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Mets Player Performance Meter: Position players, first half

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A quick review of how the Mets’ position players fared over the first half of the 2021 season.

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Mets ended the first half of the 2021 season with a 47-40 record and a 3.5 game lead in the NL East. Although the Mets have not been a juggernaut, they have done enough to stay atop a weak division for most of the first half. But, that has mostly been on the back of their pitching. The performance from the offense overall has been underwhelming in the first half. As a group, Mets hitters posted a 92 wRC+ in the first half of 2021, which is decidedly average. That mark ranks 17th out of 30 MLB teams. However, the Mets are second to last in the league in runs scored, ahead of only the Pirates.

There are many reasons why an offense that was a strength of the team in 2020 and should have been well above average in 2021 has faltered, especially when it comes to run production. Atop the list of reasons is injuries. Back in May, Fangraphs published a graphic that depicted the projected WAR on the injured list for each team and the Mets had the highest projected WAR on the IL by far of any team, approaching 20 fWAR. Of course there were pitching injuries factored into that as well (and we’ll get to that later), but essentially all of the Mets starting position players outside of Francisco Lindor (who is now injured) and James McCann spent at least a short stint on the injured list—and for many it was a much more extended period. Only Lindor, Dominic Smith, and Pete Alonso reached 300 plate appearances in the first half, which is not a recipe for success.

Injuries, particularly soft tissue injuries like the hamstring strains Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil suffered, are up across the league this season. But they have had an outsized impact on the Mets. One of the only reasons the offense has been able to hit just enough to maintain a positive run differential in the first half has been incredibly clutch performances from the self-proclaimed “bench mob,” who filled in so admirably when the Mets needed it most.

Still, one can’t blame injuries for everything. The fact remains that in April when pretty much the whole lineup was healthy, the Mets still weren’t hitting. And outside of Pete Alonso, no one is hitting substantially for power. Aside from the latest devastating blow in Lindor’s oblique strain, the lineup is now pretty much healthy again. It’s too soon to tell if they will continue to struggle with run production in the second half, but in order for the offense to improve, Brandon Nimmo will need to remain a sparkplug while guys like Conforto, McNeil, and Dominic Smith will need to produce at the level that they are capable.

We’ll start our player-by-player breakdown with Francisco Lindor since he is one of the few players that remained healthy the entire first half, but whose first half performance warrants some discussion and examination. As has been covered extensively, Lindor struggled mightily with the bat at the start of the 2021 season, particularly in April, when he posted a 60 wRC+ for that month. Given his big contract extension, the slow start immediately prompted articles and discourse about whether Lindor would ever “live up” to his $341 million agreement with the Mets approximately one month into a decade-long contract. Although his performance improved in May, it remained well below average and certainly below expectations at an 81 wRC+ for the month. More articles were written examining why oh why this elite player is suddenly bad at baseball. But between June 1 (ironically the day some of those pieces were published) and the All-Star Break, Lindor posted a 130 wRC+. All of that evens out to a 99 wRC+ overall for the first half—almost exactly average. Obviously that is still below his career averages, but it is amazing he managed to scrape himself back to league average, given the start he had. One thing that has been consistent from Lindor is his elite defense, which has been as advertised at shortstop. Lindor ranks fourth among all MLB players in outs above average in 2021, according to Statcast. For that reason, and because Lindor was one of the few Mets position players that managed to stay healthy in the first half, he has been the Mets’ most valuable position player in the first half—by both fWAR and bWAR—despite his struggles. He leads the Mets in hits, stolen bases, walks and runs scored in the first half. He is the only Met besides Pete Alonso to have double-digit home runs and only two Met hitters have more RBIs in the first half. So while fans certainly hope that once he returns from the injured list, he will be much more like his June/July self rather than his April/May self, the fact remains that Lindor’s oblique injury is a huge blow to the team—both when it comes to performance and when it comes to intangibles Lindor has provided, like his leadership and energy.

