Mets strong start to 2021 MLB season explained by scouts and executives

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John Harper
·7 min read
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Mets vs Rockies - Mets pitcher Edwin Diaz celebrates with catcher James McCann vs Colorado Rockies at Coors Field
Mets vs Rockies - Mets pitcher Edwin Diaz celebrates with catcher James McCann vs Colorado Rockies at Coors Field

In shrugging off seven COVID or weather-related postponements to win seven of their first 11 games, the Mets have shown a mental toughness and an ability to seize the moment that was too often lacking during their woefully disappointing 2020 season.

In doing so they’ve pitched sensationally, hit sporadically, and played solid defense that includes one spectacular game-ending throw from James McCann.

What should we make of it?

I asked scouts and rival team executives for their early-season takeaways from what they’ve seen of the Mets, and the reviews are tinged with optimism.

There is still a fair share of wait-and-see skepticism revolving mostly around the defense and the bullpen, and consensus opinion still has the Atlanta Braves as favorites in the NL East, but the strong start is having an influence.

“Going in I had the Mets in the wild card mix,” one NL scout said, “but if you tell me that (Marcus) Stroman and (Edwin) Diaz are going to pitch relatively close to the way they’ve pitched so far, I’d make them favorites over the Braves in their division.

“If Stroman is a legit No. 2 starter -- and obviously he’s been better than that so far -- and Diaz is a shutdown closer again, that gives the Mets a much greater margin for error in overcoming their weaknesses.”

Apr 18, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz (39) throws against the Colorado Rockies in the ninth inning at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 18, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz (39) throws against the Colorado Rockies in the ninth inning at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A second scout agreed, saying, “Big years from those two guys changes the outlook. (Jacob) deGrom is a given but Stroman pitching at a high level would give them an elite rotation when (Carlos) Carrasco comes back, and with all the bullpen issues they’ve had, they’d be tough to beat if Diaz is a reliable closer again.”

With that in mind, the Mets’ start may be significant beyond the record, but evaluators have their concerns as well. Here are their takeaways of the various team phases...

OFFENSE

The Mets haven’t hit much at all, certainly not with power. Their six home runs are by far the fewest in the majors, and while that’s partly the result of playing the fewest games as well, their slugging percentage of .353 is tied for last in the NL with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Yet for the most part scouts and execs don’t seem concerned.

“They’ve got a lot of good hitters,” one scout said. “If anything I’d be encouraged by what (Brandon) Nimmo is doing (hitting .447 with a .543 OBP). I think he’s still growing as a hitter, learning to pick his spots to jump pitchers who want to get ahead early in the count as everyone becomes more and more aware of his ability to take walks and get on base.

Apr 5, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (9) reacts after hitting a single in the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Apr 5, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (9) reacts after hitting a single in the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

(Pete) Alonso is still overswinging at times but overall he looks better than last year. He’s not as jumpy, and I think he’ll settle in. I think (Michael) Conforto will be fine, but I’d leave Dom Smith in the three-hole. I think he’ll be a little less streaky than Conforto, which is what you want in that spot.

“And (Francisco) Lindor hasn’t made much hard contact yet but I’ve seen him get hot and when he does the ball jumps off his bat. He hasn’t hit 30-plus home runs a bunch of times by accident. I know his numbers were down last year but I just can’t put a lot of stock in what he did over 60 games. He’s too talented.”

An AL exec who has seen a lot of Lindor agrees: “He can make everything look easy, including hitting. When all is said and done he’ll be a difference-maker for them with the bat and the glove.”

DEFENSE

This is the one area that worries scouts, though one admitted, “they’ve played better than I expected so far.” And everyone I talked to agreed that James McCann, who threw out Trevor Story trying to steal second to end Sunday’s game, is an important upgrade defensively behind the plate.

“They needed a guy who could catch and throw,” an NL exec said, “but they also needed a take-charge guy who’s totally invested in calling a game. He’s a guy who can make them better even if he doesn’t hit much.”

Apr 13, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) at Citi Field.
Apr 13, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) at Citi Field.

Still, scouts see potential problems with J.D. Davis at third base, Pete Alonso at first base (“He’s played well so far,” said a scout), and in the outfield with Nimmo in center and Smith in left.

“Smith has good hands but he’s a first baseman, he’s not an outfielder. He got turned around on a ball last week and couldn’t make a fairly routine catch. It’s going to cost them at times. And Nimmo has looked OK. It helps that they have him playing deeper but that comes with a cost when some dunkers drop in front of him.

“I was there the other day when Lindor was waving Nimmo in with the No. 8 hitter at the plate, like he was saying, ‘this guy’s not going to hit it that far.’ But Nimmo’s biggest weakness was going back on balls in center so they’re probably better off playing him deep -- at least until a blooper that should be caught costs them a game.”

STARTING PITCHING

Though Stroman has caught their attention, scouts are wowed by deGrom’s brilliance even if they can’t explain how he has increased his velocity as he gets older.

“He’s playing catch at 100 miles an hour,” said one scout. “It baffles everybody. I’m not going to try to figure it out. I’m just going to enjoy watching it. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent.”

Apr 17, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.
Apr 17, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

As for Stroman, scouts explain his early dominance as the result of exceptional command of his various down-in-the-zone pitches.

“He’s got pretty much the same stuff, as a pitch-to-contact guy, but his late movement around the edges are getting soft contact,” said one. “He’s paired up his cutter with his split-change that makes him tougher on lefties, burying the cutter in under their hands then throwing the change down and away. And he gets righties to chase down and away with his sinker and slider. This is the best I’ve seen him.”

Another scout added: “He’s really learned how to change speeds off his breaking stuff. So he’s got like five pitches but he can do 10 different things with them. And he seems a little more confident going up in the zone occasionally to gets swings and misses. It’s impressive.”

In addition, evaluators have liked what they’ve seen from Taijuan Walker and David Peterson as well, making for grand possibilities, as noted earlier, when Carrasco comes back from his torn hamstring -- and eventually Noah Syndergaard returns from Tommy John surgery.

Taijuan Walker, pitches against the Marlins, in the first inning Thursday, April 8, 2021 Opening Day At Citi Field
Taijuan Walker, pitches against the Marlins, in the first inning Thursday, April 8, 2021 Opening Day At Citi Field

“If their starting pitching turns out to be their biggest strength this could be a 95-win team,” said an NL exec.

BULLPEN

Other than one bad outing when the Mets were already trailing, Diaz has been nearly perfect, allowing but one hit and one walk in his other five innings pitched, to go with seven strikeouts.

Yet while scouts are impressed, they’re not completely buying in on him being that automatic closer from back in his Seattle days.

“He still worries me because he throws that slider on one plane and doesn’t always command it,” said one scout. “There’s not a lot of depth to it and he likes to throw it.

“I’m not saying he can’t be dominant. He’s got deception. He’s all arms and legs and he jumps at the hitter with his delivery, and he’s throwing the fastball 98. I’m just not sure he’ll command his stuff consistently.”

Added another scout: “I like him a lot when he’s on top of the ball (with his grip) and his fastball has that late life, like he’s had so far. But I’ve seen him get around the ball on the side and it flattens out at times, partly because he can be all over the place with his mechanics.”

Otherwise, the consensus opinion is that Trevor May will be a reliable setup man, Miguel Castro still has to prove he can command his “electric stuff,” and the Mets’ pen is a little too thin until Seth Lugo returns from surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.

BIG PICTURE

Add it all up and there’s plenty to like about the Mets so far. Especially, at least as the scouts and execs see them, if the early results from Stroman and Diaz are the start of exceptional seasons.