Earlier this spring training, everyone cringed a bit when it was reported that Brandon Nimmo became sick after eating under-cooked chicken (his own recipe, naturally). I think most people had the same thought about it: what the heck? It turns out that his illness was a result of a virus instead of food poisoning, so now Nimmo is free to eat as many under-cooked chickens as he wants, but the (subjective) fact remains that it is quite gross.
Anyway, this isn’t about Nimmo’s illness or his ill-advised recipe. This is about baseball. Nimmo had one of the biggest breakouts of 2018. Because the Mets were not great last year, I don’t think a lot of people appreciated how well he performed. Nimmo put up a 4.5 WAR, which was 29th-highest among all positional players, coming in his age-25 season. Among all 25-year-old position-player seasons from 2010 to 2018, Nimmo’s campaign ranks 24th. There are some nice names on the list as well — Christian Yelich, Trea Turner, and Nolan Arenado, for instance.
FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen told me that there’s an untapped potential in Nimmo that could be uncovered as he plays more. “There’s always a chance that he grows and changes into a different player as he ages, and that might be especially true here because his amateur background is so bizarre compared to most pro baseball players.” Nimmo is from Wyoming and did not get to play regular high school baseball. He had to drive anywhere between 45 minutes to 10 hours to play American Legion ball to get exposure. Nimmo has a cool story that could get cooler as he gets more playing time in the majors. This invites the question that applies to every young player: who can Nimmo be? Is there a particular role model?
ZiPS expects him to hit .240/.359/.402 (116 wRC+) with a 2.3 WAR, with his No. 1 comparison being Andy Van Slyke. That feels conservative, but that’s the nature of projection systems — Nimmo doesn’t have a long history of being an excellent major league player, and he did put up 89 and 118 wRC+ marks in the previous two seasons.
I became curious and decided to search for someone whose numbers resembled Nimmo’s walk and power tendencies from the 2018 season. Why those two? For one, Nimmo boasted a high walk rate of 15%, which engineered a .404 OBP. The only players who were ahead of him in on-base percentage last year were Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. Nimmo was ahead of known superstars such as Bryce Harper, Alex Bregman, and Yelich, which is significant, especially for a youngster playing in his first full major league season. Nimmo also put up a .219 isolated power mark, which is above average and contributed to his 4.5 WAR. It’s not a top-notch number yet, but because of Nimmo’s youth, one might expect it to rise in coming years. I looked up seasons from 2000 to 2018 to find players whose walk and power numbers profiled similarly to Nimmo’s, and one name in particular stood out.
First off, let’s compare Nimmo and the mystery player’s ages 23 to 25 seasons:
The walk and power numbers aren’t the only similarities. Their batted ball profiles also share a resemblance. We actually don’t have the mystery player’s ages 23-to-25 data for that, so we’ll use his career numbers from 2002 to 2014.
|Mystery Player (2002-2014)||23.3%||44.1%||32.6%|
|Brandon Nimmo (career)||22.2%||46.3%||31.5%|
Lastly, here’s an excerpt of one of the mystery player’s scouting reports from 1995:
Physical description: Athletic actions, frame has chance to carry more strength.
Strong points: Outstanding approach to hitting, sweet short compact stroke w/outstanding balance, knowledge of K-zone, good 2-strike hitter, spray ball to all fields. Gap to gap guy, run well especially 1st to 3rd, arm avg to above w/ good carry and rot (rotation?), 4.16 speed to 1B, can play LF-RF fairly well occasionally gets good jumps.
Summation: Young good looking hitter. Mark Grace type and when strength comes he should be able to linedrive some HRs. Defense skills are a little short and experience will help improvement. 3 tool guy now with a high ceiling.
And here’s an excerpt of Brandon Nimmo’s scouting report from Baseball America (subscription required) after the 2015 season:
On-base ability always has been the bedrock of Nimmo’s game, for he excels at working counts and lining the ball to left field if pitchers work him away. He shows pull-side power in batting practice but prefers to work the entire field in games with a handsy, lefthanded swing geared more for line drives than home runs. Nimmo tracks the ball well in center field and grades as at least an average defender with ordinary running speed. He’s graceful and reliable in the outfield, though his average arm would be stretched in right field, if he has to move. Nimmo hasn’t attempted many stolen bases as a pro, and that probably won’t change.
The scouts’ eyes saw similarities as well. They both point out line-drive power that could develop into more home runs in the future (which it did for the mystery player). The scout from 1995 noted the mystery player’s “outstanding approach to hitting” and “good knowledge of K-zone” while the BA praised Nimmo for his plate discipline.
If you haven’t identified the mystery player yet, the answer is Bobby Abreu. The thing is, there are also quite a lot of differences between these two. As you saw from the first table, Nimmo struck out way more than Abreu did. In 2018, Nimmo’s strikeout rate was 26.2%, which is much higher than Abreu’s career average (18.3%), and his career high in a full season (22.6%). Nimmo could improve there, of course. Young hitters tend to lower their strikeout rate until their peak age. According to research from Jeff Zimmerman, Nimmo is at the age where his strikeout rate might be as low as it will get, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt due to his weird amateur background and relative newness to the majors. When I looked up Nimmo’s walk rate and strikeout rate compared to hitters’ seasons from 2000 to 2018, he profiled closer to Adam Dunn and Jim Thome — two sluggers that had way more power than Nimmo is projected to have. Due to Nimmo’s scouting profile, particularly his walk and power tendencies, I felt Abreu would be a better fit.
It is worth noting that hitters strike out much more now than they did during Abreu’s time. One can assume that Abreu would have struck out more if he were to play today than in the early 2000s. As for Nimmo, there have been instances where players drastically improve their strikeout rate, but it’s not really something to count on. You can expect improvements, but as far as the pure numbers go, Nimmo is likely to stay a bigger strikeout hitter than Abreu was.
I mentioned the batted ball profile before. There’s also a stark difference between those two on that score.
Something that jumps out here is the infield fly ball rate. Also, Nimmo seems to have a more pull-happy approach, which became more apparent in 2018, when he pulled 44.7% of his batted balls. Travis Sawchik examined this back in June, noting that his new pull approach may have helped his overall power numbers. Perhaps it’s not something Nimmo would like to give up for now — it did help his power breakout last year, after all.
Writing this, I was originally thinking along the lines of “how Nimmo can become Abreu,” because becoming a two-time All-Star who enjoyed a fruitful 18-year career is a heck of a thing. But after realizing that a major difference between those two — Nimmo’s pull tendency — actually helped the youngster’s ascendance to being an exciting major league regular, I’m not so sure anymore. Would he change his swing for a different approach? Longenhagen doubts it.
“I think that kind of thing is harder to change. I’d expect him to be pull-heavy for the duration of his career,” he said.
There are numbers that indicate that he could be the newer-age Abreu while not completely being an Abreu. I’m not guaranteeing that Nimmo will end up a player who will get Hall of Fame consideration, but there are stats that indicate similarities with a player who will certainly be on next year’s HOF ballot. Some things are nice to dream on.