While Lindor has been the most valuable position player on the Mets by WAR, I think the overall standout offensive performer for the first half has been Pete Alonso. While his 120 wRC+ for the first half is not quite at the level of his prodigious rookie season, it’s still the best mark among Mets who did not spend substantial time on the injured list. Alonso was sidelined briefly in late May with a wrist injury, but his IL stint was short. Unsurprisingly, Alonso leads the Mets in home runs by quite a substantial margin with 17 in the first half. He also leads the team in RBIs with 49. For Alonso to reach the 100 RBI mark again would be a pretty incredible feat for a team that has scored so few runs to begin with. And although Alonso’s defense at first base is not nearly the factor in his value that Lindor’s shortstop defense is, Alonso deserves kudos for his defensive improvements, which have been obvious this season. Alonso ended the first half particularly hot and the Mets certainly hope that as the dog days of summer set in, more and more balls off the twice Home Run Derby champion’s bat will be flying out of the ballpark.

Rounding out the triumvirate of Mets with over 300 plate appearances in the first half is Dominic Smith, who matches Lindor for the team lead in hits with 70. However, it’s been somewhat of an up and down first half for Smith. Although he didn’t have the prolonged slump and subsequent hot streak of Lindor, his first half has been a bit feast or famine. He posted 98 wRC+ overall in 311 plate appearances in the first half, which is below the mark you’d like to see from him. Still, he is second only to Alonso for the team lead in RBIs with 37, being in the three spot in the order much of the time and managing to stay healthy. He is third behind Alonso and Lindor with nine home runs for the year. He also shares the team lead with Alonso and Lindor in doubles with 11. Like Alonso, Smith deserves a shoutout for improving his defense. He’s never going to be a defensive wizard in the outfield, but given that left field is not his natural position, he has performed much better there in 2021 and it is what has kept him an everyday player.

With Lindor the latest Met to go down with injury, James McCann is now the only starting position player that has managed to stay healthy the entire season, which is pretty incredible considering he is a catcher and a catcher that had never experienced a full starting catcher’s workload until now. So for that alone he deserves some props. However, his performance with the bat has been underwhelming, to the tune of a 96 wRC+ in 258 plate appearances in the first half. Of course, that is pretty much average and above average from the catching position, but the Mets were likely hoping for more offensively from their biggest free agent signing. Like many Mets, McCann especially struggled early in the year, hovering just above the Mendoza line for much of April and May before getting hot in June and raising his overall first half numbers to respectable levels. McCann has collected 58 hits, 7 home runs, 19 runs scored, 29 RBIs, and 22 walks in the first half overall. His performance with the bat better than his production as a Tiger, but worse than his production with the White Sox, so whether the tweaks he made to his approach are for real remains to be seen. The jury is still also out on his defensive improvements. Back in May, Dave Capobianco pointed out that the improvements McCann has made to his framing were lacking as a Met. But, his throwing arm has been an asset, as the Mets have been much better at controlling the running game than they have in years past. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that McCann played some first base in the first half this season as well, despite never having played there before.

It helped the Mets that while McCann was struggling the most, Tomás Nido was at his hottest. Given that Nido is also a strong defensive catcher, Luis Rojas was inclined to play the hot hand during much of the first half, with Nido taking over the bulk of the catching duties during his hot streak, but returning to the bench once McCann’s bat warmed in June. Arguably the leader of the bench mob, Nido matched McCann’s offensive output with a 94 wRC+ in the first half over 98 plate appearances. While that is not in line with his insane numbers in 2020, if he is able to sustain it, it would still be his most productive full season as a Met. Nido had always been a defense-first catcher who barely hit at all, but in 2020 he showed the first signs that he could be more than that and he has backed that up this season; even with an average bat, Nido instantly becomes a huge asset to the Mets as a backup catcher.

There are a heck of a lot of side arrows on this meter because many of the Mets hitters have been, well, decidedly average. And that’s all well and good for the bench mob, but the Mets are expecting more than that from the likes of Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil, both of whom missed substantial time this season with hamstring injuries and have struggled to look like themselves since returning. A .202/.345/.301 batting line over 200 plate appearances (good for a 93 wRC+) is certainly not what the Mets want from their former All-Star in Conforto—a guy who many (including me) wanted to extend ahead of his impending free agency at the end of this season. Between his injury and underperformance, that bar has rapidly moved from “the Mets must extend Conforto” to “maybe Conforto will accept a qualifying offer,” which is certainly not what anyone expected before the season started. Conforto’s lack of power in the first half is particularly troubling, as he should be a player just under Alonso and maybe Lindor and Smith on the team leaderboard in slugging percentage and home runs. Instead, he has just three home runs in the first half. Even given his injury-shortened season so far, that is still alarming. The one place where Conforto has excelled, even when he is struggling to get hits, is drawing walks. His 29 walks are second only to Lindor for the team lead.

