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Finding the reasons to believe in the Mets

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The 2019 Mets have pushed back into the race. Here’s five reasons to believe they can finish the job.

A joyous Pete Alonso
Florida Man Is Happy
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Against all odds, the once-dead Mets are absolutely surging. They’ve topped .500 for the first time in months, closing to 2 ½ games back in the wild card race and even getting the division back to a not-entirely-impossible 8 ½ game lead.

Baseball Prospectus gives the team a 27.7 percent chance to make the playoffs as of this morning, and FanGraphs is even more optimistic at 32.7 percent. Here’s five reasons you might want to start believing even more:

Jacob deGrom is making his case as the best pitcher in baseball

This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. But there was an awful lot of “is Jacob deGrom broken?” discussion early in the season. I engaged in it a little myself during his April elbow woes. It looks quite stupid in hindsight.

He’s not just unbroken, he might repeat as the Cy Young. deGrom’s numbers aren’t quite as good as last year, but last year was one of the great pitching seasons of this century. Most of his “decline” is attributable to home run rate, and everyone is giving up more homers. He’s right there with the best pitchers in the league, and pitching the best baseball of them right now.

There’s not actually a lot of analysis to do here. He’s one of the greatest pitchers in baseball, right there with Verlander and Scherzer, and he’s having another best pitcher in baseball season. This is the type of pitching that can carry a team down the stretch and get you through a Wild Card Game.

Jeff McNeil and Pete Alonso are emerging into true stars

As the prospect community’s biggest advocate of both of these guys over the past couple years, nothing that’s happening here comes as a staggering surprise to me. But if you’re looking for reasons the Mets might be better than a projection for the rest of the season, it starts here.

Admittedly, McNeil is still a tricky one to evaluate moving forward. It is my firm belief as an evaluator of baseball that hit placement is a repeatable skill. It is also my knowledge that the ability to hit singles is not particularly sticky, and difficult to project moving forward. (PECOTA famously underprojected Ichiro for a solid decade straight.) And it is also my belief that the hit tool is the single most difficult thing to evaluate in baseball.

It is very, very possible that McNeil is an 8 hit tool outlier and is just going to keep contending for batting titles for the next half-decade. Projections are almost always going to miss that. He has unbelievable barrel control and bat-to-ball abilities, up there with anyone in the game short of Nick Madrigal. He has as good a case to be that outlier as anyone.

Alonso is rapidly developing into the hero that Mets fans needed. He’s already coined his own Mets catchphrase that’s spreading like wildfire. He’s struggled a little recently, but even his struggles have residual value in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a rookie slugger.

Simply put, he’s been one of the very best power hitters in the game from day one. You’d expect him to continue that in the stretch drive. He’s also just a lot of fun.

The J.D. Davis trade looks like a home run

New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and his team made three oddball trades in the offseason. In separate deals with the Brewers, Indians, and Astros, they paid a seemingly-bizarrely high prices for perceived “Quadruple-A talent.” They gave up significant trade capital to acquire players who had generally never performed at the MLB level and seemed pretty replaceable. It only made sense if there was some unseen underlying genius at work, and the Mets haven’t exactly been known for that lately.

Keon Broxton didn’t even make it until spring turned to summer, and is now on his third team of the season. That was a swing-and-miss worthy of, well, Keon Broxton. Walker Lockett has been hurt for much of the season and has pitched mostly poorly when called up. But then there’s J.D. Davis.

The Mets paid the highest price for Davis of the three, sending three legitimately interesting low-minors prospects to the Astros for a player with no defensive value entering his age-26 carrying a career .194/.260/.321 line. They didn’t even really have anywhere to play him, and he was on the roster bubble at the end of spring.

You could talk yourself into Davis—he’d never gotten a clean shot in Houston, the limited batted ball data available to the public on him was very strong, and he’d absurdly dominated the Triple-A level. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system projected Davis for a 122 DRC+ (basically, a 22 percent above league-average hitter) and a .264/.331/.456 line. Indeed, that was the top hitting projection on the team, ahead of Alonso, McNeil, and the rest.

Davis served more of a utility role in the first half, and because of those others he hasn’t actually been the best hitter on the team. But he’s beaten the PECOTA-projected slash line, and as the prospects sent to Houston have struggled, this trade suddenly looks like the one thing you can plant the “Van Wagenen is good” flag on. With all of the injuries elsewhere, Davis is likely headed for regular playing time for the duration, and he may legitimately be a first-division regular.

Mickey might’ve finally found his Andrew Miller

I have long advocated for the Mets to give Seth Lugo a medium-to-long-term shot in their rotation. We’re never going to know whether I was right, because he’s become way too valuable in the bullpen to move back.

Lugo has become a truly dominant relief force, and there’s certainly some evidence he’s just better suited to that role. His velocity plays up substantially out of the bullpen. He’s able to lean harder on his wicked curveball. And he has, over the past two seasons, been able to stay mostly healthy, something he was chronically unable to do as a starter.

The true quality of Lugo’s season has been obscured by brief wobbles in April and June. Outside of those short stretches, he’s been nigh-unhittable. His versatility has allowed manager Mickey Callaway latitude to use him in more aggressive ways than you might a standard Eighth Inning Guy. He’s started to soak a lot of the highest-leverage innings on the team.

One of Callaway’s perceived accomplishments as pitching coach in Cleveland was the aggressive and dominant usage of relief ace Andrew Miller, who was famously more than just an Eighth Inning Guy in multiple playoff chases. The Mets have been looking all over the place for their Andrew Miller over the last two seasons. It might just be Lugo now.

Sure, the Mets can’t improve—and neither can anyone else

Much has been made of the new trade deadline, and the inability to pick up depth pieces in August. Indeed, the absence of waiver trading looms large with the injury to Robinson Canó and no obvious choice to replace him in the current lineup.

But the Mets were one of the most improved teams at the actual trade deadline. They swapped out Jason Vargas—a generic back-of-the-rotation pitcher on his best days, and he didn’t always have a lot of best days—for Marcus Stroman.

Stroman is a 28-year-old no. 2 starter. He’s also in the midst of perhaps the best season of his career. He’s a big, big difference maker. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but with the general inactivity of the other NL contenders on high-end deadline talent, Stroman has a chance to be one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the race.

The window is basically closed on significant upgrades for anyone else. Except for the Dodgers, everyone has played their top prospect call-up joker cards already, and the Mets and Dodgers aren’t competing for the same playoff positions.

There will be no Justin Verlander August trade that alters a race this year. The teams are locked in now, and that is broadly going to be to the Mets favor.