Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2021?
The story so far…
In 2021, as in many recent seasons, the Mets began with plenty of causes for optimism. Unfortunately, the organization suffered its biggest setback since the so-called Five Aces rotation fell apart in 2016 and 2017.
Optimism had been building since 2019 with the emergence of a core of homegrown studs, something every dynasty seems to start with, and something virtually every perennial playoff contender features. In 2021, the Mets’ new additions seemed primed to take the home-grown core of Conforto, McNeil, Smith, Alonso and Davis to the next level.
Instead, almost to a man, that homegrown core utterly collapsed.
Why was the optimism so high? Well, for starters, the previous year’s lineup could rake. They just couldn’t do it in the clutch. The 2020 team OPS+ stat was historically great, but the Mets couldn’t drive in runs, especially not with the game on the line. Heading into 2021, some hoped that random statistical regression and/or a mental reset would turn all those line drives into elite run production.
Unfortunately, the 2021 Mets came out of the gate with more of the same. As the team’s core hitters wallowed in unproductive funk, urgency built for some sort of change. On May 4, popular hitting coach Chili Davis was fired and replaced by minor league coach Hugh Quattlebaum. From there the offense only looked more and more hopeless, as it seemed that no one in the lineup could hit a fastball or a hanging breaking ball. Long after the season ended, reports surfaced of hitters suffering analysis paralysis from information overload.
For the first several months of 2021, however, offensive futility did not seem to be the story of the Mets’ season. The Mets’ backups and role players came through with just enough clutch hits to support the team’s elite pitching and defense in surging to the top of the National League East. With all of their rivals sputtering to start the season, the Mets took over first place in early May and held on to the top spot through early August. Mets pitching began the year with an epic feat of homerun suppression, especially at home. While home run rates were slightly down across the sport, the Mets seemingly weren’t giving up any long balls, and their new commitment to shifts and probability-based defensive positioning turned lots of hard-hit balls into outs.
For a team to be in first place at the All-Star break, while expecting several returns to form from injury and underperformance, seems like an enviable position. That is how most fans and pundits viewed the Mets: get a few guys going, get a few guys healthy, and the lead they’ve built will hold up, if not increase.
Instead the offense did not improve, and the starting rotation completely fell off a cliff. DeGrom got hurt, and everyone else started serving up the home runs they had denied in the first half. The bench players were still fine, and the bullpen was still fine, but with a floundering lineup and rotation, the Mets were doomed. Their final 60 games were ugly as the Braves left them in the dust, all amidst embarrassing player antics and a few bad moves from manager Luis Rojas.
After the season ended, owner Steve Cohen set out to hedge his bets and build a roster that wouldn’t repeat 2021’s dismal disappointments. It wasn’t a smooth process, as the Mets lost out on a few key pieces while searching for a general manager and/or president of baseball operations. (GM Zack Scott was let go after several months of waiting to see how his DWI case would resolve.)
Once GM Billy Eppler was on board, Cohen attempted to fix the roster by opening his checkbook, with Eppler signing many free agents to large, short-term deals. Buck Showalter, regarded by many as a great manager but unemployed since 2018, was brought on to manage.
Stock Up, Stock Down
A promising 2021 start, a disastrous 2021 finish, and a frenzied offseason overhaul – what does it all add up to for 2022? Are the Mets in a better position than they were entering 2021, or should we Mets fans be steeling ourselves for a sixth straight year of disappointment?
FanGraphs’ preseason projections are very similar to last year’s, with the Mets around 93 wins. Oddsmakers are less sanguine, showing 87-90 wins.
James McCann – stock: down
After an offensive surge for the White Sox, McCann returned to hitting like a backup catcher for the Mets in 2021. He had no chance against pitches low and away, and his pop largely disappeared as well. At least he played excellent defense, including much better game calling than the Mets’ recent primary catchers.