Speaking of alarming, the red flag in Jeff McNeil’s first half stats is his .258 batting average, which is well below what one would expect from the Mets’ perennial hits machine. McNeil posted an even 100 wRC+ over 185 plate appearances in the first half with 42 hits, 3 home runs, 20 runs scored, and 14 RBIs. McNeil has shown in the past that he can sell out a little bit of batting average for more power, but right now he has neither going for him, unfortunately. In the final week of the first half, McNeil did reach a milestone with his first career walk-off hit. Hopefully it’s a sign of better things to come in the second half for the Mets’ second baseman.

In contrast, Brandon Nimmo has hit the ground running since returning from the IL and has been the spark plug of this Mets offense. If he hadn’t missed so much time, he’d certainly take top honors among Mets position players and earn himself a fireball for the first half, but he only had 121 plate appearances in the first half due to a lingering finger injury that kept morphing in its nature. Still, he has been incredible this season when healthy, posting a 139 wRC+ for the first half with a classic Brandon Nimmo .408 on-base percentage. He has essentially matched Conforto’s production in counting stats (33 hits, nine doubles, 16 runs scored, 13 RBIs, 15 walks) in 79 fewer plate appearances. It’s also worth noting that Nimmo can count himself among the Mets who have benefitted massively from improved positioning; his center field defense has been much improved this season. The Mets have missed their leadoff hitter desperately and need a healthy Brandon Nimmo to be successful in the second half and stay atop the NL East standings.

Someone else who has been incredible this season when healthy is J.D. Davis, who missed the most time of any Mets starter on the position player side. After a scorching hot April in which he posted a 198 wRC+ over 48 plate appearances, Davis missed the whole rest of the first half with a sprained finger, which was compounded by several setbacks that slowed down his rehab. What’s incredible is that Davis was so hot to start the year that his 0.7 fWAR in the first half matches Pete Alonso for fifth-best on the team. Flawed defensive metrics over a small sample may have something to do with that, but it is illustrative of just how productive he was with the bat before being sidelined. If the few games since the break are any indication, it’s looking like Davis will hopefully pick up right where he left off.

But Jonathan Villar was so good filling in at third base that Davis may find himself on the bench sometimes (although Lindor’s injury should mean enough plate appearances for all three of Davis, Villar, and Luis Guillorme). If there was a “$/WAR” award for the first half, that would certainly go to Villar. The Mets signed Villar to a one-year, $3.55 million deal in early February and the thought was that he could be a useful bench piece, pinch hitter, and pinch runner, given his speed. He has been all of that and much more, becoming an everyday starter for the Mets due to their injury woes. Only Lindor, Alonso, Smith, and McCann have more plate appearances than Villar this season. Over his 230 plate appearances, Villar posted a 106 wRC+, which a huge bounce back from his 2020 season when he struggled mightily at the plate, especially after being traded to the Blue Jays in the second half of that pandemic-shortened season. His numbers with the Mets are much closer to his career averages, including his best major league season in 2019 with the Orioles when he played every game and was a 4 WAR player with 40 stolen bases. He has pretty much been that player with the Mets; his eight stolen bases match Lindor for the team lead and his defense at third base has been strong. 2019 was also the only year when he hit more than 20 home runs and his nine home runs in the first half of 2021 is already outpacing every year of his career other than that 2019 career year. As far as the bench mob goes, none have been more valuable to the Mets than Villar, whose 1.0 fWAR in 2021 is behind only Lindor and Nimmo for the team lead.

Luis Guillorme also saw a substantial amount of playing time before he was sidelined with an oblique injury of his own that cost him over a month. Much like Nido, Guillorme was always a defensive whiz and bench stalwart who never quite hit enough to stick at the major league level. But also like Nido, he had a breakout year in 2020 and that has somewhat carried over to 2021. Guillorme’s mysterious 2020 power surge is gone entirely; he’s a singles hitter with a good eye at the plate. But a 108 wRC+ over 101 plate appearances with his defensive skills will play and that is what he did in the first half this season. Given Lindor’s injury, both Guillorme and Villar will be seeing some time at shortstop in the second half.

