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Mets Roundtable: 2018’s pleasant surprises

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We talk about some of the things that have surprised us thus far.

MLB: New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Cory Lack: We’re a few weeks into the season, and that feels like a fair amount of time to start discussing it. What are everyone’s pleasant surprises so far?

Allison McCague: Coming into 2018, the Mets finally had the pitching depth to convert some of their starting pitchers into relief pitchers. While more and more teams are adopting this method, it is easier said than done.

Not every starter adjusts to a relief role. Not only that, both Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman came into 2018 with major question marks. Lugo still has a partial UCL tear, and there were concerns that would affect his performance. Gsellman had his own injury-riddled 2017—who on the Mets didn’t?—and was ineffective for large chunks of the season, which led many to question whether the real Gsellman was the 2016 version or the 2017 version.

For me, the most pleasant surprise of this season has been the fact that not only have both starters adjusted to relief roles, they have thrived in them. Both have utilized their best pitches more and increased the velocity of their fastballs. Having both available to go multiple innings in close games has been a weapon that the 2018 Mets have been able to utilize that previous Met teams did not have the luxury of employing.

Rich Resch: We can all agree that Gsellman has been invaluable to the bullpen’s success, but I would argue that Lugo has been a mixed bag. While he made a great impression in his first appearance, striking out four and walking none over two scoreless innings, he has struck out just four batters over nine innings since then, walking six and allowing two home runs.

Obviously this is a ridiculously small sample size, and perhaps the increased velocity and the fact that his curveball looks as good as it ever has may be more important than three weeks worth of stats. Still, I think lumping Gsellman and Lugo together, as most of us have done all year, obscures the fact that Gsellman has had a nearly flawless transition to the bullpen, while Lugo has been shaky.

But speaking of small samples sizes, Paul Sewald has allowed just four hits and one walk while striking out 13 over 10.1 innings. His 1.24 FIP leads the team, which is more of a fun fact than a useful stat. Also a fun fact: Sewald has earned 0.0 fWAR as a hitter, flying out in his lone at bat of the season, while Jason Kipnis has earned -0.3 fWAR so far this season. Clearly, Sewald is a better position player than Kipnis.

Vasilis Drimalitis: Speaking of Kipnis, the trade that wasn’t has paid huge dividends for the Mets this year. Asdrubal Cabrera has been the Mets’ best offensive player in 2018, and it’s not even close. In the interest of full disclosure, I was 100% against the Mets picking up Cabrera’s option.

Editor’s note: Never had any doubts about picking up Cabrera’s option!

Cory: Same.

David Capobianco: It’s funny because, for whatever reason, my brain just has a negative reaction to Cabrera. For example, I’ll see him batting leadoff and just audibly groan, even if it’s the right move and he’s the hottest hitter. Judging from comments on social media, it seems like a lot of people feel the same way. For me, though, it’s probably because the memory of him and Reyes blocking Rosario last year is forever implanted in my mind.

Vasilis: I was convinced he would start to decline and thought his defense would be a liability. Furthermore, as the offseason continued to develop—or, rather, not develop—I thought his $8.5 million was far too high of a price when better and cheaper options were out there. Yet here we are, almost a month into the season, and Cabrera has proven me and every other doubter wrong.

He has played respectably at second base and has been the Mets’ offensive catalyst. His 1.3 fWAR not only leads the Mets, but it’s good enough for third in the National League among position players. He leads the Mets in a number of offensive categories and has picked up the slack as some of his teammates have slumped.

Resch: And don’t forget about Todd Frazier. Trading for Kipnis would have moved Cabrera to third base, meaning the Mets would not have signed Frazier. And in this Man-In-The-High-Castle-esque alternate timeline, some other team would be doing the salt and pepper thing and we’d all probably hate it.

Kory Powell: Frazier has the highest walk rate of his career so far at 20 percent, has been solid at the plate as well as defensively, and has been a really strong leader in the clubhouse.

David: Cabrera and Frazier have definitely picked up the slack on offense, and Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have been picking up the slack on the mound. deGrom has obviously been great, and while Syndergaard hasn’t been at his absolute best early this season, the most encouraging part of his game has been his strikeout numbers so far. He started off the campaign fanning ten on Opening Day and hasn’t really slowed since. In 27.1 innings this year, he’s struck out over 34 percent of the batters he’s faced, which is Chris Sale/Max Scherzer territory.

Of course, Thor’s career strikeout rate is 28.9%, and even though he’s been getting swinging strikes at a career-best 15.7% rate so far, it’s not like he’s been getting hitters to chase markedly more than he has in the past. Instead, hitters are simply making less contact off his pitches in the zone, with his Pitch Info Z-Contact% only at 76.8%, much lower than his career 83.7% Z-contact rate. It’s fair to expect that to regress back to norms, but don’t let me be the one to kill your dreams of Syndergaard striking out more hitters than 2015 Clayton Kershaw.

Richard Staff: Much like Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto also missed significant time with an injury last season. Coming off of surgery on his shoulder near the end of last season, Conforto’s outlook was a mystery. Nobody was really sure of when he would be back and how effective he would be when he did return. The original estimate for his return was sometime around May 1, but knowing the unpredictability of injuries, many believed it would take longer than that for the All-Star slugger to return to the lineup. But he was back on the team much earlier than expected—April 5, almost a full month ahead of schedule.

Resch: I keep searching for his name on this list but it doesn’t seem to come up. Must be an oversight.

Rich Staff: He even managed to hit a home run in his third at bat, off of Stephen Strasburg. As of now, Conforto hasn’t been the same hitter as he was last season, but he still has a 111 wRC+ and 0.3 fWAR in 15 games so far this year. Those aren’t the numbers you’d want Conforto to have at the end of the year, but for someone who wasn’t supposed to be back for at least another week, I would say that his performance has been a pleasant surprise.

Tessler: Don’t forget about Zack Wheeler. In spring training, he was trying to show Mickey Callaway that he can be an effective starting pitcher for the Mets. Unfortunately, he had a rough spring and ended up in Las Vegas for Opening Day.

He pitched one game for the 51s and looked great. After his start in Vegas, the Mets brought him back to New York. He has a 4.24 ERA and 4.53 FIP through three starts back in the big leagues.

Cory: Is it safe to say the 2018 Mets are a pleasant surprise?