If the atmosphere at Citi Field this weekend felt like a playoff series, it’s because the New York Mets — of all teams — provided a trailer for a feature they hope to debut in October. It stars Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Edwin Diaz. And, implausibly, they’re all on the same side.
It’s been a little over eight months since the Mets, under the leadership of general manager Billy Eppler and the eager eye of team owner Steve Cohen, secured Scherzer’s services with a three-year, $130 million contract. And all the while, they have been waiting to see the vision of Scherzer and deGrom, deGrom and Scherzer, play out in real life in games that matter.
The five-game set in New York this weekend mattered. The Mets entered 3 1/2 games up in the NL East on a Braves team that, characteristically, started slow and has charged into the picture. The finale promised deGrom’s second start of the season after a multi-injury saga, and his first at home in over a year.
That last time deGrom pitched in front of the Citi Field crowd, on July 7, 2021, the Mets were also in first place, 4 1/2 games up. Once he went on the IL with a season-ending elbow injury, well, their fortunes took a turn for the worst. Really, if you had to convince an anxious Mets fan to uncover their doom-seeking eyes for the rest of 2022, you’d probably start with the news that the Mets have climbed into the catbird’s seat and held onto it this long without deGrom.
How they’ve managed that conversion from chaos to competence is a different story — one that starts with manager Buck Showalter and undoubtedly includes Scherzer’s intense influence — but it’s now secondary to the palpably exciting prospects of the team that took the field against the Braves.
The Mets didn’t just avert some 2022 iteration of their usual disaster. They grabbed the NL East by the throat, taking four of five from the Braves in a formulaic display of how their strengths might play up in a playoff series.
How the Mets' gaudy trio of pitching stars sets them up for a World Series run
Baseball’s method of crowning a champion is admittedly a forced marriage of contradictions. For 162 games, the best teams generally emerge by building wide waves of talent that can overpower individual roadblocks and withstand six months of headwinds. Then, when the calendar turns to October, a few lucky clubs can turn to fire hoses and blast opponents with a disproportionate helping of the best pitchers in the sport.
That’s how the top-heavy 2019 Washington Nationals, among others, thundered through the playoffs. And despite the GIF-minting glory of role players like Daniel Vogelbach, the postseason’s tendency to lend star pitchers outsized roles should provide Mets fans the greatest infusion of that unfamiliar feeling: Hope.
On the star pitcher front, the Mets have the most potential firepower in baseball. Even with soft-pedal inning estimates for deGrom, FanGraphs views their starting rotation as MLB’s best. The ZiPS projection system sees Diaz and deGrom having the first- and third-best ERAs among all pitchers the rest of the season. The Steamer projection system thinks they’ll be one-two, with Scherzer not far behind.
Across five games in four days — an inversion of the spaced out October schedule — the Braves got a taste of how devastating the combo could be. The Mets threw Scherzer, deGrom or Diaz at 29.9 of their batters. The heart of the order — Matt Olson and Austin Riley — stepped in against one of the terrifying triumvirate in 14 of 44 turns, or 31.8% of their plate appearances.
Those percentages would go up in October, where a seven-game series includes two off days, and perhaps flirt with 50% if Scherzer again inserts himself into the bullpen picture.
Fueled by the idea that the Mets needed him to go deep into the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Scherzer represented the largest chunk of the weekend’s innings. He went seven frames and struck out 11 while allowing no walks and no runs to best Braves ace Max Fried and clinch a series win.
Scherzer, who turned 38 less than two weeks ago, has exhibited Psycho Dad Strength for a while now. If the Mets have long been the gifted child who might absent-mindedly wander off a cliff, Scherzer is baseball’s John McClane — a balding, sweaty everyman who will somehow rescue said child and carry it 12 miles out of the forest on guile and sheer will.
Diaz also picked up extra work this weekend, notching his first two-inning save in the series opener, then returning to shut the door on wins Saturday and Sunday. He has performed the rare trick of leaving and reentering New York’s good graces. A rough 2019 debut — having joined in the controversial blockbuster deal that sent top prospect Jarred Kelenic to Seattle — has now been drowned out by the euphoric trumpets of his trademark entrance music. Right now, he’s striking out 52.9% of the batters he faces, which would be the best rate of all time across a 162-game season if he can keep it up.
Can Jacob deGrom stay in the picture?
Then there’s deGrom. He’s the longest tenured Met, the Metsiest of the crew, and the reason all the hope still has an edge to it, the feeling it might be balancing on the tip of a needle.
Recent vintage deGrom is, without exaggeration, the best inning for inning pitcher baseball has ever seen — a Terminator that became too powerful to contain in the lab. He throws a 100+ mph fastball and then a slider that zips in at a comical 93-95 mph. Occasionally he will dabble in curveballs and changeups, but it’s basically out of deference to the traditional concept of what a starting pitcher needs to be successful, not in observance of reality — which is that he can carve up every hitter in baseball with two pitches.
Over the 102 2/3 innings he has managed since the start of last season, deGrom has tallied 164 strikeouts while giving up only 44 hits and 12 walks. There have been 17 blessed, riveting starts and 17 total runs, only 14 earned.
His 1.23 ERA, adjusted for park and era, comes out to a 334 ERA+, which means he has been 234% better than the average pitcher over that span. It’s a hard thing to fathom except in comparison, so here are the only real comparisons baseball has to offer: Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season, the holy grail of modern pitching peaks, amounted to a 291 ERA+. Bob Gibson’s record-setting 1.12 ERA in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, came out to a 258 ERA+.
Even over a slightly longer timeframe, since the start of 2018, deGrom has been outlandishly dominant — a 1.95 ERA over 591 2/3 innings, more than twice as good as the average pitcher by park-adjusted measures. The league’s very best relief pitchers are not this effective working in three-batter bursts. What deGrom does looks a bit like an elite closer who happens to work for five, six or seven innings at a time.
On Sunday, he was perfect for 5 2/3 innings. The Braves missed on their first 18 swings at his extraterrestrial slider before Michael Harris II finally fouled two of them off.
Jacob deGrom, 95mph Slider and 94mph Slider.
The Most Dominant Pitcher on the Planet. pic.twitter.com/OHENlTbIq4
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 7, 2022
The rub, of course, is that deGrom’s ascent into outer bounds of what’s possible on a mound has some Icarus vibes. The elbow problem, setback and separate stress reaction that kept him sidelined for a year have planted questions in people’s minds: Can he feasibly do this over the 200 or more innings that Martinez and Gibson threw? Can he do it over even 170? What if human arms just can’t throw 102 with 95 mph breaking balls for multiple innings at a time?
We’re not going to answer those big questions in 2022, at least not in the affirmative. We’re just going to find out if he can do it through October.
If he can, the Mets have a triple threat that would stand taller than anything any other team can offer in MLB’s playoff format. Now that we’ve seen the preview, the anticipation can begin.