Banged-Up Mets Lose Conforto and McNeil in a Single Inning, and the Hits Keep Coming

At a time when they’re already without ace Jacob deGrom and two of their top hitters, and still trying to dig out of a team-wide early-season slump that led to the dismissal of their hitting coaches, the Mets lost two more regulars to the Injured List on Sunday. Facing the Rays in St. Petersburg, both Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil left after suffering hamstring injuries in the first inning, the kind of calamity that seems as though it could befall only the Mets. The team received no respite, because in Monday’s game, starting pitcher Taijuan Walker departed after three innings due to tightness in his left side, and then Kevin Pillar was hit in the face by a fastball, suffering a bloodied and broken nose and perhaps more. An Injured List that’s already at an even dozen threatens to continue to grow.

McNeil, who had previously departed last Tuesday’s game against the Orioles due to what was termed “body cramps” after trying to stretch a single into a double, legged out an infield single to lead off Sunday’s game, and was erased on an inning-ending double play. As he was the designated hitter, his spot didn’t come up again until the third inning, at which time he was pinch-hit for by Patrick Mazeika. He departed with what the team initially described as “left hamstring tightness.”

That double play ball came off the bat of Conforto, who was visibly limping and grabbing his right hamstring by the time he crossed first base. You can see that in the video, as well as McNeil getting no further than halfway to second by the time Brandon Lowe’s throw reached Ji-Man Choi:

Conforto departed the game immediately and was replaced by Jake Hager in what turned out to be a 7-1 loss. Both players underwent MRIs in Atlanta on Monday morning, and while the severity of their strains wasn’t revealed — they’ll be getting multiple opinions on both — the two players landed on an IL that already includes deGrom, Albert Almora Jr., Dellin Betances, Carlos Carrasco, J.D. Davis, Luis Guillorme, Seth Lugo, José Martínez, Brandon Nimmo, and Noah Syndergaard.

As if the team needed additional headaches, Walker threw three scoreless innings against the Braves in Atlanta on Monday before departing due to tightness in his left side, which he said he’d been experiencing for a couple of weeks; he had compensated by not swinging the bat as often, but hadn’t missed a turn.

“I think it could be managed,” he told reporters after Monday’s game. “I’m not concerned with it. Just one of those nagging injuries that hasn’t gone away yet.”

In the top of seventh inning, with the bases loaded and the Mets ahead 1-0, Pillar was hit in the face by a 94 mph fastball from Jacob Webb, a terrifying moment that was followed by the sight of blood gushing from his nose. He walked off the field under his own power, thankfully, and yielded to pinch-runner Khalil Lee, a rookie making his major league debut.

Pillar underwent a CT scan and according to the Mets suffered multiple nasal fractures and will be meeting with a facial specialist in Atlanta to determine next steps; he was placed on the IL on Tuesday afternoon, and will undergo surgery to reset his nose. Via Twitter, the outfielder said he’s “doing fine,” suggesting at the very least that he avoided a concussion.

Walker, who has been the Mets’ most reliable starter this side of deGrom, with a 2.05 ERA and 2.85 FIP in 44 innings, underwent an MRI on Tuesday, which came back clean, and so he avoided the IL. Even so, the Mets will doubtless face questions as to the severity of his injury relative to deGrom’s, and the wisdom of sending either pitcher to the mound while knowing they were already dealing with minor ailments. No team gets second-guessed for its handling of injuries the way the Mets do, given the reputation earned by the endless micromanagements of the Wilpon regime. While they’re now under new ownership, they have yet to shed that reputation more due to the front office’s other missteps — including the hiring and firing of GM Jared Porter — than to anything specifically injury related, but that’s life in the Big Apple.

Back to the two players who landed on the IL on Sunday, neither McNeil (.242/.336/.374) nor Conforto (.230/.356/.336) have produced up to their usual standards this season. Each is hitting for a 105 wRC+, which for McNeil represents a 25-point dip from last year, and for Conforto represents a 52-point plunge, currently the majors’ ninth-largest among players with at least 200 PA last year and 100 this year.

