The Mets aren’t bad unless you’re a strict constructionist who sees a team with more losses than wins as definitively not good. Nineteen wins against twenty-one defeats is sub-.500. It doesn’t look great in isolation (or when you pull the 19-21 apart and notice the Mets are 8-14 against teams currently above .500).
Within the context of how the 2011 season has unfolded, however, it’s damn good. When the Mets were 5-13, it felt highly unlikely that we’d be watching a team that was about to post almost the National League’s best record from that point forward, up to and including this very moment.
From April 21 through May 14:
Surely that’s encouraging. It’s a better trend than that we were riding before. But it’s also a trend. Seasons are comprised of trends. We’ve already seen several in 2011, as broken down by bundles of wins and losses:
As fans, we are entitled to grow overjoyed/disgusted with every twist and turn the schedule takes. Still, when the bottom line after 40 games is 19-21, or just about even, we might want to go with “not bad…not great” since there’s no guarantee that the latest upward trend is the definitive one.
A quarter of the season theoretically seems like a reasonable sample from which to draw conclusions about the overall direction of where 2011 will go. But that’s probably just theory. Consider not just how much the year thus far has twisted and turned in terms of winning and losing, but how the composition of the team keeps resetting itself.
• Josh Thole was the everyday catcher. Now he’s more or less in a platoon with Ronny Paulino.
• Ike Davis was the everyday first baseman. He got hurt.
• Daniel Murphy was a man without a position. Then he became the part-time second baseman, then pretty much the regular second baseman. Now, because of the injury to Ike, he’s the starting first baseman — for a while.
• Brad Emaus was the everyday second baseman. He’s gone. He gave way to Murphy and Justin Turner. In the short term, it’s mostly Turner’s position.
• Jason Bay was out for several weeks and left field was juggled unsuccessfully by Willie Harris and Scott Hairston. Bay is back, though there’s talk he may shift to center.
• Angel Pagan has been out for several weeks. Jason Pridie has more or less commandeered his position, subject to change.
• Other than Jose Reyes batting leadoff, David Wright batting third and Carlos Beltran hitting cleanup, the lineup has been in continual flux. The two-hole has been occupied by six different players. Thole, Turner and Harris have each batted in three different positions.
• Injury has removed one of the projected five starters (Chris Young) from the rotation. Inconsistent results notwithstanding, starting pitching personnel has managed to remain fairly stable. But the bullpen, except for Frankie Rodriguez closing, has evolved and morphed from the first week on.
• Through one circumstance or another, D.J. Carrasco, Blaine Boyer, Bobby Parnell and Tim Byrdak have each disappeared or been diminished. Pedro Beato earned greater responsibility sooner than envisioned, then he got injured. Jason Isringhausen reappeared and took hold of the eighth inning, a spot initially reserved for Parnell. Ryota Igarashi seemed to be working his way up the ladder, though lately may have slipped a rung. Only Rodriguez, Byrdak and Taylor Buchholz have been in the pen since Opening Night.
It’s been a roster in flux, a lineup in flux, a defense in flux and a relief corps in flux. But y’know what? That happens. That happens probably every year to some extent. Injuries and disappointing performance are nothing new to any Mets fan who’s been paying even moderate attention the past few years.
Baseball seasons are what happen while you’re busy making other plans. That’s why I can’t full-out look at the 14-8 since 5-13 and say, “That’s what the Mets really are.” The Mets have achieved their turnaround while in constant motion. The team that beat Houston two of three over the weekend isn’t wholly the same team that won six in a row in April — not in composition and not in form…not when so many roles keeps shifting.
They’ve had to shift. Players have gone down and players haven’t performed. Standing pat was not an option for Terry Collins, and he’s reshuffled the deck on the fly pretty much as best he could. It’s gotten him close to .500 less than a month after they seemed destined to drift inevitably south of that mark.
They’ve done it with their presumably best player, Wright, aching and almost not hitting at all. They’ve done it with their technically most vital slugger, Bay, not really slugging. They’ve done it having lost the services of their blossoming first baseman, Davis, and with their square peg, Murphy, squeezing himself into one round hole after another.
They’ve gotten more out of Beltran than could have been reasonably requested and they’re getting almost ideal production out of Reyes. It’s compensated for the ups and down of a young Thole and the uninterrupted downs that beset Pagan prior to disabling. That’s two everyday players who have exceeded expectations compensating for two projected everyday players who haven’t fully (or partially) lived up to them.
What if Pagan comes back and returns to his 2010 form? What if Thole builds on his successes and gains the confidence sufficient to limit his failures? Will Reyes still be running wild and Beltran still be smoking? If Wright comes around, will it be when Murphy slumps? If Bay gets it together, will it happen when Davis is back, and will Davis come back the same Ike as he was when he was at his best?
I don’t know. Nobody does. There really isn’t enough of a composite trend to be drawn out of the partial and individual trendlets, if you will, to say the Mets sure are on the right track, or the Mets can’t possibly keep this up. And then throw in that the roster rejiggering we’ve seen thus far may be of the “ain’t seen nothing yet” variety pending the trade deadline and all it implies in 2011.
All this is said without getting into the bench, which has either been a fine resource in terms of contributing useful fill-in starters or a terrible liability when it comes to extracting the occasional pinch-hit. It also overlooks the frightening fluctuations of Pelfrey, Niese, Gee and Dickey, three youngsters and one odd knuckleballing duck who have shown no reliable patterns of performance through forty games (except for R.A. being a Pagan-level disappointment). Bullpens and their inherent mysteries are a perennial given.
The not knowing is pretty standard, but the not truly sensing is particularly acute. We can make judgments based on past performance as constituted by one-quarter’s worth of performance, but I doubt they’re going to tell us a whole lot that can guide us to understand even partially what the next three-quarters hold in store.
