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Examining a healthier 2021 Mets season

Better injury luck might have made the difference for the Mets this season

Milwaukee Brewers v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Looking at a team’s list of injuries and wondering what could have been is generally a bad idea. Wishing something hadn’t happened doesn’t change reality, nor does it effectively address what could happen in the future, though it could make one feel better in the moment. The best-case scenario for this exercise is feeling less bad about a disappointing season.

But in some cases, it can be useful, like in refuting knee-jerk opinions and reactionary takes. There’s a common sentiment among Mets fans right now that the team wasn’t constructed well enough from the start to compete for a title, and while that’s not necessarily wrong, it disregards the terrible injury luck the Mets suffered throughout the 2021 season. I don’t believe a fully healthy Mets team would have been the best in baseball, but I do believe that with better health there’s a great chance they would have made the playoffs.

The biggest injury blow to the Mets season was to their starting pitching, most notably with Jacob deGrom losing half a season due to unspecified arm soreness. deGrom was pitching a historically impressive season, with 5.0 bWAR in 15 starts and an eye-popping 373 ERA+. When deGrom went down, the Mets didn’t just lose the best player on the team, they lost the best pitcher in the world for half a season, and his performance extrapolated over a full season would have easily won him a third Cy Young Award even among a field of historically impressive candidates. Losing the ace was hard enough, and it only got harder from there.

With Carlos Carrasco starting only twelve games and Noah Syndergaard pitching only two innings after recovering from Tommy John surgery, three of the top four Mets pitchers combined to start only 29 games, which was one fewer than Marcus Stroman started this year by himself. Even Taijuan Walker, who technically started 29 games this season—plus one “relief” outing that was basically a start in a suspended game—couldn’t recover his All-Star form after suffering an oblique injury on a swing midway through the season. That put a lot of pressure on the back end of the rotation, with Joey Lucchesi, David Peterson, and Tylor Megill getting a significant bulk of the starts this season despite them not knowing whether they would even make the team heading into Spring Training.

Of the Mets’ 162 games, 66 of them were started by pitchers other than the presumed starting five of deGrom/Stroman/Syndergaard/Carrasco/Walker. That included 33 combined from Megill and Peterson, twelve from Rich Hill, eight from Lucchesi, and four disastrous starts from Jerad Eickhoff, among others. Starting pitchers are an especially precious and fragile part of any team’s roster in 2021, so a decent amount of luck is needed to construct a successful rotation, but having 40% of games started by untested minor league call-ups and take-a-flyer veterans does not usually propel a team into the playoffs. And it didn’t stop there.

The team’s reduced offensive production in 2021 makes it seem as if injuries didn’t affect position players as much as it affected the pitchers, but the sheer volume of games missed in the middle of the season points to a lineup suffering from especially bad luck. The player the Mets missed most was Brandon Nimmo, who arguably put up a career year despite missing 67 games, first from a finger injury in May and next from a hamstring injury in September. Nimmo was the team’s best position player putting up a 132 OPS+ and improving his defense drastically in center field. Replacing him was no easy task, but a midseason rotation of Cameron Maybin, Albert Almora, Mason Williams, and Johneshwy Fargas certainly tried to mixed results. A healthier Nimmo would have solidified the top of the lineup and defense up the middle for the 40% of the season that he missed.

In the infield, the Mets missed Francisco Lindor for 36 games from a strained oblique, Jeff McNeil for 31 games from a strained hamstring, and 66 games from J.D. Davis from a torn ligament in his hand that likely bothered him even after his return. A healthy Lindor or McNeil during that stretch greatly improves the infield defense up the middle, while a healthy Davis would’ve given the struggling lineup another proven bat to lean on.

Also noted but potentially not missed were the 34 games Michael Conforto sat out due to a hamstring injury suffered on the same day as McNeil’s. Conforto had a disappointingly average season in the last year of his contract, though his midseason setback certainly didn’t help his production. In that same category of meh production were the games lost by catchers James McCann and Tomás Nido. Neither Nido nor McCann played especially well this season, but their simultaneous ailments forced 20 starts out of Patrick Mazeika and Chance Sisco, and having any games started by below-replacement-level catchers usually doesn’t bode well.

This isn’t to say that the Mets missed the playoffs because they had bad injury luck. The Dodgers arguably had worse injury luck and still won 106 games. The Braves lost their ace Mike Soroka for the season and their best player Ronald Acuña Jr. for 80 games and still won the division pretty handily. Well-constructed teams can withstand injuries to even their best players and still chase the pennant, and the Mets were pretty clearly unable to withstand their bad injury luck.

But I don’t believe that made them poorly constructed. At the risk of turning the complicated engineering of winning baseball games into simple math, let’s consider the following:

  • The Mets lost the division by 11.5 games.
  • The randomness of the MLB playoffs makes it so most team’s goal is to simply make it to the postseason.
  • The Mets needed 12 more wins to make it to the postseason.

It’s not an exact science, but it’s pretty easy to find those 12 wins from just a few of these injured players. A full season of deGrom probably nets the team at least an extra five wins in the second half of the season, while a full season of either Carrasco or Syndergaard provides another two to three. A full season of Lindor might have given the team an extra win or two, while a full season of either Nimmo or Davis could have conceivably closed the gap. By resuscitating only four of the ten regular starters that missed significant time due to injury, the Mets could have seen themselves playing in October, and as the 2015 team showed, teams only need to get in to have a chance.

None of this what-if-ing is particularly useful, however. This is not a request for the Mets to run it back next season, nor is it a defense of the team’s obvious shortcomings in 2021. But injuries certainly played a factor in the team’s underperformance, and in this case they had very little control of that outcome.