Entering the 2021 season, the shallowest and most questionable positional group for the Mets was the outfield. When the season ended, the most inconsistent and volatile positional group was the outfield. It’s funny how that worked.
But there were a few expectations entering this year about the team’s group of young and experienced outfielders: Brandon Nimmo would field his position poorly, Dom Smith would outhit his liability in left field, and Michael Conforto would blossom into a star in his contract year. And though none of that happened, there were still a few bright spots in a mostly dark chasm of outfield play. It was a chaotic, confusing, occasionally brilliant, but mostly disappointing season for Mets outfielders.
The Mets decided not to pay for a star free agent outfielder like George Springer or trade for another star like Kris Bryant to solidify a corner outfield position, instead banking on monster offensive seasons from Conforto and Smith in 2020 to translate into All-Star level production in 2021. It was an understandable decision, especially with Smith getting MVP votes in 2020 and Conforto heading into a contract year, which is usually a productive time for a star player looking for a big payday. If Nimmo provided the same level of production he had the previous few years, the Mets would have an imperfect but formidable offensive force in the outfield. None of that happened, of course, as a lot of bad stuff unfolded throughout the season.
We’ll start with the good. The expectations of Nimmo entering the season were of a fairly productive corner outfielder forced into a higher-leverage position he obviously was not comfortable occupying. To hedge Nimmo’s defensive shortcomings, the Mets signed Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. as potential late-inning defensive replacements or spot-starters to fill in for Nimmo’s persistent injury problems. Those ended up happening, as evidenced by Nimmo missing 70 games with finger and hamstring problems. What changed this season was Nimmo’s defense.
After finishing 2020 with -4 outs above average (OAA) in center field according to Baseball Savant, Nimmo blossomed in 2021 with +4 OAA, good for 19th amongst all center fielders despite only playing half a season at the position. A lot of that has to do with the team’s much-improved positioning, and Nimmo also took smarter routes to fly balls this year, covered more ground, and even showed a better arm than he has in seasons past. Nimmo’s viability as the captain of the outfield was one of the team’s most pressing questions entering this season, and when healthy, he seems to have solved the problem himself.
His much-improved defense did not come at the expense of his offense, thankfully. Nimmo once again walked a lot and roped a bunch of singles at the top of the order, and he finished the season with a 137 wRC+, good for fourth-best amongst all major-league center fielders despite his shortened season. His 3.5 fWAR was good for both second-best on the team amongst position players (behind Pete Alonso) and sixth-best in the majors amongst center fielders, making him one of the most productive per-game outfielders in the majors. The only knock on Nimmo this year was his availability, as the Mets losing half a season from their best position player caused a gigantic commotion in his stead. We’ll get to that later.
Someone who didn’t lack durability this year was Dom Smith, who finally got his shot with a full season as a starter in the majors. Smith is not a good outfielder, and the Mets only stashed him in left field there this year to keep his bat in the lineup. After registering a 132 and 168 OPS+ each of the last two seasons, it seemed like a worthwhile risk, even with his clearly superior skills at first base going to the wayside. It did not go well.
Many expected Smith to be bad in left field, and he was. Smith recorded -9 OAA in left field this year, which is the worst defensive season at any position in his career and one of the worst defensive seasons by any outfielder this year. He reacted slowly, ranged poorly, and though he flashed a strong arm on occasion, it didn’t make up for his other shortcomings. What the Mets needed out of Dom was a power bat that justified his left-field hiding place, and he failed to provide that.
What they got instead was a crushing fall to mediocrity. Smith recorded an 84 OPS+ over 145 games, which quite literally halved his rate from his coming-out party in 2020. Though he played in the second-most games of any Met this season (behind Alonso, we’re starting to see a trend), his consistent failures in the lineup were arguably the offense’s most disappointing regular occurrence. Smith finished with negative bWAR and fWAR and was the least valuable starter on the team, and of all left fielders in the majors with at least 400 plate appearances, he was the second-least valuable player by fWAR, behind only Jurickson Profar. That’s not a player to whom any team wants to give nearly 500 plate appearances.
If Nimmo’s season was a surprising success and Smith’s a shocking failure, then Michael Conforto’s season was exceedingly average, though no less disappointing for the free agent. Conforto finished with 1 OAA in 2021, not up to his previous ceiling but certainly acceptable for a power-hitting right fielder. He finished 19th overall amongst all qualified right fielders in OAA, which was the same position Nimmo finished in, turning in a perfectly fine season in right field. What was not expected was his drop-off in offensive production.
Registering a 101 OPS+ in 125 games, Conforto had the second-worst hitting season of his career, and coupled with an unspectacular glove, he registered a career-worst year by fWAR. He walked more and struck out less than his career averages this season, but his power also plummeted, turning him from a potential star of this offseason’s free-agent market to someone who might have cost himself tens of millions of dollars in salary negotiations. That’s what hurts for Conforto, and it certainly hurt the Mets to have another unreliable hitter taking up space in the outfield this past season.
Of course, Nimmo’s star-turn might make the Mets consider him a long-term option somewhere in the outfield, and the money that might’ve gone to Conforto might instead go to the smiley man in center. He certainly proved himself an All-Star caliber center fielder this year, and though his skills translate even better to the corners, he certainly played better in center than any of the players brought in to give him a spell. Who were they again?
