The Mets are off to a great start. They have increased their playoff odds more than other club since Opening Day. The Mets always had significant potential, and downside — considerable error bars in either direction — given both the club’s talent and injury concerns.
Now a couple turns through the rotation, the Mets’ starters have generally pitched well and remain healthy. Michael Conforto, meanwhile, has made a remarkable return from his shoulder injury. The Mets are being rewarded early for electing to bolster this talented, but highly volatile, core with the signings of Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Anthony Swarzak.
But the Mets could also be better.
This week, the club sent down their second-best hitter (217 wRC+) and position player to date (0.3) in Brandon Nimmo, ostensibly because there was no place to put him following the return of Conforto. The Mets have Yoenis Cespedes in left, Bruce in right, and a resurgent Adrian Gonzalez at first base. The Mets also have a quality reserve outfield option in Juan Lagares. Nimmo is blocked. But let’s hope he’s not sequestered in Las Vegas for too long. The Mets have sidelined one of the more intriguing players in the game.
Our former compatriot Eno Sarris wondered about what Nimmo could become back in January.
Nimmo’s plate discipline is a pretty interesting place to start. I’m going to share again the list of comps Eno created:
|Player||Results||Exit Velo||Launch Angle||Pull%||Z-Swing||O-Swing||Z-O Swing|
|Steven Souza Jr.||347||88.1||11.0||46.8%||70.8%||24.4%||46.4%|
|Hyun Soo Kim||168||88.1||9.1||33.9%||65.4%||20.8%||44.6%|
That’s a pretty fascinating list.
And while we most acknowledge the small-sample nature of everything that has occurred to date, Nimmo had only refined that batting eye during his brief stay in Queens.
While it’s a very small sample, it also represents a continuation from last year of his rare capacity to discern balls from strikes.
During Nimmo’s week with the Mets, he also swung and missed at just just one pitch.
That’s good for a 94.7% contact rate. While Nimmo had a bit of a strikeout issue last season (27.5%), it wasn’t from a lack of contact ability: he whiffed on just 7.9% of his swing attempts. The strikeouts were a product, rather, of working deep into counts and perhaps excessive passivity on occasion. He had the 31st-lowest zone-swing rate last season. He could stand to attack more pitches in the zone. A Community Blog post by contributor mojohill in January made the case for Nimmo to be the Mets’ regular leadoff hitter.
The following is what Nimmo’s work against all out-of-zone pitches looks like visually in 2018:
And all pitches he’s faced since last July 1:
Just for kicks, here’s Joey Votto’s zone discipline since July 1, 2017:
Votto has the most discerning eye in the game.
And for a contrasting example, here’s the free-swinging Javier Baez:
While Nimmo didn’t barrel a ton of pitches last season, he ranks second in expected wOBA (.589) for the first 15 balls he put in play in 2018. Really small sample, of course, but he has begun to reduce to his ground-ball rate. For his minor-league career, Nimmo’s ground-ball rate was well over 50%, but he reduced it to 42.9% last season and was again hitting more air balls than ground balls early this season. Nimmo might be gradually improving his quality of contact.
If he can couple better batted-ball quality with what appears to be a truly elite batting eye, the Mets really have something. And while he might not have all the tools of a prototypical center fielder, that’s become less important in 2018. Consider: opportunities have declined more in center field than any other position over the last decade. Defensive chances in center declined from 2007 to 2017 by 27%.
Moreover, the Mets are one of four staffs averaging 10 strikeouts per nine and are fourth in baseball with a 28.2% strikeout percentage. So, the Mets can probably get away with squeezing in more offense to their lineup more than most clubs. It means Lagares and his career 84 wRC+ is best served in a defensive-replacement, fourth-outfielder role.
Either player, Nimmo or Conforto, would likely provide a defensive upgrade over Bruce in a corner and Bruce could move to first base. While he has just 117 innings of major-league experience, Bruce has said he is comfortable there, noting that he played the position often as an amateur.
Who is really blocking Nimmo? Gonzalez, who supplanted Dominic Smith, and to whom the Mets only owe $545,000 this season? So long as Gonzalez hits, and the outfield is healthy, Nimmo might be stuck in Triple-A. But for how long with Gonzalez hit? He was a below-replacement-level player last season and depth charts project him for a 99 wRC+ going forward in his age-35 season. Moreover, Gonzalez’s defense has declined, and he now rates as a below-average defender at first by DRS.
How much do the Mets believe in Gonzalez?
Even if the outfield remains healthy and Gonzalez is holding his own, there is a case to be made for finding a spot for Nimmo. Like a year ago with Conforto, the Mets are blocking one of their best hitters and taking away major-league plate appearances from a developing player.
While most clubs would prefer a young player receive everyday reps to a bench role, there’s also case to be made for using Nimmo as a fourth outfielder and rotating him in to keep Cespedes and Bruce fresh, and reduce the workload on Conforto coming back from injury. The problem is Lagares — who remains a useful player — has a guaranteed deal.
We’ll probably see Nimmo again, soon. Twenty-five man rosters rarely enjoy complete health. But there’s an argument to be made be he should never have been the odd man out. The Mets’ fast start makes them a very real postseason contender, and Nimmo is one of their best 25 options, and he’s quite possibly one of their best 15 major-league-caliber assets. Maybe he’s something even more.