Braves still chasing Mets and now Scherzer, deGrom return soon

Max Scherzer had a rehab start with Binghamton Rumble Ponies on Wednesday and is set to rejoin the Mets soon. (Yehyun Kim/The New York Times)

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Max Scherzer had a rehab start with Binghamton Rumble Ponies on Wednesday and is set to rejoin the Mets soon. (Yehyun Kim/The New York Times)

Max Scherzer is the best pitcher in MLB since the 2014 season. Jacob deGrom is second-best over that time. Scherzer has pitched only 49-2/3 innings for the Mets this season. DeGrom hasn’t pitched at all. New York still ended June with a 3½-game lead in the National League East over the Braves, who won 14 in a row during the month.

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Scherzer declared himself “good to go” after making a second rehabilitation start in the minors Wednesday. He’s set to rejoin the Mets on Monday after being on the injured list since May 18 with a strained oblique. DeGrom hasn’t pitched for the Mets in nearly a year. It was forearm tightness last year and a shoulder injury now. DeGrom threw to live hitters at the team’s spring training complex Wednesday and is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment soon.

If all goes well for the Mets, they’ll have their two ace pitchers for the second half of the season. Granted, it’s never a given that all will go well for New York’s perpetually star-crossed pitching staff. But I’m assuming that bad luck is behind Scherzer and deGrom and the Mets will get their best stuff down the stretch. The effect will be like a first-place team making a blockbuster trade.

That circumstance is why, even though I always believed the Braves would get their act together, I still don’t see them catching the Mets. The Braves trailed New York by four games after winning 14 games in a row. Both teams have had middling results since then. Only one of them will get a boost from two of the best pitchers of their generation.

The Braves don’t need to win the division to make the postseason. That’s easier than ever with the addition of a third wild card. MLB thankfully got rid of the one-game wild-card “series” after using that format from 2012-19. Now the wild-card round is best-of-three. That’s still not enough games to significantly reduce the role of luck, but it’s better than the abomination of one game deciding a series winner.

The Braves can avoid the wild-card round by winning the East with at least the second-best record in the NL. Winning the division with the NL’s third-best record would guarantee the Braves home-field advantage for the first round. The home-field advantage is less in baseball than other sports, but it’s still an edge. That’s incentive for the Braves to win the East, beyond the desire to prove they’re the division’s best team for the fifth consecutive season.

The two division winners with the best records will get a bye. The other will host the wild-card team with the worst record. The Mets remain big favorites to win the East. They have implied odds of 69% per the betting markets. The Baseball Prospectus statistical projection gives the Mets a 75% chance of winning the East. FanGraphs puts the probability at 60% and FiveThirtyEight at 53% (all odds and statistics through June).

The wide variance in projections for the Mets is related to the uncertainty about how many innings they’ll get from Scherzer and deGrom. They are older pitchers coming off injuries, but there’s every reason to believe they will be effective if healthy. Scherzer has finished outside of the top five in Cy Young Award voting once since 2013. DeGrom has been in the top 10 in voting for five consecutive years.

The Mets could use a boost from their best pitchers. New York’s pitching has managed to hold up well without them. Mets pitchers rank 10th in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement overall and 11th among starters. It’s the offense that’s tailed off. After ranking first in WAR in April and third in May, Mets hitters ranked 22nd in June. They produced runs without a lot of homers for two months, but the lack of power is catching up to the Mets.

Scherzer and deGrom will provide a safety net for games in which Mets hitters don’t produce. DeGrom, a Mets lifer, is used to that. He’s posted a 77-53 career record for the Mets despite getting less run support than all but 33 qualified starters over that time. Scherzer enjoyed good run support during stings with the Nationals and Dodgers. He’s compiled a 2.81 ERA since 2013 so it’s not as if he needs much of it.

The Mets have thrived without their two aces. They lost back-to-back games once in both April and May. The Mets had three losing streaks in June but still had a 13-12 record for the month. The three-game losing streak to end the month was the first sign of a wobble. The Mets scored only one run while losing a two-game series to Houston.

The Braves made up seven games on the Mets in June. They are scheduled play a three-game home series against the Mets on July 11-13. The Braves didn’t face Scherzer in May and may not see him next time, depending on how his schedule works out. The Braves are set to play the Mets nine times in August and three times during the season’s final week.

Soon Scherzer and deGrom will arrive as reinforcements. The Mets expect to have their aces for the closing stretch after ruling the East without them. If so, then expect the Mets to end the Braves’ reign as East champs.