The Bench Mob
Ah yes, that’s right, let’s go back to when the Mets were good and fun this year. Pillar and Almora were both brought in as right-handed defensive outfielders to break the glass in case of a Nimmo injury. When José Martinez went down with an injury in Spring Training, both made it on the big league roster to start the season. And bucking the trend of the unexpected performances from the starters, they both pretty much did what was expected of them.
Pillar registered an 88 OPS+ and zero OAA in the outfield this year. In other words, he was a fine bench player, an experienced veteran that any team would be happy to keep in their dugout. Except he started 82 games and saw 347 plate appearances, by far the most of any non-regular on the team, which is not what any team would want out of a below-average defensive replacement winding down his career.
Almora theoretically filled the same role as Pillar, only slightly better defensively and five years younger. His offensive production has trended downwards since his rookie season, and it completely bottomed out this year as he registered a negative OPS+, but he also suffered a gruesome injury running head-first into the center-field wall in May and only saw 54 plate appearances throughout the season. Judging Almora’s value by his production as a major leaguer in 2021 may not provide intended results.
Of course, Almora was not the only Mets outfielder to get injured in May. First came Nimmo, who took a pitch to his finger on the first of the month. Then came Almora on the eleventh, then McNeil and Conforto back-to-back on the 16th, and then finally Pillar on the 17th. How did the Mets overcome this adversity with only one healthy regular outfielder left? I’m glad you asked.
The Mets May Minor-League Motley Mayhem (Mason, Maybin, McKinney, oh my!)
Okay so here’s what happened: After McNeil and Conforto both suffered hamstring tears on the 16th of May, the Mets were left with only two regular outfielders, Kevin Pillar and Dom Smith, who as we’ve already established isn’t really an outfielder. Braves reliever Jacob Webb then hit Pillar in the face with a fastball on the 17th, which knocked Pillar out for close to two weeks and left the Mets with just Smith to roam the outfield.
Minor leaguers Johneshwy Fargas and Khalil Lee both made their major-league debuts on May 17th. Of the two, Fargas was the more fun and productive, but he got hurt in late May and the Cubs claimed him off waivers in July. Lee, meanwhile, had a miserable time at the plate, recording only one hit in 18 plate appearances—though it was a memorable and, at the time, clutch hit for the club. As a top-ten prospect in the organization, the 23-year-old Lee may quite well have a future in the Mets outfield, but it was clear this season that he was not ready for the bright lights.
The Mets then tried the veteran free agent approach, acquiring Cameron Maybin and starting him in the outfield on the 19th. He played in 9 games, registered 33 plate appearances, and recorded exactly one hit. It would be advisable to forget that Cameron Maybin ever played for the Mets.
The Mets then acquired Billy McKinney from the Brewers and played him on the 23rd. This was the only outfield solution that may have sort-of worked for the Mets, as McKinney flashed a lot of power from the left side of the plate and recorded a 110 OPS+ in 39 games. He very well may have developed into a regular this season as he was hitting better than both Smith and Conforto, but a roster crunch when Francisco Lindor rejoined the team in July left no room for McKinney. Since McKinney was out of options, the Mets sent him to the Dodgers for outfielder Carlos Rincón as he would have certainly been claimed by another team had he been designated for assignment.
The Mets traded McKinney reluctantly, but it might’ve been for the best as his production sputtered once he went out west. This also gave an opportunity for utility player Brandon Drury to spend some time in the outfield. Getting his first appearance in the outfield on the 25th, Drury started 9 games as a backup outfielder throughout the second half of the season and basically matched McKinney’s production with a 112 OPS+ from the right side of the plate. Mason Williams got his first call-up with the Mets in late May, too, and produced at a Pillar-like level minus the experience.
So yeah, the Mets outfield experience in May was unlike anything most Mets fans have ever seen. They also went 17-9 in May, so perhaps they stumbled upon something that resembled a winning formula. Maybe what the Mets needed in August was some more McKinney and Johneshwy—maybe we’d be seeing Mason Williams on a playoff roster. Or not, but it was definitely fun in the moment.
Also Jeff McNeil
It also appears Jeff McNeil started 26 games in left field this season. I have no recollection of this happening, but it’s worth exploring.
McNeil actually had impressive defensive stats this season, but mostly at second base, where better positioning and all-world defender Lindor to his right certainly helped his cause. Registering 1 OAA and an 86 OPS+ over 120 games puts him somewhere between Smith and Conforto on this year’s outfield scale, which isn’t particularly impressive. If McNeil has a future with this team, it would be to everyone’s benefit if it stayed at second base.
With that said, it’s just about impossible to predict who will be in the outfield next season. Nimmo should be there in his contract year, and whether in center or in a corner, the Mets will hope he turns in a healthier and more productive season than Conforto did this year. As for Conforto, the Mets are going to have to really want him back after reports indicate that he would reject their qualifying offer. And as for Smith, Mets fans should hope that the left-field experiment is officially over. If Smith is to return, one would hope it would be with more time at first base than in left field.
The Mets entered the 2021 season with a lot of questions about their outfield, and with most of them still unanswered, there will be even more questions heading into 2022. Whether outfielders will be a priority in the organization remains to be seen, but with such lackluster seasons from potential stars, they should probably put it near the top of the list.