During the time that both Guillorme and McNeil were hurt, José Peraza was playing almost every day. He began to get exposed with every day play and his first half numbers reflect that; he posted an 88 wRC+ overall in 134 plate appearances. Still, the Mets have to be thrilled with that performance from the 27-year-old, who they signed as a minor league free agent in the offseason. He was always meant to fill the roster out at Syracuse and perhaps get occasional short stints with the big league club as needed, but the injury situation has meant that he has been with the team almost all year so far. Where he has really shined has been as a pinch hitter. As a pinch hitter in the first half, Peraza hit .444 in 13 plate appearances with two doubles, a home run, four RBIs, and two walks. And although “clutch” is often an overrated attribute that is difficult to measure in any meaningful way, Peraza has stepped up in big situations. He hit .462 in his 16 plate appearances Fangraphs defined as “high leverage” in the first half.

It is this performance as a pinch hitter and his positional flexibility that were likely the deciding factors in keeping Peraza on the roster over Billy McKinney once all of the injured Mets returned from the IL. McKinney was another pleasant surprise for the Mets in the first half, putting up a 113 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR in 102 plate appearances as a Met. Though he hit just .220, he slugged .473, which is second only to Alonso among players with more than 50 plate appearances in the first half. The Mets acquired McKinney in trade from the Brewers in late May when they were desperate for outfielders. “He came in and did everything we asked and more,” said manager Luis Rojas of McKinney, saying it was a “tough” decision to DFA him.

The Mets have cycled through a shocking number of outfielders with Nimmo and Conforto’s extended absences from the lineup. Kevin Pillar has seen the most playing time of all the Mets’ backup outfielders, which is unsurprising, considering he played on Opening Day. After a horrifically slow start in April, Pillar got red hot in May (to the tune of a .327 batting average for the month), but then that was halted abruptly by the most gruesome Mets injury this season when he was struck in the face by a 94 mph fastball. His quick return from this injury was nothing short of miraculous. After suffering multiple facial fractures, he was still back in the lineup (donning a face mask to help protect his surgically repaired bones) by the end of the month. That cemented his status as a gritty folk hero for the Mets. But, he has not hit much since returning from the injury and he holds a mediocre .218 batting average with a 78 wRC+ overall in 203 plate appearances in the first half. Still, Pillar is useful to the Mets as a late-inning defensive replacement, as well as as a righty pinch hitter off the bench.

Albert Almora Jr. also began the season on the Mets’ roster as a backup outfielder. While his speed and defensive skills made him useful as a late-inning replacement as well (and he made some highlight reel-worthy catches during his stint with the team), he did not hit a lick as a Met. He posted an unsightly .075/.098/.125 batting line in 41 plate appearances in the first half. In an attempt to make one of those aforementioned highlight reel-worthy catches, Almora slammed face first into the outfield wall in center on May 11, resulting in a shoulder injury that landed him on the injured list for a month. It was a wonder it wasn’t worse for Almora, who spent nearly a full minute face down on the ground in the aftermath of that collision with the wall, but after his activation from the IL in mid-June, he simply did not hit enough to keep his roster spot, going 2-for-19 before being optioned to Triple-A on July 4.

When Almora went on the injured list, the Mets called up Khalil Lee to take his place on the roster. The Mets acquired the 22-year-old outfielder from the Royals in a three-team trade in the offseason that sent Andrew Benintendi to the Royals from Boston. The Mets gave up Josh Winckowski (acquired in the Steven Matz trade) to Boston in the deal. Lee instantly became one of the top 10 prospects in the organization and one of the only exciting names in the high minors for the Mets. Unfortunately, it was clear that Lee was overmatched in the big leagues. He had just one hit in 18 plate appearances as a Met before being optioned back down to Triple-A at the end of May. But his first (and so far only) major league hit was a memorable one that helped the Mets win a game. He hit a go-ahead double in extra innings against the Marlins on May 21. It is clear that Lee is already a very good defensive outfielder; if he can develop as a hitter, he’ll have a bright future with the Mets.

