Should Mets be more concerned with offense or starting rotation?
The Mets aren’t this bad. They can’t be.
But at this point, with both their pitchers and hitters putting up some alarmingly awful numbers, especially the last couple of weeks, it seems fair to ask: How bad are they?
At 17-17, and in the midst of a 3-10 skid against less than a Murderer’s Row of opponents that included a 5-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field on Saturday, it’s obvious the 2023 Mets are much worse than anyone would have predicted for a team with the highest payroll in baseball history.
But more to the point: is this some relatively small-sample anomaly or an indication that their age is an issue that could derail their championship hopes?
And to that end, which of their problems is most glaring at the moment?
On the first question, I’m not ready to say they’ve suddenly gone over the cliff, especially with Brett Baty and Francisco Alvarez making an impact already and perhaps Ronny Mauricio and Mark Vientos doing the same as the season goes along.
As for the second question, even as poorly as the Mets have hit lately, scoring a total of four runs over their last four games and averaging 3.1 runs during this 3-10 stretch, I don’t think the offense is nearly as concerning as the pitching.
As such, it’s hard not to return to that concern about age when it comes to the pitching. I wouldn’t count out a return to form from a pitcher as accomplished -- and driven -- as Max Scherzer, but it’s silly to pretend there aren’t serious age-related warning signs.
Consider this observation from a former major league starting pitcher, who said he didn’t want to be quoted by name out of the respect he has for Scherzer:
“The thing that I found glaring was the lack of pop on his fastball coming back from his suspension,” the pitcher said. “When you go that long between starts it’s normal to have problems with your feel for your pitches, with your ability to command your stuff.
“But you should feel really strong, as far as your velo, and I just didn’t see that from Max’s fastball (on Wednesday in Detroit). It looked pretty much the way it’s looked all season, from what I’ve seen, which is down enough to make a difference.
“Part of his greatness has always been his ability to command his off-speed stuff, but he could always throw a fastball by a guy when he needed to. And he loved doing it. So I think he’s smart enough and talented enough to make adjustments, but will he be that dominant guy again? I just don’t know. That late-life velo isn’t something you can manufacture.”
It’s not all about Scherzer, of course, but this team’s championship hopes were built around dominance from him and Justin Verlander.
And while Verlander, in his season debut Thursday, offered reason to believe he can still be an ace, it’s hard to see these Mets doing much in the postseason without both of them at least close to the top of their game.
Last October ought to stand as proof enough of that.
Maybe Kodai Senga could change that equation. His walks are troublesome but his shutdown of the Rockies on Friday night was more evidence that he has the stuff to be an elite starter, especially with a strikeout pitch like his ghost fork.
Still, there don’t appear to be many other answers. Tylor Megill, who showed some toughness in pitching out of jams on Saturday but still couldn’t get out of the fifth inning, looks more and more like a back-of-the-rotation starter.
David Peterson is back in the minors because he’s too inconsistent with his command and control; veteran Joey Lucchesi has filled in nicely but likely can’t be counted on long-term; and who knows if Carlos Carrasco has anything left at this point.
All of which is why the Mets rank last in the majors in starts of at least six innings -- only six in 35 games. That kind of workload on the bullpen is bound to catch up with them, as it did to some degree on Saturday, when Stephen Nogosek gave up a two-run home to Rockies’ shortstop Ezequiel Tovar in the sixth inning.
In addition, as a staff the Mets have allowed 129 walks and 49 home runs, both worst in the National League.
Offensively, meanwhile, the Mets rank sixth in the NL in runs scored, but they’ve been something of a feast-or-famine team, and beyond their horrendous slump lately, here’s one number that jumps out: they’ve been outscored 27-5 in the first inning of games this season, which is quite the opposite of the way they played last year, often setting a tone by striking early in games.
Some of that difference obviously falls on Starling Marte, who came under scrutiny Saturday when he dropped down a bunt with runners at first and second in the third inning. The sacrifice led to the Mets scoring a run but it potentially negated a big inning and, more to the point, spoke to Marte’s state of mind at the moment.
As Buck Showalter said, “You can tell he doesn’t feel confident.”
How could he? He’s hitting .156 over his last 17 games and just .213 for the season with one home run. He also had offseason core surgery that delayed his spring training a bit and may or may not explain why he hasn’t run hard on routine ground balls this season.
In any case, Showalter essentially said he has too much confidence in Marte to move him down in the lineup so soon, but the way the Mets are going a little shake-up couldn’t hurt.
Is it too early to put that type of pressure on Baty? His at-bats have looked awfully impressive, to the point where it’s easy to see him hitting second or third at some point this season.
We’ll see. The Mets have plenty of time to get it going, and no fan who is still hurting from last October needs to be reminded it’s better that a team be playing its best baseball late in the season rather than early.
Still, there is also no doubt this Mets team has real problems. The question nobody can answer yet is whether they’re here to stay.