The Mets reportedly continue to look for infield help this winter with a view to improving their team for the 2018 campaign. According to Ken Rosenthal, three of the targets for New York are free agents — specifically, Todd Frazier, Eduardo Nunez, and Neil Walker. Pirates infielder Josh Harrison is a fourth. The cost of acquiring any of the first three is pretty straightforward: about $30-40 million, according to our crowdsourced estimates. As for Harrison, the issue of “cost” is more complicated.
According to Rosenthal, the Pirates want Brandon Nimmo in return for their versatile infielder. Superficially, that seems to make sense for the Mets. Nimmo is probably a fifth outfielder after Michael Conforto gets healthy. As for Harrison, he’d probably start. That’s a good trade-off for New York, right?
In one way, yes. But then there’s also that agonizing question every club is compelled to face when pondering the trade of a young player: what could he become? What’s his upside?
One way of answering that question with regard to Nimmo, specifically, is to focus on his process and look at other players who have a similar one. Nimmo is a player with a good eye, a nearly even batted-ball mix, and a certain degree of power. Also, his outfield defense looks decent. Let’s get exact about those facets of his game and look at other players with similar games.
The Mets outfielder put 120 balls in play last year, so he gave us a decent sample with which to work, as long as we don’t get too fine with our search criteria. His average exit velocity (88.8 mph) ranked 92nd out of the 459 players who recorded at least 50 balls in play. Let’s grab all the players between 88 and 90 mph exit velocity. That gives us 86 players.
Nimmo doesn’t lift the ball tremendously — his 9.6-degree launch angle ranked 291st out of that group of 459 players — but he isn’t Slappy McSlapperson. Let’s remove from the 86 players all of the players who lifted the ball over 11.6 degrees on average, and below 9.0 degrees. That skews towards power, but we’re looking for reasonable upside here, and at 24 years old, Nimmo could be expected to hit fewer ground balls in the next couple of years.
Now let’s bring in Nimmo’s plate discipline. Only four players reached at pitches outside the zone less often than Nimmo last year, so he’s got something serious going for him there. Let’s remove all the players who reached at pitches more often than league average last year. We lose players like Nomar Mazara and Jackie Bradley Jr., but we also pare our list down to eight players along with Nimmo.
Here are those eight players, ranked by zone swing minus reach rate:
|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%|
I put pull percentage on the table because horizontal spray angle matters and pulling can be good for power. Nimmo could get more aggressive on pitches inside the zone, pull for more power, and turn into something like Steven Souza Jr. at the plate. Yasiel Puig with better plate discipline seems possible, even if one of Puig’s biceps could possibly contain both of Nimmo’s.
If we want to focus only on players who currently look like Nimmo, though, then we’ve pretty much found a clone: Austin Barnes. The Dodgers catcher had a heck of a debut last season, one that saw him supplant starter Yasmani Grandal in the playoffs. He makes a little more contact than Nimmo, but otherwise you’re pairing an excellent eye at the plate with an even batted-ball mix and emerging power in the same way.
Then again, part of the magic for Barnes is that he’s a catcher. What can Nimmo do with the glove?
Let’s once again turn to the advanced stats to help us out. It’s tempting to use Outs Above Average to find a comp and say, hey, he looks like he’s about as good as Gregor Blanco, Carlos Gomez, Randal Grichuk, and A.J. Pollock, who all have a “2” in that category. That would make him a good defensive outfielder but maybe not an excellent center fielder.
The problem is that OAA is a counting stat. Nimmo, meanwhile, played about a third of a season, and we don’t want to just project him out. Let’s instead use our comp-sorting method on his catch stats — Statcast also has catch success and opportunities broken down by difficulty — to find a defensive comp.
|4 +5 Star (0-50%)||3 Star (51-75%)||2 Star (76-90%)||1 Star (91-95%)|
4+5 star = 0-20; 3 star = 70-86; 2 star = 80-90; 1 star =90+
Defense is still difficult to study because of the sample sizes. Look how much of a difference one more catch in each category would make for Nimmo and you see that this is a somewhat futile exercise. At the same time, a similar picture emerges even as we try to drill down. He should be a good defensive corner outfielder, or maybe a temporary center fielder as he remains young and agile.
The negative spin on this skillset still remains. An “Austin Barnes without the catcher’s glove” or a “Steven Souza Jr without the pull power” hints at it: some call Nimmo a tweener, and that assessment seems to have some merit in light of the numbers. You could be really negative and call him “Hunter Pence with Hyun Soo Kim’s bat.”
On the other hand, if you begin with Nimmo’s elite skill — plate discipline — and then add in the fact that he could become Souza at the plate and George Springer in the field, things look better. He’s got a few years to improve and a diverse skill set in hand currently. If he started swinging at more strikes — particularly borderline strikes — we might see some real growth.
In Brandon Nimmo, the Mets basically have a young, pre-injury Michael Brantley on their hands, a player with great plate discipline and good corner-outfield defense with a chance at more. That’s worth holding on to if free agency can get them a useful infielder for the 2018 season.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.