McNeil’s current .241 BABIP is a honking 101 points below his previous career mark, that despite the fact that his 5.6% barrel rate and 36.7% hard-hit rate are the highest of his career. Those two marks place him in just the majors’ 29th and 30th percentile, respectively; the contact-focused lefty swinger isn’t exactly known for hitting the ball particularly hard, which makes him unique given his productivity. His 3.6% barrel rate since reaching the majors in 2018 is the lowest of any player with a 130 wRC+ or higher:

Still, the percentages of balls off McNeil’s bat that Statcast classifies as Topped (5.6%) or Under (30%) are higher than his usual marks as well, and his expected batting average of .248 aligns closely with his actual mark, though he’s 54 points shy of his expected slugging percentage of .428; basically, the barrage of doubles that he usually hits — 63 in 1,024 PA from 2018-20, or one every 16.3 PA — have gone missing, as he has just four this year, or one every 28.3 PA. Without getting too granular on the small samples, it’s worth noting that he’s not doing his usual damage on pitches on the inner third of the strike zone, with a .240 xwOBA in that area, compared to a .345 mark in 2019-20; his .299 xwOBA on the outer third of the zone is likewise down 55 points from his 2019-20 marks.

As for Conforto, his barrel and hard-hit rates (9.3% and 34.9%) are comparatively modest as well (53rd and 22nd percentiles, respectively), and down from last year (11% and 36.6%). His batting average is 45 points below his .275 xBA, while his slugging percentage is 135 points below his .471 xSLG, the major’s fourth-largest shortfall among players with at least 100 PA:

Largest Expected Slugging Percentage Shortfalls
Player Team PA Events SLG xSLG SLG-xSLG
Tommy Pham SDP 129 84 .226 .423 -.197
David Bote CHC 123 83 .282 .462 -.180
Juan Soto WSN 111 78 .385 .550 -.165
Michael Conforto NYM 135 86 .336 .471 -.135
Jorge Soler KCR 161 96 .346 .477 -.131
Bryce Harper PHI 140 79 .561 .692 -.131
Cesar Hernandez CLE 170 122 .362 .492 -.130
Kyle Farmer CIN 102 74 .311 .440 -.129
Dominic Smith NYM 128 88 .342 .471 -.129
Nick Senzel CIN 124 96 .315 .440 -.125
Paul DeJong STL 141 92 .371 .496 -.125
Evan Longoria SFG 130 80 .420 .543 -.123
Freddie Freeman ATL 176 119 .463 .580 -.117
Joey Votto CIN 118 81 .425 .541 -.116
Josh Donaldson MIN 111 79 .505 .617 -.112
Luis Arraez MIN 131 101 .336 .447 -.111
Yasmani Grandal CHW 112 52 .316 .426 -.110
Jed Lowrie OAK 154 111 .393 .503 -.110
Gary Sánchez NYY 111 64 .370 .478 -.108
Charlie Blackmon COL 143 106 .344 .450 -.106
Marcell Ozuna ATL 179 118 .342 .448 -.106
Minimum 100 plate appearances.

Despite the extent to which they’ve fallen short of both their career norms and their expected batting ball results, McNeil and Conforto will be greatly missed for as long as they’re absent from the Mets lineup, because their injuries leave the team with just two active players who have posted a 100 wRC+ or better in more than eight plate appearances, namely Pete Alonso (123 wRC+ in 145 PA) and backup catcher Tomás Nido (131 wRC+ in 34 PA). As for the injured…

Injured Mets Hitters
Player Pos PA wRC+ Injury IL Status
J.D. Davis 3B 48 200 left hand sprain 5/3 rehab assignment this week
Jacob deGrom SP 15 182 right side tightness 5/11 throwing bullpen, poss. return 5/21
Brandon Nimmo CF 80 150 bruised left index finger 5/5 ended rehab to receive treatment
Luis Guillorme INF 23 146 right oblique strain 4/30 not yet swinging bat
Jeff McNeil 2B 113 105 left hamstring strain 5/17 severity/prognosis TBD
Michael Conforto RF 135 105 right hamstring strain 5/17 severity/prognosis TBD
Kevin Pillar OF 85 93 multiple nasal fractures 5/18 resume baseball activity 10-14 days postsurgery
Albert Almora Jr. OF 22 -54 left shoulder bruise 5/12 x-rays clean, poss. return 5/23