Tomas Nido – stock: unchanged
Tomas Nido led the team in Win Probability Added at the All Star break, as his clutch hitting early on led the Mets to some low-scoring victories. After that blaze of glory, Nido regressed to his usual mediocre hitting. His defense remains a positive.
Pete Alonso – stock: unchanged
After a spring training straight out of 2019, Pete showed up for 2021 with the same pull-happy swing he used in 2020. On the positive side, his pitch selection was better overall, and continued to improve as the season went on. He continued to add to his track record of durability, and his counting stats looked pretty good. Even if Pete can’t replicate his 2019 feat of spraying line drives into the seats, the Mets seem to have one of the more reliable home run bats in today’s game.
Jeff McNeil – stock: way down
McNeil did tinker with lowering his crouch and closing his stance a bit to approach the style that had worked for him in the past, but he was never able to replicate the level swing that made him such a tough out from 2018 to 2019. For whatever reason, McNeil rarely made good contact at the plate, leaving him a huge drain on the lineup. His constant yelling after making outs seemed to annoy some teammates, and he eventually toned it down, but I miss the days of him sprinting through the bag with his hair on fire. Leg injuries have slowed him a bit, and it is unclear what his defensive value is now. There is also some speculation that a dust-up with Francisco Lindor was prompted by McNeil ignoring defensive shifting plans.
Late in the season, Javier Baez came over from the Cubs as a rental (for first-rounder Pete Crow Armstrong) and got hot as the Mets were falling out of the race. He did more than most to excite fans down the stretch, but first he gave the year’s most ill-advised interview, proclaiming that the “thumbs-down” gesture he’d made prominent on the team was a “see how you like it” statement directed at the fans over their booing.
Eduardo Escobar – stock: up
Escobar is not a star, but he is a proven performer on both sides of the ball, which is a lot more than could be said for J.D. Davis entering 2021. Davis was backed up by Jonathan Villar, who wound up having a pretty solid season, so Escobar will need to top that in order to provide the Mets with improved Third Base production.
Luis Guillorme is the likely back-up, though his great hands and quick actions are more valuable at second or short. His minor league success with the bat, based on plenty of walks and few strikeouts, seemed to finally translate to the Majors in 2021 at age 26.
Francisco Lindor – stock: way down
Like many successful athletes coming to New York, Lindor’s intelligent media presence early on eventually devolved into defensiveness as the pressure got to him. Not only did he apparently grab McNeil by the throat during a game, but he also came up with a ridiculous lie about it afterwards (“We saw a raccoon!”), making a farce out of what could have been a “passionate about baseball” moment. Far worse, though, was when Lindor jumped on the “thumbs down” gesture that Javy Baez used to boo the fans in August. Once this gesture was noticed, Sandy Alderson expressed his disgust, and the main culprits quickly went to the media to apologize.
For a player who eagerly assumed the reins of leadership shortly after he arrived, this sort of behavior may have been a factor in the team’s failure to live up to expectations. After the season, many reports cited a lack of leadership as a problem for the 2021 Mets. Although that may primarily reflect manager Luis Rojas’s disinclination to push players harder or govern with a sterner hand, it also cannot reflect well on Lindor.
On the field, Lindor underwhelmed in all aspects, showing an inability to square up the ball left-handed, a weak arm, and inconsistent hustle. His season stats were saved by a hot last 3 weeks after the Mets were essentially out of the race.
To see Trevor Story and Javy Baez each sign deals for $200m less than Lindor’s in the offseason rubs a little salt in the wound.
At the end of the day, however, Lindor is a shortstop with good range, solid contact rates and extra base power, which makes him a valuable player even if he’s not the MVP candidate the Mets envisioned.
Mark Canha – stock: unchanged
Free agent Mark Canha replaces Dom Smith as the presumed left fielder. No one is predicting Canha to put up the big offensive numbers expected of Smith after his spectacular 2020. On the plus side, Canha is an actual outfielder, rather than a first baseman shoehorned into left field, and there was never any certainty that Dom would slug .600 again.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: down
Nimmo continued to be one of baseball’s best OBP guys, but he also missed another 70 games due to injury, firmly establishing him as brittle. The Mets should expect to rely on their outfield depth this year, which is solid, but the team will definitely miss Brandon when he’s not on the field.
