up for example, or how Matt Harvey, who has thrown one gem and one stinker will fare the rest of the way.
That said, if the Mets can manage to merely win as much as they lose over the next two-and-a-half months they will be in contention and a position to improve their roster by addressing weaknesses at the trade deadline.
Twice before the Mets began the year 8-1. In 1985 they won 98 games and finished in second place, which would earn them a playoff spot under the current format. In 2006 they won 97 games, a division title and came within one game of the World Series.
A more recent example of how a good start can serve a team well, even if mediocre play ensues thereafter, is the 2015 season.
While the Mets late-season run is the capstone of the team’s run to an NL East title, the 2015 Mets got off to a 9-3 start and went 15-8 in April. They entered May with a 4.5 game lead in the National League East, though that lead would evaporate. Injuries and poor offense plagued them in the middle months as they fell to a season-low 41-41 on July 4, 3.5 games behind the first place Nationals.
However, it was their solid start that allowed them to stay in contention despite their struggles and put them in a strategic position to better the ballclub. They went out and addressed their needs, getting Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard and, of course, Yoenis Cespedes at the July trade deadline.
Eventually, it would be that club that won the NL East and made it all the way to the World Series.
Now, only a brief sliver into the season, the Mets have put themselves in a similar position, where even if they merely tread water they will likely be in contention. If they are in the thick of a playoff race, they also would be inclined to supplement the roster and acquire the personnel necessary to put them over the top, as did they in 2015.
Already the halo of perfection has disappeared, and the Mets have suffered their first major injury of 2018, with Travis d’Arnaud, half of their catching tandem, suffering a partially torn UCL. If Kevin Plawecki is unable to pick up the slack on his own, the Mets could be in a position to go out and acquire help behind the plate.
The Mets are unlikely to remain the dominant juggernaut they have been through the first 11 games of the 2018 season. It’s possible, but far more likely that they come back down to earth.
The questions surrounding this club are still the same but seeing their playoff aspirations realized has become a distinct possibility.