Somehow, Almora wasn’t even the only Mets backup outfielder to suffer an injury colliding with the outfield wall this season. The same thing happened to Johneshwy Fargas, who actually stayed in the game after his injury, but later was diagnosed with a sprained AC joint, which he is currently rehabbing in the minor leagues. It’s a shame because Fargas was having a heck of a breakout major league debut for the Mets. In 22 plate appearances, Fargas put up a .286/.286/.524 slash line with a 117 wRC+, while playing exceptional defense in the outfield. He drove in three runs and scored one. Two of those three RBIs came immediately following Khalil Lee’s go-ahead hit in the same game against the Marlins on a bases-clearing triple that gave the Mets a 6-3 lead. He attempted to come all the way around the bases, but was nailed at home. Still, that game will definitely go down in history as one that helped build the legendary status of the bench mob.

One member of the Mets’ parade of fill-in outfielders that did not distinguish himself is veteran Cameron Maybin, who the Mets acquired from the Cubs for literally $1 during a time when both Lee and Fargas were starting in the outfield. Unfortunately, that acquisition did not work out for the Mets. Maybin occupies an unfortunate place in Mets history by having the longest hitless streak to start a Mets career (0-for-27). He broke that streak with an infield single, which remained his only hit as a Met in 33 plate appearances. He walked three times and scored two runs. He was really the only person I was tempted to give a poop emoji to and certainly the numbers warrant it. Call it mercy or pity or what you will, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it for such a small sample. If Maybin stayed with the Mets longer or cost them several games with his poor play, I would have pulled the trigger. But Maybin was simply the Mets’ backup plan to the backup plan to the other backup plan that didn’t pan out. He was designated for assignment on May 31.

Mason Williams is another outfielder who did not find much success during his cup of coffee with the Mets this year. Once a top prospect in the Yankees system, Williams has bounced around since. Although he played strong defense in the outfield, making a couple of really nice catches, he put up a .212/.297/.333 slash line with a 73 wRC+ in 37 plate appearances as a Met in the first half. He scored three runs and drove in one. Williams was designated for assignment on June 20.

Any conversation about the Mets’ bench mob and resilience in the face of injuries this year would be incomplete without Patrick Mazeika: the king of the walk-off fielder’s choice. The Mets’ third-string catcher’s performance has been one of the highlights of the first half. Two times in four games—and two times in his first three major league at-bats of his career—Patrick Mazeika hit into a walk-off fielder’s choice. It’s history-making stuff that could only happen to the 2021 Mets. Mazeika did eventually get a hit, though. Patrick Mazeika’s first major league hit was a home run. Because of course it was. In fact, he collected six hits in 24 plate appearances in the first half and posted a 110 wRC+ over that span.

Other members of the bench mob still with the organization include Brandon Drury, who is currently in Triple-A and Travis Blankenhorn, who was recalled to the Mets when Francisco Lindor was placed on the injured list. We know that Blankenhorn was a key contributor to yesterday’s win, but we’ll save that for next week’s meter. In the first half, Blankenhorn had just one hit and a walk in 12 plate appearances. Drury put up just a 49 wRC+ in 46 plate appearances in the first half. Both of his runs scored came via the home run. He also had six RBIs and walked twice. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Drury again for the Mets at some point this season should injuries begin to plague them again, given his positional flexibility.

When the Mets claimed Blankenhorn off waivers on June 1, they designated Wilfredo Tovar for assignment. Tovar went unclaimed and was outrighted to Triple-A, where he is currently playing for the Syracuse Mets. Tovar went 2-for-11 with one walk over six games during his short stint with the Mets.

The “shortest stint with the 2021 Mets in the first half and future trivia question subject” award goes to Jake Hager, who is somehow the third unlikely name to be involved in the same wild victory against the Marlins on May 21. Hager led off that legendary twelfth inning with a single—his first big league hit and his only hit as a Met in eight plate appearances. So while his time with the Mets was short, his first big league hit is a memorable part of 2021 Mets lore. He was designated for assignment soon after and was claimed by the Brewers, who sent him to Triple-A.