With deeper positioning, Nimmo’s defensive numbers improved dramatically in 2021; as long as he doesn’t have to go back on the ball, his speed helps him chase down his fair share of flies. The Mets may have been lucky that his weak arm wasn’t challenged often.
Starling Marte – stock: unchanged
It’s hard to compare Marte this year, coming off a .310 average and 47 steals, to Conforto last year, coming off a .927 OPS. The Mets lose power and patience, while gaining speed and average. A fantastic defender in his twenties, Marte’s metrics have been unimpressive in center field for several years now, but he still may be well above average when used in right.
One of the longest-tenured Mets, Michael Conforto went out with a whimper, showing no pop and minimal bat speed in 2021. He’s currently looking for his next team. The Mets are hoping for a high draft pick from whomever signs him, but his market has been slowed by an offseason injury.
Dominic Smith – stock: way down
Dom looked terrible at the plate for almost all of 2021, to the point where many fans wanted him benched in favor of back-ups. Just recently, it was revealed that he messed up his shoulder after altering his swing follow-through due to a hand injury, which is a much more promising explanation than suddenly losing every hitting skill he had. Hopefully, with an improved shoulder and swing, Dom will be confident enough to be more selective, instead of constantly offering at pitches above and below the strike zone.
J.D. Davis – stock: down
Davis showed early on that he could still hit, but a hand injury kept him out for much of the season, and he showed no power upon his return to the lineup. It remains to be seen whether he will get significant at bats for the Mets in 2022. His spectacular 2019 is looking more and more like a distant memory.
Robinson Cano returns from a PED suspension at age 39. Instead of cutting him, the Mets seem intent on mixing him in with their younger DH options who are very much in need of ABs.
Jacob deGrom – stock: way down
In his first 12 starts, deGrom allowed 4 earned runs and drove in six. With Jake providing his own offense, the Mets won the last 7 of those starts. After June 21, this was deGrom’s stat line:
- 72 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 4 ER, 10 BB, 117 K
- 0.51 WHIP, 0.88 FIP, 0.50 ERA
- 3.38 H/9, 0.38 HR/9, 1.25 BB/9, 14.63 K/9, 11.7 K/BB
- .113/.148/.205 opponent slash line
- 2.94 Win Probability Added
- 2 SB / 1 CS
- Did not allow a baserunner in the first inning after his initial start.
- Went 11 for 27 as a batter, hitting .407 with 1 double, 4 runs and 6 RBI.
In terms of everything except durability, this was the most dominant 12-start stretch since the deadball era.
Oh, that durability, though…
- DeGrom missed his May 4 start with inflammation in his lat.
- He missed 2 starts in mid-May after straining his shoulder on a swing.
- He came out of his 11th start after 3 innings due to an injury from another swing (pulling a 98-mph fastball for an RBI).
- In his 12th start he was limited to 70 pitches as he worked on rebuilding his pitch count.
DeGrom would make only 3 more starts before he was shut down – initially for a few weeks (with a sore elbow), and then for the rest of the season (when he sprained his UCL trying to ramp back up). Now his attempt to gear up for the 2022 season has cracked his scapula.
It may be that starting pitchers simply can’t throw 100 mph over and over unless they’re Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson.
In case we never see it again, here’s how deGrom went about it in 2021: almost all fastballs and sliders to the glove side, but with absolute pinpoint location on that edge of the plate, from top to bottom. The fastball sat 99 with rise. The slider had a sharp bite, and deGrom varied the speed and size of the break on it. If any righty looked decent against the fastball away, Jake would lean on the slider. If any lefty survived the fastball and slider in, Jake would mix it up with a fastball and change-up away (these were not as precise, but often more than sufficient after all the hard stuff in).
