Thursday, June 3, 2021

Why This June Is Different

The New York Mets opened their month of June with a bad loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. As I was wallowing a bit in the disappointment of the loss, the thought crossed my mind "this reminds me so much of awful losses from previous Junes." When you're talking, writing, or even thinking about the baseball club you root for, it's often tempting to lean on simplistic narratives like that one.

For instance, long-time Mets fans like myself remember the 1986 Mets fondly, not only for the championship they won but also for their legendary toughness and grittiness. Likewise, many fans dismiss the 2006-2008 edition of the club — which fell short the first year and collapsed the other two — as soft. That's a tag often hung on the club's biggest star Carlos Beltran in particular, defining an entire 7-year run with the Mets with his reaction to a single curveball.

Of course, easy narratives tend to ignore all other facts that don't quite fit the storyline. The grittiness of the 1986 club didn't help much in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, or 1990, when the club lost their division and missed the playoffs. It also didn't help in 1988 when they came up short against an inferior Dodgers team. It wasn't for lack of grittiness that they failed to win championships in those other years. Injuries, bad luck, or running into another team that's just playing really well can cancel out grittiness. That's why it's so hard to win a championship.

Carlos Beltran may have taken a called third strike to end the 2006 NLCS, but I doubt the Mets would have even been there without their star centerfielder. What really sunk the Mets that year, and what led to the collapses of the next two seasons, was a very imperfect roster that was especially lacking in starting pitching. The Mets rode their bullpen into the playoffs in 2006, but it was an exhausted, overused bullpen by the NLCS. The starting pitching was worse in 2007 without Pedro Martinez, and even Johan Santana wasn't enough to patch all of the holes in 2008. The bullpen wasn't as good as 2006, and much more tired.

They were a flawed team during that stretch, with the most glaring flaw being that they didn't have the starting pitching needed to be a legit contender. They didn't have that because the Wilpons and Omar Minaya elected to roll the dice and go for it without the foundation necessary to build upon. The Mets farm system offered little to build upon when Minaya took over. In hindsight, the right move would have been to build the farm system up, as they finally tried to do when Minaya was fired. A perceived lack of toughness on the part of Beltran or any of the other Mets position players was an easy narrative for a very complex problem.

If the Mets clubs of 1984-1990 had a common flaw, they weren't as fundamentally solid as the teams they were competing against. In 1986, they were so damned good that didn't matter. When the competition was closer to their level, it mattered more. Still, they could easily have added more titles to that 1986 championship with a couple of breaks. And a couple of breaks could have won a title for the 2006 Mets, even with all of their flaws. There were no great teams in the 2006 playoffs.

Circling back to the present day, I'm not worried about the Mets having a bad June because it's some sort of curse. I'm worried because they're still undermanned and likely to remain that way throughout the month. I think it's a concern that 7 of their next 9 games are against the 34-23 Padres, and the 4 after that are against the 32-23 Cubs. It's not that I don't believe the Mets can compete against those 2 clubs, but I understand their margin of error is lower when playing games against good teams. As mentioned in my last post, the Mets are a dismal 2-10 against clubs over .500 so far.

If they are to make that number more respectable, they will need to play better and catch a few breaks. Neither of those things happened in Chicago this April against the Cubs, and the result was a sweep. It's going to make for a bad June if this happens against the Padres and Cubs.

The Mets are a better team than they were in April, but they're also missing key players who aren't coming back soon. Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, and J. D. Davis are not returning in the next couple of weeks. Honestly, at this point, I'll be happy if most of them make it back by the end of the month.

We know Noah Syndergaard won't be back until August at the earliest. Meanwhile, the whole Carlos Carrasco thing is puzzling. The dude hurt his hamstring on March 18. Two-and-a-half months later, and he's not even doing any baseball activities? Either the original injury or the reinjury must have been more serious than originally reported. As it is, at his press conference on May 24, Zack Scott gave a return date for Carrasco of "late June or early July." The right-hander's return keeps trending later each time there's an update.

After David Peterson failed to get a second out in his game yesterday, manager Luis Rojas gave the young lefty a vote of confidence. Perhaps this reflects Rojas' true feelings about Peterson. Still, it's just as likely to be an acknowledgment of a reality where the Mets have 3 starting pitchers they can depend upon and a whole slew of doubleheaders on the schedule. When Carrasco does return, it will be a big shot in the arm. For now, however, Rojas and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner will have to figure it out with what they have.

The bullpen has been leaned on quite hard recently, and the dense schedule the Mets will be playing this month isn't going to lighten the load. From June 11-30, the Mets will be playing 22 games in 20 days. There is one scheduled off-day on June 24. The Mets' next scheduled off-day after that is July 12, the first day of the All-Star break. This will be a test of their pitching depth and how well Rojas and Hefner — and the front office, of course — can manage their relievers.

