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The New York Mets haven't been great, but the Washington Nationals have been worse

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Having just broken up a week-long losing skid, the Nationals are just three games ahead of New York for the division lead.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

For a minute there, it looked like the Mets might be building momentum heading into this week's series with the Washington Nationals that will help determine the fate of the National League East. As Kelly Johnson's solo home run bounced into the bleachers on Saturday night, New York gave itself a chance to win its fourth game in five tries despite being shut down once again by Julio Teheran.

That night did indeed go as planned, but then the Mets tossed all that positive energy in the garbage can on Sunday afternoon. Bartolo Colon had another wonderful outing, but it was wasted by an offense that managed nothing but four hits against Bud Norris of all people. Terry Collins's crew fell 5-2 to split the series in another disappointing result against Atlanta.

We always try to find the silver lining, though, and in this case that silver lining is that the Nationals have not been playing so well either. In fact, prior to their slim victory over Milwaukee on Sunday, Washington had dropped seven games in a row. To make matters worse, star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who may be in the middle of his best ever season, just went on the disabled list with a back strain. The injury leaves a gaping hole in Dusty Baker's rotation that the organization will at least temporarily fill with a minor league player.

Even if the new mystery starter plays well, the Nationals still must rely more on their offense to provide value until Strasburg is ready to pitch again. The last time we saw this team, that offense was being dominated by Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, but the lineup has balanced out a bit since then. Harper has not gotten a lot of pitches to hit, and that's one reason why analysts think he batting average has dropped to .249 overall over the past two months. With a .369 slugging percentage and just two home runs in June, it's likely that Harper isn't getting the pitches he likes to crush, but he's also probably not crushing the ones that he did during his incredible April.

Due to his pedigree and last year's MVP campaign, Harper is someone we can expect to pull out of this minor slump and begin lifting the Nationals again. Daniel Murphy, on the other hand, was never supposed to be as good as he was for the first two months of this season, when he hit .397/.428/.634 with nine home runs. Since the end of May, the longtime Mets second baseman has hit a more pedestrian .241/.313/.448, but it's still hard to deny the increased power that he has brought to his swing as he continues to cruise to a career-high home run total.

One of the guys who helps the Nationals make up for the mediocre June performances by Harper and Murphy is Wilson Ramos. The veteran catcher just continues to crush the ball even following his red-hot start to the season in April and May. Ramos has cut his strikeout rate more than seven percent since last year while increasing his isolated power from .128 to .221. Even if he wasn't hitting .354 on balls in play, we're still looking at a guy who had made the dramatic changes necessary to become a much improved hitter.

Old Mets nemesis Jayson Werth has also seen a pretty dramatic improvement in his game, although his has occurred just over the past month. The former Phillies outfielder was hitting .225/.280/.410 at the end of May, but has looked much more like his old self in June with a .427 on-base percentage and .486 slugging percentage during the month. He also added to his legend of being one of the strangest interviews in baseball.

The good news for Mets fans is that Baker continues to hit Ben Revere or Michael Taylor at the top of the lineup every day. Taylor shouldn't be playing in anyone's lineup with his limited power and 32-percent strikeout rate, while Revere continues to be haunted by a very low BABIP. The last time we checked in on him, we thought that problem would correct itself, but Revere has seen his line drive and fly ball rates switch places since last year. In 2015, he was hitting 26 percent line drives and 19 percent fly balls. This year, it's the opposite.

Speaking of bad hitting trends, the Mets have scored three runs in their last 20 innings, and two of those came in the ninth inning of Sunday's 5-2 loss. Right before those games, the Mets made some pretty dramatic moves, sending down Michael Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas in favor of Brandon Nimmo and signing their old shortstop Jose Reyes to a minor league deal.

While some will treat Nimmo's increased power in the Pacific Coast League this year with skepticism based on the circuit's notorious hitter-friendly ballparks, it's important to note that his .508 slugging percentage represents a dramatic increase over what he did at Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. Nimmo might not be bound for stardom at 23 years of age, but if he can just take walks and put the ball in play like he has done in his minor league career, that will be an improvement over what Conforto has been giving the Mets during his terrible June.

