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The Mets’ infield was a strength in 2021, but injuries took their toll

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Pete Alonso was one of the more consistent performers on the team and Javier Báez provided a boost in the second half, but losing Francisco Lindor just when he was hitting his stride was a major blow.

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Heading into Opening Day of the 2021 season, third base was seen as one of the only glaring holes on the roster, with J.D. Davis being installed as the every day third baseman despite his questionable defense. The Mets chose not to address this in the offseason, but they did bolster their infield depth by signing Jonathan Villar to what turned out to be a bargain one-year, $3 million deal and by signing players like José Peraza and Brandon Drury to minor league deals. It turns out that the Mets would need every bit of that depth in 2021, but obviously the biggest story of the Mets’ offseason was the acquisition and subsequent extension of Francisco Lindor, who will now be the shortstop in Queens for the next decade. Therefore, although third base was still a question mark, with Pete Alonso at first base, Jeff McNeil at second base, and the Mets’ new star player at shortstop, the infield was still a strength on paper when the season began.

Ultimately, the Mets’ infield was a strength in 2021, but it was perhaps not in the way that most would have expected. If you look at things from a bird’s-eye view, the Mets’ infield was above average both offensively and defensively this season.

At each infield position in 2021, the Mets were (nearly) league average or better by wRC+.

2021 Mets infield wRC+ by position

Position wRC+
Position wRC+
1B 133
2B 99
SS 114
3B 110

Of course, the highest number in this table—first base—was provided almost entirely by Pete Alonso, who led the team in plate appearances and offensive WAR this season. If you prefer Baseball Reference metrics, he led the team in OPS+ and bWAR as well, but Fangraphs gives the edge to Brandon Nimmo in wRC+ and fWAR (Alonso is a close second in both). Alonso put up a .262/.344/.519 batting line with a 133 wRC+ and a 134 OPS+ in 637 plate appearances in 2021. Perhaps because these numbers don’t quite live up to his prodigious rookie season—especially his mere 37 home runs, as opposed to a record-breaking amount—this very good season from Alonso was, dare I say, overlooked a bit. I am blessed with the task of writing Alonso’s individual season review, so more on that later. But for now, it’s safe to say that Alonso was the anchor of the Mets’ infield this season—at least in terms of hitting and staying healthy.

Every other Mets infielder had trouble with either hitting or staying healthy or both to some degree in 2021. J.D. Davis came out of the gate swinging and actually looked like he very well might hit enough to overcome his shortcomings in the field. He hit a blistering .410 in April and in fact, he was just about the only Met who hit at all during that month. But then, the trouble with his hand started and he was never really the same after that, even when he did return to the lineup. He ultimately landed on the injured list again at the end of the season and required surgery to repair a ligament in his hand.

Davis’ struggles were so bad that Jonathan Villar, who had filled in so admirably at third base in his absence, basically took his job from him. Other than Alonso and Lindor, Villar was the only Met to log over 500 plate appearances in 2021, over which he posted a 105 wRC+ and led the team in stolen bases with 14. Although Villar struggled at the end of the season with the bat and was likely too exposed playing every day, he can be counted among the Mets’ pleasant surprises in 2021.

Along with Davis, Jeff McNeil is another player that lost significant time due to injury and underperformance. It was a season-long struggle for McNeil, who after hitting over .300 for his first three seasons as a big leaguer, hit .249 in 2021 with a 91 wRC+. McNeil missed over a month with a hamstring strain in mid-May and then found himself the odd man out after the Mets acquired Javier Báez at the trading deadline and Francisco Lindor returned from the injured list, splitting his diminished playing time between second base and left field. Although the underlying batted ball data looks more or less in line with McNeil’s career averages, whether he is the victim of shifting or a bad approach at the plate or something else, 2021 is not a season he will likely look back on fondly.

The only reason why the Mets were pretty much right at league average offensively from the second base position this season in the end is because of at-bats contributed by Báez, whose Mets numbers you cannot argue with, no matter which side of the “thumbs down” scandal you may be on. Báez did his part to try to carry the limping Mets over the finish line with his 143 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR in the second half (and a notably higher walk rate than his time with the Cubs, which is worth pointing out given how his skeptics point to strikeouts), but sadly the Mets collectively were not up to the task.

