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Vol. 14, No. 95
September 30, 2022
Back in April, the Mets were down 2-0 in the ninth to the Cardinals and scored five to win 5-2. A few weeks later, they pulled off a ridiculous comeback win over the Phillies, scoring seven runs in the ninth inning to win 8-7. On August 21, they did it to the Phillies again, winning after trailing 4-0, 7-4, and 8-7 in the ninth, while the Braves were losing a game in which they were tied in the eighth inning.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times -- every game counts the same. The way September performances get characterized as meaning more has always grated at me, because they simply do not. Play well enough in April and May, and you can turn September into a second spring training.
A night like Wednesday, though, rattles that belief. The Mets trailed the Marlins 4-0 as they came to bat in the seventh, their win expectancy down around 6%. Marlins gonna Marlin, though, and the Metropolitans scored two in the seventh, two in the eighth, and the game-winner in the tenth. At the same time, the Braves were once again losing a game they might have won after being tied late, dropping a 3-2 contest in D.C.
A swing like that counts the same as it would in April and May and August, but it feels different in September. Those two games Wednesday significantly flipped the leverage between the two teams heading into this weekend’s penultimate series in Atlanta. The Mets are now up one game on the Braves, and they hold the tiebreaker with a 9-7 lead in the season series. This weekend...
...the Mets can clinch the NL East by sweeping the Braves;
...the Mets can leave Atlanta with an effective magic number of 1 by taking two of three, going up two games in the standings and clinching the tiebreaker;
...the Mets can leave Atlanta tied in the standings, but holding the tiebreaker, by losing two of three.
The only scenario in which the Mets lose control of their destiny this weekend is by getting swept. That’s the importance of Wednesday’s comeback win.
The Mets used Thursday’s off day to set up their rotation for this series. Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt will start. That’s probably their playoff rotation as well, as Bassitt has separated himself from Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco in the second half. As much as any team, the Mets want to secure the division title and the bye, as they’re looking to navigate October behind two top starters who have combined to miss about half the season (32 starts, 197 2/3 IP, total). The less deGrom and Scherzer have to pitch, the better their chances.
The Braves are missing rookie sensation Spencer Strider, out for the regular season and possibly beyond with an oblique injury. They have more depth than the Mets do, running Max Fried, Kyle Wright, and Charlie Morton to the mound this weekend. Strider, however, was as dominant as any pitcher in baseball this year, striking out 38% of the batters he faced. There’s a gap between him and Morton, and certainly between him and Jake Odorizzi or Bryce Elder. The Braves want the bye so as to not need Strider until October 12, even October 14.
As good as the Braves’ rotation is, they’re behind in the first two games, as almost any team would be. A strange two-inning stretch across five days in which deGrom allowed seven runs is a blip until further notice. Outside of that, he’s been Jacob deGrom, and even including it he has a 1.74 FIP and a 42% strikeout rate in 58 1/3 innings. Fried has quietly become a soft ace, with a 2.50 ERA and 2.73 FIP in 180 1/2 IP.
Saturday’s matchup, again, features a very good pitcher who just isn’t quite as good. Wright will be the only 20-game winner in baseball this year, a credit to the Braves’ bullpen and offense as much as his pitching. His breakout has been at the level of a high #3, and driven by -- prepare to be shocked -- using his four-seamer less and his curve more. Wright has thrown his curve, now a tighter offering, over a third of the time in 2022. He’s good; he’s not Max Scherzer, who has entered the point of his career where 26 starts and 160 innings may be the upper bound. When he pitches, though...2.13 ERA, 2.47 FIP.
deGrom and Scherzer have started consecutive games six times this season. The Mets have never lost both games. If they pull that trick off one more time, they will be no worse than in control of their destiny with three home games left against the Nationals.
