How Mets, Nationals ended up in two completely different places

HOUSTON — Why did the Nationals spend Tuesday preparing for Game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park while the Mets moved forward on their initiative to name a new manager by the start of the 2020 Summer Olympics?

The truth, as you likely know, is these teams didn’t stand too far apart by Game 162. The Nationals owned a 93-69 record and the Mets 86-76.

In 2018, the Yankees (100-62) finished eight games behind the Red Sox (108-54), and just a year later, the tables turned to the tune of the Yankees going 103-59 and the Bosox 84-78.

It must be pointed out that both the Mets and the Nats placed behind the Braves (97-65) in the National League East, and the Phillies (81-81) already hired an impressive new manager and figure to be active on the free-agent market. Washington advanced the farthest in 2019, though, so let’s focus on the areas that gave the Nats the edge over the Mets despite losing the season series by a 12-7 count.

Here are five areas, going from least conspicuous to most, in which the Nats bested the Mets:

5. Bullpen
The primary source of consternation for both teams but the Nats’ relievers actually rallied, following a historically awful beginning — trade-deadline acquisition Daniel Hudson helped — and wound up with 0.9 wins above replacement, 22nd in the industry and two spots ahead of the Mets (0.7), whose crown jewel, Edwin Diaz, didn’t start showing major cracks until late May. By late September, Diaz had shown enough cracks to belong in a garage sale, and the Mets’ failure to improve their pen at the deadline looked like a mistake.

Brodie Van Wagenen; Washington Nationals
Brodie Van Wagenen; Washington NationalsPaul J. Bereswill; EPA

4. Starting pitching
The Nats’ starters paced all of baseball with 21.4 WAR, as per FanGraphs. Only the Dodgers (19.8) sat between Washington and the Mets (19.7). The Nationals carried three studs, Game 6 starter Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, who contributed at an All-Star level, plus an extremely useful fourth starter in Anibal Sanchez. In Jacob deGrom, the Mets employed the best starter from either side, then Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, who were valued slightly less than Corbin, then Steven Matz and the Jason Vargas-Marcus Stroman combination, who were valued slightly less than Sanchez. Wheeler is a free agent and Strasburg, with an opt-out, can be one.

3. Offense
The Nationals (26.0) and Mets (23.5) placed third and sixth, respectively, in offensive WAR in the NL, and that 2.5 differential can be attributed almost solely to the gap between Washington’s best offensive player, Anthony Rendon (7.0), and the Mets’ top hitter, Pete Alonso (4.8). Rendon will be a free agent.
One other note of interest here: Old pal Asdrubal Cabrera, who spurned the Mets for the Nats after the Rangers released him in August, provided 1.2 WAR for Washington in under two months.

2. Defense
Now we get to the big gaps. The Nats’ fielders totaled .9 defensive “runs above average”, which means they played just a tad above replacement level collectively. That’s not very good, only 17th in baseball.

The Mets? They ranked 26th with a far worse -26.8 defensive “runs below average,” thanks primarily to butchers Alonso (-9.6), J.D. Davis (-7.7), Dom Smith (-4.9) and Michael Conforto (-4.6). Yes, the Mets need a bona fide center fielder.

1. Payrolls
On the surface, the disparity looks manageable. In fact, going by luxury-tax numbers, which are determined by the annual average value of players’ contracts, the Mets ($193.1 million) resided in the same neighborhood as the Nats ($200.5 million), as per Spotrac, with neither club hitting the $208 million threshold.

Let’s look at a different figure, however: Active payroll, the dollars dedicated to the guys who actually played. The Mets spent about $104 million, with insurance reimbursements and settlements coming in for Yoenis Cepedes and David Wright, at least. The Nats? They spent $155.9 million.

And just like that, it makes sense why the Nationals outperformed the Mets in every critical area. Let’s see whether the Mets, assuming they ever hire a manager and move on to other tasks, keep that in mind this winter.

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