Reyes, on the other hand, will have to prove his worth in the minor leagues before he earns a spot with the big league club. Right now, we don't know for sure if the former All-Star has what it takes to help the Mets at shortstop or third base or even in that awkward left field situation involving Nimmo, Matt Reynolds, and the struggling Alejandro De Aza.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Nationals Probable Starter
June 27, 2016 7:05 PM SNY, MLBN Noah Syndergaard Joe Ross
June 28, 2016 7:05 PM SNY, MLBN Matt Harvey Mystery starter
June 29, 2016 7:05 PM SNY, ESPN2 Steven Matz Max Scherzer
Joe Ross

Important stats: 84.0 IP, 70 K, 25 BB, 8 HR, 3.11 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 1.18 WHIP

Favorite pitches: sinker (93 mph), slider (84 mph), changeup (87 mph)

They don't call Joe Ross "The Boss" for nothing. I'm just kidding. I'm not sure anyone calls him that, but maybe they should. He's a really good young pitcher! He would be even better, however, if he could avoid giving up home runs. That wasn't a problem early in the season, but all eight of those taters have come in Ross's last nine starts. In those nine outings, Ross has a 4.12 ERA, so he's got to get back to being more of a ground-ball guy like he was in 2015. In 76.2 innings last year, Ross had a ground ball rate of 50 percent, but this season it's down to 44 percent despite only a small decrease in the amount of sinkers thrown.

Mets opponent: Noah Syndergaard only struck out four batters in six innings during his latest start against Kansas City, but there was no need for Mets fans to be sad about it. First of all, the Mets won the game 4-3 to complete a sweep of the Royals. Second, the elbow soreness that Syndergaard left the game with turned out to be nothing serious. Joy to the world.

Mystery starter

Strasburg won't been starting for the Nationals in this slot, but we don't know much more than that for sure. Fantasy baseball fans will be clamoring for a sneak preview of top prospect Lucas Giolito here, but the more polished Austin Voth is the more likely option. While Giolito has been struggling with his control and hasn't pitched above Double-A Harrisburg in his career, Voth is humming along as Triple-A Syracuse with a 2.99 ERA in 81.1 innings. His 75 strikeouts and 19 walks this season give him the appearance of someone who can step in and throw a quality start in the majors, even if he's not going to blow prospect fans away with his stuff.

Mets opponent: Like many of the starts by Matt Harvey this year, last Thursday's outing wasn't exactly dominant, but it got the job done. Or at least is should have, as Harvey allowed two runs to Atlanta in six innings and left with a 3-2 advantage. The bullpen made sure that didn't hold up, but Harvey has thrown mostly solid innings since his splendid performance against the White Sox on the penultimate day of May.

Max Scherzer

Important stats: 107.1 IP, 138 K, 28 BB, 20 HR, 3.52 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.00 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (94 mph), slider (86 mph), changeup (85 mph)

Scherzer is having a very strange season. When one looks at his strikeout and walk figures, one might think that his FIP is going to be way lower than that ERA, but it's not. That is because the former Cy Young Award winner has allowed a crazy amount of home runs this year. Only Chris Young of Kansas City has allowed more home runs in the majors this year, and only Jon Niese comes close to Scherzer in the senior circuit with 18 given up. What's really bizarre about Scherzer's struggles with the long ball is how many batters the veteran right-hander is striking out. At nearly 33 percent, the strikeout rate is even greater than last year's, but Scherzer's opponents are hitting the ball out of the yard at every opportunity. The Mets know this first hand when they defeated him 2-0 back on May 17 thanks to two solo home runs and terrific pitching from Syndergaard.

Mets opponent: Scherzer won't have to deal with Thor this time around, as it is Steven Matz lined up against him. The young lefty is coming off of one of his worst performances of the season on Friday when he was spotted an 8-0 lead but almost blew it thanks to nine hits and some poor Mets defense. Before the fifth inning was through, Matz had given up six runs and was out of the game without striking out a single batter. The Nationals should provide a stiff challenge, but at least Harper and Murphy are both left-handed.

Bullpens

With regular closer Jonathan Papelbon stuck on the disabled list with an intercostal injury, Shawn Kelley has stepped into the most glamorous bullpen role. The 32-year-old right-hander got off to a good start with saves against the Cubs and San Diego, but then he blew a save to the Dodgers (although you can thank mostly Taylor for his fielding gaffe in that one) and allowed a home run to Martin Maldonado before closing the door in Milwaukee on Sunday. With Papelbon on his way back to full health, Kelley probably won't be the closer for much longer, but he'll continue to serve Washington well if he can keep up his outstanding strikeout and walk rates.

New York's bullpen didn't look too good after Addison Reed gave up a two-run home run to Adonis Garcia that gave Atlanta the lead on Thursday night. However, the unit redeemed itself with great work over the next two nights. On Friday, Hansel Robles, fresh off his emergency appearance in relief of an injured Bartolo Colon on Tuesday, did a great job to get the Mets through the seventh inning after Matz gave up six runs in the fifth. Saturday night brought some extra work with it, but Reed appeared to get back in the saddle with one-and-two-thirds perfect innings to earn the win before Jeurys Familia turned a double play to end the 11-inning affair. With saves in all four of New York's victories last week, Familia now has 26 for the season, which is two more than any other pitcher in the majors.

Prediction: Mets win one of three.

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