If they don’t, Sunday’s game could be for the division, an effective three-game swing with both first place and the tiebreaker in play. It would be the biggest game of Bassitt’s career, and maybe the 21st-biggest of Morton’s. Morton has been homer-plagued this year, with 26 allowed on a 15.8% HR/FB. Morton’s control has gotten away from him, with his highest walk rate in four years and a league-leading 18 batters hit. The Mets have been hit by more pitches this year than any team since the 1890s. So of course, Morton has only hit one of the 75 Mets he faced this year. (Cue the legend Jayson Stark -- “Baseball!”)
These teams both want to win games from the front, with two of the best rotations in baseball. The Braves are fourth in SP innings and sixth in SP FIP; the Mets are seventh in IP and second in FIP. The Braves don’t have a brass section heralding the pen, but their group is third in baseball in ERA, second in FIP. They just don’t have any bad relievers; their top six by innings all have ERAs and FIPs of 3.45 and below. That doesn’t include Raisel Iglesias, who has been untouchable since coming over from the Angels (0.40 ERA, 1.64 FIP).
The Mets...have Edwin Diaz. Adam Ottavino has emerged as the second-best option, with a 1.65 ERA and 2.27 FIP in the second half, driven by a 35/3 K/UIBB. Over the summer he began leaning on his two-seamer more, chucking his four-seamer and going mostly sinker/slider. We’ve seen Ottavino play at this level before, and if he sustains it, he’s the critical second guy the Mets have been looking for all year.
Both teams had Thursday off, of course, and will almost certainly lean on their best guys in what amounts to a playoff series.
Similar to the rotations, these are two of the best offenses in the game, though shaped very differently. The Braves have the third-highest strikeout rate in baseball, the Mets the third-lowest. The Braves lead MLB in isolated power, at 190, the Mets are 17th at 152. Barrels and exit velocity all tell the same story. If we try to put our thumb on the scale and evaluate the Braves just since the Michael Harris call-up, we find the teams tied with a 116 wRC+ since May 28. The Mets have had one of the game’s best offenses in the second half and the very best (125 wRC+) in September. Eduardo Escobar came off the IL earlier this month to find Brett Baty in his spot; Baty blew out his thumb and Escobar turned into George Brett for four weeks. OBP is Life: the top seven Mets by playing time this month have OBPs of at least .342.
It is a top-heavy group. The Mets have tried to help out the bench by promoting Baty (.184/.244/.342) and Mark Vientos (.143/.273/.286), and trading for Darin Ruf (.152/.216/.197) and Tyler Naquin (.231/.278/.444). Only the deal for Daniel Vogelbach (.244/.389/.422) has worked. The latest patch is top prospect Francisco Alvarez, who will join the team in Atlanta after hitting .234/.382/.443 at Syracuse. The Mets, who passed on Willson Contreras at the trade deadline, are likely to stick with their all-glove duo of James McCann and Tomas Nido behind the plate, and use Alvarez as the DH, at least in the game against Max Fried. The Mets miss Starling Marte, whose broken right middle finger has kept him out for three weeks and likely will keep him out for the weekend.
The Braves’ offense has leaned on the rookies in September. Harris and William Contreras have been the team’s two best hitters, as the top of the order -- Ronald Acuña Jr., Dansby Swanson, Matt Olson, and Austin Riley -- has slumped badly. Even at that, the Braves lead MLB in homers this month with 40, and against deGrom and Scherzer, it’s like in the playoffs -- short-sequence offense wins. Ball go far, team go far. The Mets have held the Braves to a .235/.294/.405 line and a 29% strikeout rate. The Braves have still averaged 4.75 runs a game thanks to 21 homers.
At one point this series looked to be threatened by Hurricane Ian, but the current forecast for Atlanta is dry straight through the weekend.
We really see the effect here of the new tiebreaker rules, put in place to accommodate the 12-team playoff field. In the standings, the Braves winning two of three will tie them with the Mets with three games left, able to control their own destiny to get, at worst, a Game 163. Now, that same result leaves them behind the Mets by dint of losing the season series 10-9.
Me, I think tiebreakers are for lesser sports, and losing the long and storied tradition of breaking ties on the field is another step in baseball’s march to becoming one. If the first use of a tiebreaker is to separate two 102-win teams, well, it will only underline the point in thick black ink.