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Brandon Nimmo will get on base, probably play too much center field in 2021

The outlook for the smiley outfielder is the same as it is every year: lots of walks, some power, and defense that ideally belongs in a corner.

Miami Marlins v New York Mets Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

If you sort the wRC+ leaders among all outfielders since 2018, you’ll pull up a list headed by the exact names you would expect to see: Trout, Yelich, Betts, Judge, and Soto. Those are some of the biggest names in the entire sport. But coming in at number seven on the leaderboard is a name most people would not have guessed if they had a dozen chances: Brandon Nimmo. The 27-year-old has a 139 wRC+ since 2018, which comes in ahead of even more household names like Bellinger, Acuña Jr., Harper, and even Conforto.

Nimmo finally got regular playing time for the first time in 2018 and burst on to the scene, posting a .404 on base percentage, a .219 ISO, and a 148 wRC+ across 140 games. In 2019, he dealt with neck issues throughout the year, dropping his power output and resulting in in a measly .221 batting average. Of course, with his uncanny ability to get on base, Nimmo still had a .375 OBP and a 113 wRC+, but it was a concerning drop in production for sure.

Then the outfielder came back fully healthy in 2020 and quelled any doubts that 2018 was a fluke season by matching his 148 wRC+ and .404 OBP from 2018 in last year’s abbreviated season. Nimmo was still able to do that despite drawing fewer walks, as he made more contact than he ever had before and hit for a .280 average.

Because Nimmo is not a flashy player—his greatest strength is his ability to draw a walk and work deep counts, which is not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing tool—he still gets underrated constantly, even by people who do understand the value of on-base percentage. Most people probably wouldn’t put him in their top-10 outfielders in the game, despite producing like one over the last three seasons.

That could be because most of the conversation lately has been centered around his defense. Nimmo has proven to be a completely capable corner outfielder, but less so in center field. He played center field in short spurts from 2016-2019 and graded out as a minus defender, but he still looked like someone you could live with out there if you needed to. So the Mets took a bit of a risk and went in to 2020 with Nimmo as their primary center fielder. It was a disaster.

Nimmo looked like a completely unplayable center fielder, taking circuitous routes, bad first steps, and straight up whiffing on some balls. The small sample size metrics backed this up, with UZR/150 grading him out at a staggeringly bad -19.2 (a flat 0 is considered average).

The Mets, despite this, decided against bringing in a better center field defender to supplant Nimmo, whiffing on George Springer and opting not to even entertain Jackie Bradley Jr., to the chagrin of many. Instead, the Mets chose to shop in the lower end of the market and sign Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. to be backup center fielders and defensive replacements. This means that Nimmo once again enters the season as the primary center fielder. The good news is that he has worked on playing deeper and getting a better first step this spring, and he’s looked much better out there in games with a nice home-run robbing grab on the run last week being the highlight so far.

The Mets must be confident that Nimmo can return to being merely a below-average center fielder instead of the disastrously bad center fielder he was last year, because a team with World Series aspirations should not be running out a -20 defender in center field under any circumstance, but especially not as their Plan A alignment.

Offensively, we know exactly who Nimmo is. It’s reasonable to assume the higher average/lower walk rate he displayed last year was due to a smaller sample size and expect that to flip back to career norms this year, meaning that Nimmo is going to do exactly what he’s always done: walk at an insanely high rate, display for a good bit of power, and likely hit for an average in the mid-.200s. It’s a profile that doesn’t have much variance, ages well, and is extremely valuable. So unless his defense completely tanks his value, expect Nimmo to once again sit in the 4-5 WAR/162 range. And expect him to once again wind up criminally underrated.