My belief going into 2019 was that the Nationals and Mets were both at the end of their contention windows – assuming they hadn’t reached them already. The former, of course, just won their first title in franchise history, dating back to their time in Montreal. The latter watched the playoffs from home for the third straight year.
I think it’s time we ripped the band-aid off and figured out how we got here.
Shockingly, the Mets 1-4 (deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler, Matz) managed to make at least 29 starts each, a feat the team hadn’t replicated since their pennant winning 2015 season. It was also the second year in a row they got 150+ innings from those guys. While their performances were a step back – they posted an ERA+ of 167, 102, 96, and 95 each, down from 218, 123, 112, and 94 the year prior – you’d gladly average 4 WAR across your 1-4 after that injury plagued 2016-18 stretch.
The Nationals, however, were even better. After losing 2 solid starters in Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, Mike Rizzo went out and signed Patrick Corbin to a 6yr, $140M contract. As their #3 starter (lol), he would return the favor by setting career highs in ERA+ (141) and rWAR (5.7), sitting behind Scherzer’s 5th straight sub-3 ERA season and Strasburg’s brilliant regular season (3.32 ERA in 209 IP) and post season (1.98 in 36.1 IP). Oh, and somehow 35 y/o Anibal Sanchez out-pitched every Mets starter not named Jacob deGrom? Yea. Can’t make this stuff up.
While Mets starters were 3rd in fWAR (behind only the Dodgers and Nats), their bullpen was 24th. No winning team ranked lower, and a combination of under-performance, injury, and lack of depth was to blame. Edwin Diaz, the centerpiece of a deal that cost the Mets 2 first round picks, pitched to a dreadful 5.59 ERA with blown saves in 21% of his opportunities. Familia was even worse (5.70 ERA), while Gsellman (4.66) and Avilan (5.06) were also liabilities. Lugo was their only healthy, quality reliever. After the injured Justin Wilson, their 7th man in the pen was a rotating cast of 16 AAAA relievers, combining for a laughable 6.23 ERA across 148 total appearances. Yikes.
In the Mets defense, the Nationals hardly built a winning bullpen. Their RPs combined for a 5.68 ERA, the worst mark in the NL. With guys like Matt Grace – 6.36 ERA over 51 (!) games – and failed reclamation projects in Barraclough (6.66 over 33) and Rosenthal (an insane 22.74 ERA) that’s hardly surprising. The difference is who they acquired: the trade for Daniel Hudson may have saved their regular season (1.44 ERA over 24 games) and got them to the World Series (4 saves over 6 games going into Houston). The Strickland and Elias trade was a bust, but grabbing Rodney off waivers in June was another smart depth move. In all, the Nats got over 180 IP from 5 guys who posted an ERA+ over 110 – the Mets had just 3, and about 60% of those 133.2 innings came from Lugo.
There’s a dark, alternate universe where Pete Alonso starts the season in AAA and Jeff McNeil is sent to Seattle in the Diaz/Cano trade. Given that they were the Mets 2 best hitters – by far – I’m very grateful we all live in Earth-One! Alongside them, Conforto put up another criminally underrated season (128 OPS+), JD Davis (while a defense liability) was even better, and Rosario (no longer a defensive liability!) took another big step forward. Their supporting cast combined to give the Mets a 104 wRC+, the 7th best mark in the Majors.
Yet again, though, the Nats had them beat. Rendon’s MVP-caliber season was only bested by Yelich and Bellinger in the NL, Soto matched Davis’ 138 OPS+ with far superior defense, Kendrick and Cabrera greatly over-performed with even better offensive marks, and guys like Robles, Turner, and Dozier rounded them out with strong defense and base-running. The Nats’ 1-9 was good for 8th best by fWAR, 3 slots above the Mets.
This Mets easily could have won their second pennant in 5 years. They very likely have the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year on their roster. They were incredibly gifted with the health of their rotation and the performance of guys like McNeil, Davis, and Smith. With all these things, they still fell 11 out of the division and 3 out of a play-in game.
While the Mets were trading prospects for Stroman and hedging their bets against the departure of Wheeler in 2020, the Nationals acquired 6 relivers to bolster their reeling bullpen. It seems unlikely that the Mets will target any big-name free agents this winter (as I noted over the summer), but its clear that a lack of pitching depth is what prevented the Mets from breaking a 33 year title drought.