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The Mets Look Like A Good Team

Pete Alonso and Brandon Nimmo do the Bash Brothers forearm thing during a July Mets win against the Cubs.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The New York Mets were eight games above .500 at the all-star break in 2021, decently comfortable in first place, and quite clearly not very good. Anyone and everyone that had watched them get there knew as much. Over those 88 games, they had outscored their opponents by just 10 runs; in the National League, only the Pirates had scored fewer runs as a team. The question was first whether and then how they would do the various obvious things that they'd need to do to get better, with the sub-questions being how much better they would get and whether one of the teams below them would get better, faster. If you had watched the Mets much in the last two decades, you might have felt confident in making a guess. Anyway, one of the teams below them was the eventual World Champion Braves and the Mets didn't make the playoffs.

There is nothing special, certainly, about the Mets weighing all the options and deciding to sit down crisscross-applesauce in the home stretch of a race and boldly crap their pants. But more than that, what is true at the all-star break does not necessarily remain true, and may not even be meaningfully true at that moment, and so in retrospect is neither meaningful nor true at all. All kinds of things can happen over the course of half a baseball season. Bryan LaHair and Ken Harvey made all-star teams. Jonathan Villar was one of the better players on a first-place Mets team. Those are half-a-season things, and so only barely things at all.

Coming out of this year's all-star break, the Mets are 23 games above .500, but still just two-and-a-half games ahead of the Braves. The first part is obviously much more significant than the second—a flawed but lucky team can get to 48-40, but a similarly flawed and even a similarly lucky team would have a much harder time getting to 58-35. The 2021 Mets, to take one example, never did. They fell out of first place for good in early August and went 29-45 down the stretch, despite trading for Javy Baez at the deadline and despite Javy Baez putting up more or less the same production after the trade that Yoenis Cespedes did when the team brought him aboard at the deadline in 2015. Those 2015 Mets went to the World Series; the 2021 Mets finished behind the Phillies, eight games under .500 and with the same record as the actively tanking Detroit Tigers.

The mediocre team they wound up being was the mediocre team they were all along, then, and the second-half team was more or less the same as the first half one; it just had to make do without the help of Jacob deGrom and the enormous quantum of luck that somehow kept them in first place for most of the season. Some good players had bad seasons, some less-good players stopped playing like good ones, but none of it was really flukey. A team that had under its previous ownership and management mostly done just enough to be buoyed by strange luck and nothing more once again did that. One of the best things about baseball is that Things Happen Sometimes, but that is only a sometimes thing, and certainly nothing to plan around. There's no strategy to pulling a slot machine's arm; it certainly doesn't matter if you mean it, or want it, or think your approach to yanking that lever is sound, or that you somehow feel due. To believe that any of that has anything to do with the outcome is to fundamentally misunderstand how such games work. For a long time, the Mets were built upon that misunderstanding. This can make it tough to credit when they are actually good.

Broadly speaking, baseball teams get better by giving themselves more and better chances. This is a matter of not giving away important outs or squandering the finite number of opportunities the sport affords from one game to the next, but organizationally it is just a matter of continuing to try. Some teams do not try to win at all, and some teams try to win just enough not to get yelled at by their fans, but the much smaller number of teams that are actively working to win a World Series stay busy improving their odds on every margin. Baseball's worst organizations aren't so much wrong about important stuff or bad at doing it as they are absent. Crucial departments don't exist, or consist of a couple of widely ignored interns, or get eliminated on some ownership whim; this adds up to something less like an organization than a loose federation of rival fiefdoms. Bad teams are not all the same, but it tends to be true that they aren't all there.

The Mets were like that under old ownership. From the owner's box down, they were grudgeful and grudging and unaccountable and just relentlessly, sourly weird; every stupid or cruel or awful thing they did was done on principle, and every bad team they produced reflected as much. Their new owner is much richer and more engaged, and while he has (to say the very least) not been known for creating nurturing workplace cultures in the past, the Mets have the wherewithal to change a great many things very quickly, or at least to change the parts that can be changed by spending money. Think of this process as a mold-abatement exercise: Various soggy pilings will need to be removed, and some percentage of the existing structure will be revealed to be wholly uninhabitable. The foundation will need to be rebuilt, but first the fragrant piles of old editions of the New York Post that had been serving as the old foundation will need to be disposed of. As an organization, the Mets are currently in between in a funny kind of way—they have bought the fancy cameras and systems and software, but are maybe not yet really sure where to point them, or how to use them, or how to read all the stuff they spit out.

That's all interesting, if you're interested in it, but it is not yet really having much bearing on the Mets as they exist, and it's also not really why this year feels different. Some of it is that the team's good players are playing well again: Jeff McNeil was an all-star, Carlos Carrasco is pitching like Carlos Carrasco, Edwin Diaz is having one of the most dominant seasons by a closer in recent memory. New players brought over as free agents (Starling Marte, Mark Canha) and via trade (Chris Bassitt) have been better than the ones they replaced. Relatively speaking, the Mets are in more or less the same spot that they were last year: Not just up on teams that are deeper and still maybe better than them, and who will continue to improve, but also tasked with fixing some mostly fixable stuff. It all looks similar, in that way. It feels different, though, both because the team on the field is good and because the Mets have been tough in all the baseball ways that are difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. They fight, they're in every game, they win often enough that the local mechanisms that exist to create vinegary units of schadenfreude-heavy entertainment out of the team can't do that.

They seem like a good baseball team, in short, and, there's nothing outwardly unsustainable about it. The Mets added enough contributors during the offseason that the bits of bad luck and bumpy, slumping periods haven't completely derailed things; if they add more, which they have to, the holes in the lineup will not expand and the bad luck that's coming won't do much more damage than what they've already faced. To be as good as the Mets are, with Max Scherzer having missed as much time as he has and before Jacob deGrom has yet thrown a pitch in a non-simulated game, is both the result of some good luck and the residue of the Mets finally doing the sort of things that good teams do.

Good teams try stuff, and then keep trying it. The iterative work involved in being a real baseball team isn't just about the work in a vacuum, or about a tactical embrace of longer-range planning in the absence of any action in the present. You figure out where you are and where you want to be, and do the work that is most likely to get you from one to the other. The Wilpon Mets often seemed not to understand where they were—they acted, always, as if they were one player away, which once again misunderstood a fluid multi-part task as something static and binary. Baseball teams either become something else—because some critical mass of players figure something out, or because they bring in players who have already figured such things out—or they just go on becoming who they were all along. These Mets seem, correctly, to understand that they are both in a moment of great opportunity and that such moments do not by definition last very long. Let's see what they do with it.

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