A big part of the reason why they were not up to the task is because Francisco Lindor got hurt at exactly the wrong time (and at the same time as Jacob deGrom, no less). Of course, volumes could be filled with the words that have already been written about Lindor’s early-season struggles. And there is no sugarcoating it; he was awful in April—historically so—to the tune of a 57 wRC+ that month. He showed signs of improvement in May, but then finally began to heat up in earnest in June. From June 1 until hitting the injured list in mid-July, Lindor posted a 129 wRC+—a number that is just about in line with what a good Francisco Lindor season would be. But then of course, he missed five weeks with an oblique strain, during which time the Mets dropped precipitously in the standings. Lindor returned to action on August 24, which was the tail-end of the stretch where the Mets were getting pummeled by the Dodgers and Giants in alternating turns for two weeks, and by that time the Mets were more or less done even if they were not yet mathematically eliminated.

Lindor finished the season strong, posting a 138 wRC+ in September and giving the Mets one last thing to smile about in his three-homer game against the Yankees. He clawed his way to an above average season in 2021, putting up a 103 wRC+ overall on the season. While it’s an impressive feat given where he started, it’s not the offensive season anyone—least of all Lindor himself—would have expected going into the year.

Let’s now shift to the infield defense, which like the offense, was a net positive this season.

2021 Mets infield defense by Outs Above Average

Player OAA
Player OAA
Francisco Lindor 20
Jeff McNeil 5
Javier Báez 2
Luis Guillorme 1
Pete Alonso 1
Jonathan Villar -3
J.D. Davis -3

*Note: The only players that appear in this table are players who meet the minimum threshold number of attempts to qualify. Other players with at least ten infield attempts include José Peraza (+7 OAA), Brandon Drury (-1 OAA), and Wilfredo Tovar (0 OAA).

Of course, the eye-catching number here—which was second in all of baseball for the 2021 season—belongs to Francisco Lindor, whose defense at shortstop was elite as advertised, even when he wasn’t hitting. OAA really likes Jeff McNeil as well and he is perhaps one of the players who benefitted from the Mets’ improved positioning this year. Pete Alonso demonstrated improvement on defense as well; he was significantly below average by OAA in both 2019 (-6) and 2020 (-5). Playing a mix of shortstop and second base, Javier Báez was also an above average defender. As expected, the Mets’ weak point defensively was third base, with both Jonathan Villar and J.D. Davis rating as below average defensive players. Although he led the team in stolen bases as I previously mentioned, Villar often hurt the Mets on the base paths as well, getting picked off more times than any other player in baseball by a fairly sizable margin.

Because of all the injuries Mets infielders dealt with this season, the Mets had to reach to the very bottom of the barrel of their infield depth. Luis Guillorme and José Peraza each logged just over 150 plate appearances apiece. While both of them likely exceeded expectations this season, over 300 combined plate appearances from the two of them is too many, especially for a team that fancied itself a playoff contender.

Players in the “oh yeah, that was a thing that happened” category of 2021 Mets infielders include Brandon Drury (Remember that one week where he hit .700? Good times.), Travis Blankenhorn (His first career dinger was that three-run homer against the Pirates in the improbable comeback game in July, so that’s fun.), and Wilfredo Tovar (Name all twelve of his plate appearances. You cannot.).

As the Mets head into 2022, Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor are fixtures at their positions, but it’s hard to argue anything else is really a sure thing when it comes to the infield picture moving forward. Robinson Canó is slated to return (lol), but is he capable of playing second base at this stage of his career? If there is a DH in the National League next year, he may not have to, but simply handing the everyday job to Jeff McNeil is a tough sell, given his 2021 performance—words I never thought I would type, honestly. And one hopes that the Mets have learned from their mistakes and will try in earnest this time to find a more permanent and workable solution at third base—whether that be re-signing Báez and shifting McNeil (or someone else) to third or signing or trading for a third baseman. But, this is the Mets we’re talking about, so I suppose one can never know. One thing is clear: While the Mets infield ended up above average in aggregate both offensively and defensively in 2021, there are certainly question marks that need to be addressed in that area this offseason.