Which is why we should really take care to watch these games, one game at a time.
Although one season differs from another in a style generally attributed to snowflakes, I wondered whether 40 games have traditionally offered any kind of Met clue for what the remainders of seasons past have brought us. So I looked — went back to the 40-game mark of every Mets season since 1962, excluding strike-torn 1981 and strike-truncated 1994. For 1972 (156 games) and 1995 (144 games), which we knew, once they started, would contain fewer than 162 games, I used a slightly smaller quarter-season sample size (39 and 36, respectively).
Do the Mets generally give us a reasonable accounting of themselves at the quarter turn? Is a 19-21 start — a .475 winning percentage — necessarily predictive of 77-85 final record…also a .475 winning percentage?
Sometimes. Which is to say not necessarily.
METS TEAMS WHOSE HELLACIOUS STARTS
WERE PREDICTIVE OF MAGNIFICENT RECORDS
The 1986 and 1988 division winners rolled out to 29-11. They couldn’t main that pace but they didn’t have to. 108-54 and 100-60, respectively, were quite sufficient. Nobody wins 72.5% of 162 games, after all. The 25-15 1985 Mets kept it up as such to get near 100 wins (98), if not close enough to first place in those pre-Wild Card days. At 24-16, the 2006 Mets were on track to wind up with 96 wins; they wound up with 97, gripping first place in the process.
METS TEAMS WHOSE HELLACIOUS STARTS
PROVED A FRUSTRATING MIRAGE
The 1971 Mets’ lack of offense caught up with them after a 25-15 launch; they finished an indifferent 83-79. The 1972 Mets seemed destined for greatness at 28-11, but they were dinged to death by injuries and lost 186 points off their winning percentage before whimpering out the door at 83-73. The 2007 Mets wasted an impressive 26-14 en route to an ultimately historic fizzle (88-74).
METS TEAMS WHOSE MIDDLING STARTS
BARELY HINTED AT GREATNESS TO COME
The 1969 Mets were 18-22 after 40 games, the kings of the world before long; the 100-62 eventual world champions were one of only two Mets teams to lose as many as 22 of their first 40 decisions and finish with a winning record. The 1999 Mets were 22-18 and in a bit of a rut around the quarter turn. They’d turn it on and stay turned on to make the playoffs at 97-66. In 2000, the 20-20 Mets were still waiting to take off toward 94-68 and the World Series.
METS TEAMS WHOSE MIDDLING STARTS
NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD IN CONTEXT
The 1973 Mets were 20-20, a dead-on .500, and they finished the year .509 — but also with a pennant, so You Gotta Believe the rest of the N.L. East helped out by not being very good. The 1984 Mets were 22-18, or .550, and ended up .556, which doesn’t sound like much of a bump, but it meant 90 wins, second place and a renaissance. The 1987 Mets, on paper, got their act together, rising from a disappointing 19-21 start (.475) to win 92 games (.568). But not finishing first the year after 1986 couldn’t help but represent a massive letdown. At 19-21, the 1990 Mets were about to cost Davey Johnson his job; by ending 91-71, they made Bud Harrelson look like a Leader of Men. The .500 mark of the 1997 Mets was part of a seasonlong upward swing to 88 wins. The 2008 Mets would go on to play a little better than their 21-19 start presaged, but not better enough (89-73, blowing both the Wild Card and the division).
METS TEAMS WHOSE MIDDLING STARTS
WERE PRETTY MUCH REPLICATED ALL SEASON
These Mets got to 40 games with between 19 and 22 wins and wound up over .500, but didn’t garner enough momentum to create a resounding/uplifting stretch run: 1970 (19-21; 83-79); 1975 (21-19; 82-80); 1976 (22-18; 86-76); 1989 (22-18; 87-75); 1998 (21-19; 88-74); and 2005 (21-19; 83-79). Some edged closer to glory than others, but none ever fully got over their quarter-turn flirtation with mediocrity.
METS TEAMS WHOSE DECENT STARTS
EVENTUALLY TURNED IRRELEVANT
A pox on those Mets who threw it all away: 1982 (22-18; 65-97 — the loss of 149 percentage points from the quarter turn to the finish line is the second-worst in Mets history, behind only 1972); 1991 (22-18; 77-84); 1992 (22-18; 72-90); 2002 (21-19; 75-86); 2004 (19-21; 71-91); 2009 (21-19; 70-92); and 2010 (19-21; 79-83).
METS TEAM WHOSE TERRIBLE START
CAST AN IMPOSSIBLY STUBBORN SHADOW
The 2001 Mets couldn’t defend diddly, let alone their 2000 National League championship through 40 games, limping to a dreadful 15-25 start. Amazingly, they finished up over .500 at 82-80, a 131-percentage point in-season improvement, second-best to only 1969’s Miraculous 167-point gain.
METS TEAM WHOSE SUB-.500 START AND FINISH
DESERVE A PASS IN CONTEXT
The 1968 edition needs to be judged apart from other losing efforts, since its 18-22 record stood as the best 40-game mark in Mets history to that point. Gil Hodges’s inaugural unit stayed true to its pace, finishing at 73-89, the best final record in Mets history…to that point.
METS TEAMS WHOSE LOUSY STARTS
ACCURATELY FORECAST LOUSY RECORDS
All the rest, essentially. None of the 16 Mets clubs not mentioned above (excluding ’81 and ’94) exceeded the 18-win level in their first quarter-season, with 12-28 serving as the floor, in 1962 and 1964. All 16 of them compiled losing records when all was said and done.
METS TEAM WHOSE 19-21 START
MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT BE PROMISING
The 2011 Mets. We’ll see what happens.