Oddly enough, the Mets have fared better since the last time Nimmo and Davis started on on May 1 (9-5) than prior (10-11), when all of the above players were available; they were scoring exactly three runs per game during that earlier stretch, compared to 4.21 since. There’s little to suggest that the May 3 firing of hitting coaches Chili Davis and Tom Slater is responsible for the uptick. In fact, the team’s slash stats since the move (.217/.313/.319) were all worse than prior (.240/.324/.364), not that two weeks is a representative sample — or that the four weeks prior were, either, or that laying all batter performance on the shoulders of a particular hitting coach is a productive mode of analysis.

Any way you slice it, the Mets offense has been subpar overall, ranking second-to-last in the NL in scoring (3.49 runs per game) and 10th in wRC+ (92), and for the near term, they have to go forth with a makeshift lineup of even lesser hitters than their regulars. As had been the case since last Wednesday, on Monday they started José Peraza (78 career wRC+) at second base in place of McNeil, with Jonathan Villar (87 wRC+ in 96 PA this year) continuing at third base in Davis’ stead, and Pillar moving from center field to right while rookie Johneshwy Fargas (!) played center in his major league debut.

With the injuries to Conforto, Nimmo, and perhaps Pillar, the Mets will apparently need one or two rookies to join left fielder Dominic Smith in their lineup. Fargas, a 26-year-old righty swinger, spent his first seven professional seasons with the Giants (2013-19) before signing with the Mets as a minor league free agent last year, spending the abbreviated season at the alternate site. A speedster who has stolen as many as 59 bases in a season but never hit more than eight home runs, he had just eight games of Triple-A experience before being called up. Lee, a 22-year-old lefty swinger, placed eighth on the team’s prospect list this spring after being acquired from the Royals (who chose him in the third round in 2016) in the three-way Andrew Benintendi trade. Lee is long on speed but short on game power, and with significant contact issues to boot; while he spent last year at the Royals’ alternate site, he has just six games of Triple-A experience. Hager, a 28-year-old righty, is a former first-round pick (2011) who previously spent time in the Rays’ and Brewers’ organizations. Originally a shortstop, he had played every position except pitcher, catcher, and right field in recent years, but his replacement of Conforto marked his right field debut.

It’s quite a tangle for manager Luis Rojas and acting general manager Zack Scott to deal with, and it’s not as though there are productive free agent outfielders waiting by the phone and ready to play tomorrow. Yes, Yoenis Céspedes is unemployed, but he may have burnt his last bridge with the Mets given the abrupt departure that accompanied his opting out last August, and Yasiel Puig, who’s currently playing in Mexico, is facing a civil lawsuit from a woman alleging that he sexually assaulted her in 2018, a matter that scared off teams from signing him this winter.

Meanwhile, the Mets are hoping that deGrom’s Tuesday bullpen session goes well enough for him to start this weekend. The two-time Cy Young winner, who leads the majors in ERA (0.68), FIP (1.05), strikeout rate (46.1%), and more, exited his May 9 start due to what was described as right side tightness, that after skipping a turn for what was described as right lat inflammation. With Carlos Carrasco progressing slower than expected in his return from a hamstring strain, and Walker’s status up in the air, the Mets are down to Marcus Stroman and David Peterson as the only starters they know will be available to take their next turns. In a spot of good news, Syndergaard will make the first appearance of his post-Tommy John surgery rehab on Wednesday for the team’s Port St. Lucie affiliate, with an eye towards a mid-June return.

Somehow, amid this slew of injuries and a tepid start, the Mets are atop the NL East at 19-16, leading the Phillies (21-20) by a game and the Braves (19-22) by three. Somehow, they own the highest Playoff Odds of any NL team besides the Dodgers and Padres, proof that for all of the drama that seems to envelop them, they’ve got it better than most right now.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Jeff in Jerseymember
2 years ago

Trevor May also hasn’t looked himself in his last two outings. Hope he doesn’t get the injury bug….