It's going to be crucial to get their best guys some rest, even if it means occasionally risking the ire of fans by using some of the lesser relievers in key spots. Of course, the flip side of that is that they need to win games. So the real test will be day in, day out, making good choices with reliever usage.

For instance, say you have a 4-run lead in the seventh inning. The temptation might be to bring in Miguel Castro for the second day in a row to hold that lead into the eighth. But maybe the smarter move is to try to get by with Jacob Barnes and possibly have Castro for the next game when you might have a slim 1-run lead. It's going to take some smart, careful decision-making to ensure that the Mets don't overuse their best relievers in this next month-and-a-half. Failure to get it right is likely to lead to tired relievers, with the consequences being injuries and/or ineffectiveness.

Despite all of the injuries, the Mets enjoy a much stronger foundation than they had in Junes gone by. It doesn't guarantee a good month, but it sure increases the odds of success. They could use some luck, both in the games and with player health. They also need David Peterson and Joey Luchessi to pitch more consistently when called upon.

It would be great if Robert Gsellman can continue as an effective long man out of the 'pen. Every good bullpen needs an unsung hero.

A big reason why the Mets were able to survive a paper-thin rotation back in 2006 was the veteran Darren Oliver, used in long relief in situations such as the one in yesterday's Diamondbacks game. Oliver, a former starter, came into a game where the starter departed early and saved the bullpen with an effective multi-inning outing, keeping the Mets in the game. One reason that the bullpen was less effective in 2007 than the previous year was the decision to cheap out on re-signing Oliver. They inked Aaron Sele instead, but that cost-saving measure failed when Sele performed at a much lower level than Oliver. Never underestimate what a good long reliever brings to a bullpen.

I think maybe I came across as more pessimistic than I meant to be in my previous post. Make no mistake, the stretch from now until the All-Star break represents a significant challenge for this club. But I do believe they can survive that challenge and, if they do, be in excellent shape to make a run at the playoffs this season. What they can't afford to do, which happened in their previous June swoons, is to let a bad game or bad series snowball into an extended stretch of bad play.

I think that many pundits overrated the Atlanta Braves this season, falling back on the tired "team culture" justification. To me, it was inexcusable for that club not to go all-in on adding to their successful club. Instead, the moves they made put them in a weaker position, which has shown up so far. For all of that, the Braves still have a ton of talent. They're unlikely to be a sub-.500 team on the year. I'd be shocked if they didn't make a run at the division at some point this summer. 

The Phillies, Nationals, and Marlins are all flawed teams. I think the Phillies lack the depth to make a real run, the Nationals are past their window and need to retool, and the Marlins need to add to their young core to be a true contender. Still, any of those clubs can catch lightning in a bottle and approach 90 wins. We often see in a jam-packed division like the 2021 NL East that one team catches fire and takes off. With some breaks, all 3 of these clubs have the pitching to do that. 

My point is that you can't look at the current state of the NL East and expect the other 4 clubs to all lose more games than they win over the entire season. My guess is that the Braves and Phillies both are better than that. I think the Marlins are at least a year away, and the Nats need to sell at the deadline and retool. But the future often holds surprises.

I honestly think the Division is the Mets for the taking if they can navigate the challenges that June presents. For the first time in several years, I look at this month with anticipation rather than a sense of impending doom. They'll need a bit of luck, some smart decision-making, and the continued upward-trending performances of Francisco Lindor, James McCann, and Dom Smith. Pete Alonso needs to keep raking and stay healthy. Same with the — dare I say — gritty Kevin Pillar. And we certainly need some more of the IL contingent to make their way back.

But I like these 2021 Mets, despite the obstacles being tossed in their way. When the Mets imploded in previous Junes, it was really just the structural weaknesses of those clubs being exposed by the length of a real baseball season. It was a reflection of the cheapness and short-sightedness of ownership. It was about an organization that was always willing to put making a splashy move above accomplishing the hard, often unheralded, behind-the-scenes grunt work necessary to build a winner.

The Mets are a better, smarter organization than in 2018 and 2019, the last two seasons where baseball was played in June. I mentioned in my last post how the enhanced analytics crew has the Mets shifting more and in a better position defensively in general. This, in turn, has led to much better defensive numbers. It also has led to the pitchers, starters and relievers, trusting their defense more. And this has contributed to more successful pitching.

The Mets aren't perfect, of course, but the club has put together a better roster of players and handed those players better tools with which to compete. It doesn't guarantee a successful month of June, but it sure as hell makes it more likely. In previous years, the Mets were often at the mercy of mistakes made far away from the playing field. This year, it really is in their hands. Let's go Mets!

Please be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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