There’s no good reason why people should continue to argue that Brandon Nimmo is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. However, they sure love to try. It’s becoming something of a running joke—not a funny one, mind you—on Mets Twitter, and it’s something I’m here to stop.
Admittedly, Nimmo’s injury-shortened 2019 season was something of a disappointment. A lingering neck injury held the 26-year-old back last year, limiting him to just 69 games. On the surface, his output was rather pedestrian, as he finished the season hitting .221/.375/.407 with a 114 wRC+ and a 1.3 fWAR in 199 at-bats. But on the other hand, we saw potentially the worst of Nimmo due to his neck issues and were still treated to an above-average on-base percentage and wRC+, which only promises good things if he can stay healthy in 2020.
After all, Nimmo is just one year removed from a terrific 2018 season that provided a glimpse of what he can do for the club. While playing 140 games that year, he set career bests across the board with a .263/.404/.483 slash line, a 148 wRC+, and 4.5 fWAR in 433 at-bats. He played a key role as a leadoff hitter and became a dependable table-setter, as he ranked second in the National League in on-base percentage and second to eventual MVP Christian Yelich in wRC+. He also contributed a top-10 OPS.
We did not get to see that Nimmo last season, and it’s reasonable to blame a lot of the outfielder’s early-season struggles on the neck injury that he played through and didn’t allow to properly heal—which is something the team should have had a better handle on from the jump. After rebounding from a slow start that saw him strike out 23 times in his first 50 plate appearances, he put up Nimmo-like numbers before he experienced his first bout of discomfort in his neck. He soldiered on through the next month or so before was finally sidelined in late May. From there, he failed to see the field again until September.
When he returned healthy in the final month of 2019, he was every bit the Nimmo the team and its fans fell in love with, as I outlined in his 2018 season review. He hit .261/.430/.565 with five home runs, a 159 wRC+, and 1.0 fWAR in 26 games over the season’s final months, which in some areas exceeded what he did the previous year. In looking at his production as a whole, people love to point to his batting average and his injuries as a reason why he cannot be trusted, but those are both flawed and overlook his exciting potential, much of which we have already seen in action.
As we look at the upcoming season, Nimmo has proclaimed that he can “play freely” but will need to manage the neck going forward, which poses some concern that the injury could resurface. For the team to go where they are hoping to go—namely, a return to the postseason for the first time since 2016—they will need Nimmo healthy for 140-plus games. He can slot into a number of different spots in the team’s lineup, but he is most valuable in the leadoff spot, where his ability to get on base at a 40-percent clip will greatly benefit players hitting behind him.
Despite coming up as a corner outfielder, he will likely start the year as the primary center field given the current roster construction. Michael Conforto could spell him in center, but he projects to take the majority of the reps in right with J.D. Davis in left (unless/until Yoenis Cespedes makes his triumphant return). Statistically, center field is his worst position defensively, as he’s posted a career -7 DRS after finishing last year with a -2 DRS in center, compared to a career 1 DRS (-1 in 2019) in left and a career -2 DRS (2 in 2019) in right. Nimmo played a majority of his innings in 2019 in center field by a fairly significant margin, and that trend is almost certain to continue in 2020.
For a team with a number of valuable cogs in their line-up, Nimmo often gets overlooked. With a fully healthy Nimmo last season, instead of a revolving door of outfielders like Aaron Altherr and Carlos Gomez who saw far too much starting time, the Mets would have had a much better shot at making the playoffs. With Nimmo hitting ahead of Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso, and Michael Conforto, the lineup could look as deep as it’s been in a long time.
Many fans will bemoan Nimmo’s injuries as just another “if” and will claim he’s far from a sure thing, but we have already seen Nimmo succeed at the big league level and it’s reasonable to think he can do it again. If he can “play freely” as he says, there’s no reason Nimmo can’t put up big numbers and match, or even surpass, his stellar 2018 season and his September showing. If Brandon has that big year, the team will have plenty of reasons to smile.