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You have to give the Mets this: they’re not boring.

Last night, they blew a pair of early leads, allowed five home runs and seven runs total, but hung on for a 9-7 road win over the Phillies. It was the Mets’ 21st win by two or fewer runs and the seventh time they’d won while allowing at least seven runs.

The first thing to consider is that the Mets’ 40-23 record–best in the National League, second-best in baseball–is an accurate reflection of their performance to date. Clay Davenport’s numbers have the Mets as a 38-25 squad in the Adjusted Standings, a mark that would still be the best in the parity-stricken NL. While the Mets are 17-7 in one-run games, their underlying performance nevertheless supports their lofty overall mark. That record in one-run games is, as you might expect, a bit lucky, but the Mets do feature a strong bullpen and a good bench, both traits that can help a team outperform the median in close contests.

A bigger factor has been the team’s offense, which is third in the NL in runs and fourth in EqA with a .269 mark. Carlos Beltran and David Wright are having MVP-caliber seasons, while the team is getting credible production from seven lineup spots. Second base has been a well-documented hole, and Cliff Floyd took April off, but on the whole, this is a good offensive team. As mentioned above, the Mets have gotten a lot of production from their bench, where Jose Valentin, Ramon Castro, Endy Chavez and Julio Franco have all been above-average hitters. If Lastings Milledge sticks around after Xavier Nady returns, with one of the two coming off the bench, it just gets that much stronger.

It’s not all sunshine and roses for the Mets’ lineup, of course. The top two lineup spots, generally Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca, don’t generate the kind of OBP you’d like to get up top. That means the MVP candidates, as well as Carlos Delgado, don’t get to leverage their slugging as much as they might with more runners on base. Reyes’ speed is going to keep him locked into the #1 spot, but the Mets would get a boost by bumping Beltran to #2 and Wright to #3, with Lo Duca slipping into the bottom half of the lineup. This will be particularly important in the second half, what with Lo Duca’s established tendency of falling off late in the season. Beltran has batted with just 151 runners on base this season, 128th of 214 players with at least 180 ABs. The Mets have to get more guys on in front of him.

The Mets have also been good at preventing runs, thanks to a strong front of the rotation (fourth in SNLVAR) and an excellent bullpen (tops in WXRL). Overall, they’re third in runs allowed, first in ERA, second in strikeout rate and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio. The front end of the rotation has carried the back, where the Mets have struggled to find solutions. The current Cuban Connection–Orlando Hernandez and Alay Soler has been effective, however, and strong work from the two of them has helped drive the team’s current 12-4 run. Billy Wagner and Duaner Sanchez have been the best 1-2 relief tandem in the game, and all of the Mets’ current relievers have a positive WXRL.

The real key to their run prevention, though, has been the defense, and in particular, the outfield defense. The Mets are fourth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, converting 72% of the balls in play against them into outs. They have allowed 73 homers, good for just ninth in the league, but despite that they’ve allowed just a .389 SLG, last in the league, and an ISO of .147, second-to-last (to the Rockies?!?!). How is that possible?

One stat I’ve played around with in the past to gauge a team’s outfield defense is the number of doubles and triples they allow per flyball hit to them. It’s a quick-and-dirty measure of how good a job the flycatchers are doing at preventing extra-base hits. The Mets have the lowest mark in the NL by a significant amount, with a non-HR extra-base hit every 5.16 flyballs. Here’s the complete list:

Team    FB     2B   3B       FB/(2B+3B)
NYN    495     89    7            5.16
SDN    563    104   17            4.65
SFN    537    101   18            4.51
WAS    567    112   18            4.36
CHN    497    105   12            4.25
CIN    559    134    5            4.02
ATL    532    120   14            3.97
LAN    521    122   13            3.86
PIT    509    121   12            3.83
HOU    533    127   15            3.75
MIL    526    132   10            3.70
FLO    454    103   20            3.69
COL    496    126   19            3.42
PHI    505    138   13            3.34
ARI    451    123   14            3.29
SLN    435    131   10            3.09

This chart–prepared lovingly by Keith Woolner–tells us that the Mets’ outfielders, led by a healthy Beltran, are doing a terrific job of preventing long hits. It also tells me, just eyeballing the data, that we need to consider park effects in the analysis; the top four teams all play in tough hitters’ parks, while the three of the bottom four play in established hitters’ havens, with the Cardinals in a new home that may yet turn out to be one. (Is their place on this list a function of park or are we seeing a sign of Jim Edmonds‘ decline?)

Just looking at the raw numbers, you can see that the Mets far outpace the pack in terms of cutting off doubles and triples. Remember that the team is in the middle of the league in home runs allowed, so you can’t just blame the park. They’re playing stellar outfield defense, and that is showing up on the scoreboard and in the standings.

With so many things going right, then, is this the year the Mets become the first team since 1990 to finish a complete season ahead of the Braves? Well, the Braves are certainly helping, with bullpen problems rendering them a longshot to get to the 90 wins it will likely take to win this division. The Phillies are a greater threat–and deserve their own column–but the lack of pitching depth and their susceptibility to left-handed relievers make them a clear dog to the Mets this year.

The keys for the Mets lie up the middle. Beltran has to keep playing at or around his current level, both offensively and defensively. He’s critical to the offense because he’s the only real OBP guy in front of Delgado and Wright, and as we’ve seen above, his defense has been a huge part of the Mets’ run prevention this year. The Mets also have to settle on a second baseman, most likely through a trade. Whoever comes in needs to have enough OBP skills to bat second; Randolph isn’t likely to do the full shuffle necessary to optimize the lineup, so picking up a .360 OBP to play the spot–Luis Castillo, Mark Grudzielanek and Adam Kennedy might all become available in the next few weeks–is essential. Jose Reyes has to keep drawing walks while boosting his batting average into the .280s, which would give him a .350 or so OBP, more than enough to make him a good leadoff man.

If the Mets do nothing to improve, they’re still a favorite to win the NL East. Adding the right puzzle piece, making an internal tweak or two, could turn the division into a rout and allow the team to cruise through September. With so much riding on Pedro Martinez‘s right arm, targeting an early clinch that lets Martinez coast down the stretch and be rested for October is a viable strategy, one the Mets have to take seriously.

Thank you for reading

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