Friday, August 28, 2015

New Life in New York


For the first time in a long time, Mets fans have reason to smile (Denver CBS)
I was going to start this post by noting that it's been awhile since both New York's baseball teams were good at the same time, but then I remembered that it's been awhile since either one was good period. The Yankees barely finished above .500 the last two years, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in the wild card era. And until this year, the Mets had yet to enjoy a winning season during Obama's presidency.

More mediocrity was expected from both clubs this year. The Yankees were too old and the Mets didn't have enough bats. Nobody saw either seriously contending for the top spots in their divisions, not with the re-tooled Red Sox and juggernaut Nationals standing in their way.
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And yet here we are, in the final week of August, and both teams are sailing towards October. The Yankees have a firm grip on the AL's top wild card spot and are still a threat to win the AL East, where they sit just 1.5 games back of the Blue Jays. FanGraphs estimates their playoff odds at over 90 percent.

The Mets are in even better shape, having opened up a 6.5 game lead over the scuffling Nats. With only one month to go, FanGRaphs gives New York an 83 percent chance of winning a division that 100 percent of people expected Washington to not just win, but run away with this year.

Both teams are succeeding, but in completely different ways. The Mets are built around young arms, having assembled a dynamite rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, who between them had just three years of major league experience prior to this one. Between their excellence, a solid bullpen, and a top-10 defense, it's not surprising to see New York carry the National League's third-lowest ERA.

But while the Mets are great at preventing runs, they've had a much more difficult time scoring them. Scientists are still trying to determine how they scored any during the first four months of the season, before Yoenis Cespedes and his booming bat arrived. David Wright's prolonged absence stretched what was already a thin lineup to its limit, reducing New York's offense to Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and...that was pretty much it. Despite not hitting for power or average and minimizing risks on the basepaths (only two teams have attempted fewer steals), the Mets somehow scraped together enough runs to make its stellar pitching stand up.

Offense hasn't been hard to come by lately, however, as New York just set a new monthly club home run record. For that they can thank Cespedes, who's lifted the offense since arriving in a trade deadline swap with the Tigers. His eight homers and 23 RBI are tops on the team since he came over, adding some much-needed thump to a lineup that has also benefited from the emergence of Travis d'Arnaud and the return of Mr. Wright.

So with their pitchers still going strong and their offense rounding into form, the Mets are poised for a strong finish that, barring a miraculous surge by the Nationals, will result in their first postseason appearance in almost a decade. And with all that young pitching just starting to bloom, it's likely the first of many.
Aging players like Rodriguez have led the charge for the Yankees (NY Times)
While the Mets' success was unexpected, anyone following the organization closely could see greatness on the horizon. We just didn't expect it to come so soon.

As for the Yankees, it seemed as though their time had passed. They still had all the big-names, but most of them were has-beens. Over the hill. If the Mets were supposed to be the team of the future, the Yankees were the team of the past.

But like the Spurs or the Patriots, they just won't go away. Even as the game has become dominated by young players, the Yankees keep marching on. They might be grayer and a little slower than you remember, but they still look damn good in those pinstripes.

It's remarkable, really, how well the Yankees have performed with a roster devoid of youth. They're impossibly old, with every member of the starting nine over 30 save Didi Gregorious, who only just inherited the shortstop job from his 41 year-old predecessor--Derek Jeter. Gregorious is also the exception in that he is the only regular besides Stephen Drew who isn't having at least an average season at the plate (per OPS+), but both compensate with strong defense up the middle.

The Yankees must have discovered the fountain of youth during spring training, because how else could so many players on one team defy their age? The weighted average age of Yankee position players is 31.5--nearly two years older than the next oldest team. Their dugout should be doubling as an infirmary. Instead, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are mashing like they did during their prime, and only Jacoby Ellsbury has missed significant time.

The pitching has also held up much better than anyone could have expected. Masahiro Tanaka's elbow became a ticking time bomb once he opted not to undergo Tommy John surgery. but that hasn't stopped him from reclaiming his status as team ace. After making just 13 starts in the past three years combined, Michael Pineda has regained the form that made him an All-Star as a rookie. Adam Warren deserves credit for stepping up while Ivan Nova was out for much of the first half, and Nova has pitched well since returning.

The Yankees rotation might not scare anybody (except Yankee fans when CC Sabathia is pitching), but its shutdown bullpen definitely does. New York's relief corps is among the best in baseball, rivaling the Royals' in sheer dominance. With Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller slamming the door at the end of games, opponents are finished if they trail after seven innings. Rivera may be gone, but his spirit lives on.

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The last few summers have been tough on New York baseball fans, but ones like this don't come around too often. The Mets are a great story in the way that any young team starting to realize its potential is fun to watch. The Yankees are a great story just as teams and athletes that recapture their former glory always make great theatre. They're winning, they're interesting and, perhaps most importantly, they're different. What's not to like?

It's been awhile since New Yorkers have been able to dream on a Subway Series. Pretty soon they'll be able to let their imaginations run wild.

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