Neil Walker returns to PNC as the Pirates begin a three-game series against New York starting Monday. Here's what to expect from the Mets.
Game times and probables
Monday, 7:05: Steven Matz vs. Jon Niese
Tuesday, 7:05: Jacob deGrom vs. Juan Nicasio
Wednesday, 7:05: Noah Syndergaard vs. Francisco Liriano
These are some brutal matchups, pitting the Mets' three best starters against three Bucs starters who aren't Gerrit Cole. The Mets' rotation has a 7.8 fWAR, ahead of everyone else but the Cubs, and the three pitchers the Pirates will face have combined for more than two-thirds of that figure. The best among them, of course, has been Syndergaard, who had a strong rookie season in 2015 and has taken a leap forward this year thanks to velocity that's improved from good to ridiculous and a slider that's improved from solid to lethal. Expect devastating 100-MPH heat, and if Syndergaard throws 90 MPH, that's a changeup.
I'm working backwards here, but Matz and deGrom clearly are no slouches themselves. Matz has become one of the best pitchers in the National League in his first full season, with a terrific 55.8 percent ground ball rate and a tiny walk rate. His velocity isn't anywhere near that of Syndergaard, but it's way above average for a lefty. Jacob deGrom has pitched the worst of the Mets' three starters this year, for whatever that's worth, mostly because his walk rate is worse than it was last year. But he's still a force to be reckoned with.
Of course, when I write that Pirates hitters have favorable matchups in an upcoming series, as I did in the Pirates' last series against the Angels, that doesn't mean the Bucs are actually going to win. And when they have tough matchups, that doesn't mean they're going to lose. But this upcoming series is probably the worst the Pirates will deal with all year.
C Kevin Plawecki, Rene Rivera
1B James Loney
2B Neil Walker
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
3B Wilmer Flores
IF Matt Reynolds
UT Ty Kelly
LF Michael Conforto
CF Yoenis Cespedes
RF Curtis Granderson
OF Juan Lagares
OF Alejandro de Aza
Neil Walker is in the midst of the best offensive season of his career, so expect to hear plenty this series about the Walker / Jon Niese trade and how little sense it made, particularly if Niese does poorly against his old team tonight. Yoenis Cespedes has also continued to be an offensive force in New York, while Michael Conforto has been productive in his first full season.
Beyond that, though, the Mets have a number of question marks, having lost catcher Travis d'Arnaud, first baseman Lucas Duda and third baseman David Wright to injury. Their replacements are decent enough, but the Mets are leaning heavily on Walker, Cespedes and Conforto to lead their offense. That isn't the best recipe, especially for this series, since Cespedes himself has been out of the lineup for the last couple days with hip soreness. (Defensive ace Juan Lagares, too, has an injury that hasn't yet required a DL stint, leaving the Mets' outfield pretty thin.) The Mets have batted just .223/.299/.380 in the past 30 days.
The Mets' defense, widely thought to be a big problem heading into the season, has been better than expected, however. Walker has graded well at second this season, and Kevin Plawecki and Rene Rivera, whatever their offensive shortcomings, are both better defensive catchers than d'Arnaud. Wilmer Flores also figures to be an improvement over Wright at third, given Wright's recent back troubles.
In addition to their terrific rotation, the Mets also have a good bullpen, which means their opponents can't just wait out whatever high-90s craziness the starter has on offer and then feast on relief pitching. No one in the Mets' current bullpen has an ERA above four, and Reed and Familia, in particular, have been terrific. The Mets' bullpen does, however, allow a bunch of fly balls. Remember how many fly balls Antonio Bastardo gave up last season? This year, four current Mets relievers have allowed fly balls at a higher rate than he has. This group is tough, but there's the potential for the Pirates to hit game-changing homers in the late innings.