Coming into the season, it was expected that the Mets’ outfield would experience the most volatility of the defensive corps, especially with new signings Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora hoping to play a good amount of center field. But other than a Pillar start on Opening Day, the outfield has so far been cemented with Dom Smith starting in left, Brandon Nimmo starting in center, and Michael Conforto starting in right.
The infield, on the other hand, initially with four clear starters in distinct positions, has experienced the most movement early this season due to an injury to J.D. Davis’s hand. Complicating matters is Jeff McNeil’s ostensibly slow start, Jonathan Villar’s hot bat, and Luis Guillorme’s unexpected defensive flubs. In the first four games, the Mets have already rolled out three different infield lineups with no clear indication of a plan while Davis sits.
The problem is pretty straightforward: McNeil, Villar, and Guillorme are all capable of playing second and third base, and have all demonstrated good reasons why they should start, but there are only two places in the lineup to pencil them in. On the surface, it seems the easy solution would be to start McNeil at second base and rotate between Villar and Guillorme at third depending on pitching matchups or defensive priorities. But none of these three players have so far played into their expected roles, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, giving manager Luis Rojas a challenging job until someone stands out as the clear favorite.
That should be McNeil, who is the most complete and talented of the three, but the former All-Star so far has only one hit in eleven plate appearances. One could be concerned that this trend has continued since his struggles during spring training, but a look at the Statcast numbers show that McNeil has been exceptionally unlucky with his batted balls so far this season. His average exit velocity of 90.3 mph is the highest of his career, as is his .369 xBA (expected batting average) and .869 xSLG (expected slugging), both landing in the top 5% of the league. All of that is tough toodles for McNeil, who currently sports a dreadful .594 OPS, but a look at his swings and pitch selection shows that McNeil will most likely be fine despite not producing much in this small sample size.
But there is the issue of Villar, who unlike McNeil is producing quite a bit so far. Villar already has three hits in eleven plate appearances, all coming on Wednesday where Villar was a home run shy of hitting for the cycle. The Statcast numbers show this might not be luck, either, as Villar currently sports an impressive .320 xBA and a .581 xSLG and an OPS more than 200 points higher than McNeil’s. Whether this is a case of small sample size for Villar is still to be determined, but considering his great hitting years in 2016 and 2019, he has already demonstrated a capability for this kind of offense.
Someone who isn’t expected to be a key offensive contributor is Luis Guillorme, but that’s exactly what he’s been so far this season. In just eight plate appearances, Guillorme has already hit safely three times and drawn two walks, sporting a massive 1.125 OPS that leads all Mets hitters besides Brandon Nimmo (1.150) and offensive powerhouse Jacob deGrom (1.333). Even more surprising, however, are the two errors Guillorme has recorded this season, one on an errant throw to the plate that allowed the go-ahead runs to score against the Phillies on Opening Day. In what is probably the funniest small-sample-size narrative for the Mets so far, Guillorme has already doubled his career error total in just his first four games of the season. With just one error in parts of the last three seasons, it can safely be assumed that Guillorme is still the reliable defensive standout on the roster and his two errors in 2021 an inexplicable anomaly.
But this doesn’t make things any clearer for the Mets infield. Davis’s injury does not appear to be serious, so when he returns the Mets will likely stick with their original plan of playing him at third and McNeil at second. But should they? With Villar and Guillorme hitting as well as they are right now, there’s no reason to rush Davis back into the lineup until he’s completely healed. And even if Davis is completely healed, there’s no telling whether he would produce at the same level of Guillorme or Villar, and sitting either of them in favor of Davis might not be the best choice for the team.
Like any way-too-early analysis, these circumstances are likely a product of small sample sizes and incomplete data. There is enough evidence to show that McNeil and Davis are more productive ballplayers than Villar and Guillorme at this point in their careers and that everyone should reshuffle back to their roles once Davis returns. But a baseball season is nothing but a series of small sample sizes, and in this particular one Villar and Guillorme are raking while McNeil and Davis are not. Having too many productive options is another good problem for the Mets to have, and the hard part at this point for the team is deciding who plays where once Davis returns.