Of note: deGrom had no elbow complaints until the league cracked down on sticky substances heading into the hotter months. Everyone on the team (especially his catchers) made a point of saying that deGrom never used the sticky stuff, but one can’t help but wonder if his fingers could have used a little help in the July heat to avoid what felled Tyler Glasnow (squeezing the ball to keep it from slipping is what did in Glasnow’s UCL).
Max Scherzer – stock: way up
Marcus Stroman had a fantastic year for the Mets in 2021, and he’s being replaced by a 37-year-old. However, that 37-year-old is a surefire Hall of Famer who just missed adding a 4th Cy Young to his trophy case last year. Max Scherzer brings an arsenal of nasty pitches, a championship pedigree, fierce intensity on the mound, and a unique motion that has been keeping hitters from squaring up his fastball for over a decade. The Diamondbacks thought his odd finish, snapping his upper body forward and keeping his arm straight through his follow-through, would lead to injury, but Scherzer has been almost as durable over the years as he has been dominant.
As for Stroman, the Mets made no attempt to re-sign him, and Marcus signed a 3-year deal with the Cubs. Stroman clashed with the NY media at times and wasn’t afraid to have opinions on Twitter, leading some to suggest he was a clubhouse problem, but I never heard anything but praise from his teammates, especially the young pitchers he helped mentor.
Chris Bassitt – stock: up
Bassitt joins the Mets with a reputation as a control pitcher with a deep arsenal who doesn’t rely on velocity. He sports one of the A.L.’s best ERAs over the last few years, and starts the season healthy, which is better than the 2021 Mets could say about their prospective #3 starter.
Carlos Carrasco – stock: down
Carrasco showed only the briefest hints in 2021 of the pitcher who dominated in Cleveland. Opponents crushed him in the first inning, regularly putting the Mets in a hole. His command tended to improve as games went on, but he remained homer prone. He almost never threw his curveball, a key pitch for him in Cleveland. After several injuries, it remains to be seen if he has anything left at age 35. The Mets have to hope that an offseason elbow “clean-up” will make a big difference.
Taijuan Walker – stock: unchanged
Walker entered 2021 as a relative wild card, then looked like the find of the offseason in the first half, pitching his way to the All-Star Game. Walker showed great late movement on a variety of pitches, and although he was a bit wild early on, he threw more and more strikes as the first half progressed (though not always to the catcher’s target). In the second half, unfortunately, that formula completely fell apart, as Walker was clubbed to the tune of a 7.13 ERA and didn’t look like a competitive major league pitcher by the season’s end. With no injuries announced, Mets fans are hoping that Walker simply ran out of gas and will hold up better in 2022 with a full season finally under his belt after fits and starts earlier in his career.
David Peterson – stock: down
In 2020, Peterson came out of nowhere (well, AA) and instantly looked like a clutch performer with a good slider and some late movement on his fastball. Unfortunately he couldn’t repeat any of that in 2021, with only a few really good starts, and plenty of meltdowns. Mets fans have to wonder whether he can bounce back, or whether there’s a reason we’d never heard of him two years ago.
Tylor Megill – stock: way up
Megill was the latest in the Mets’ parade of “great then terrible” starting pitchers. With only a handful of starts above A ball, Megill broke into the majors with a 2.04 ERA over his first 7 starts, showing great velocity, good late movement on his slider and change-up, and a “slow heartbeat” that kept him looking calm in all situations. He also threw plenty of strikes without leaving anything in the middle of the plate.
Then things suddenly turned, with Megill getting his secondary stuff up and becoming a homerun machine, for a 6.13 ERA over his last 11 starts.
As with Walker, Mets fans have to hope the increased workload was to blame and that Megill will have more endurance in 2022.
Trevor Williams – stock: unchanged
Formerly known to Mets fans for giving up a homerun to Jacob deGrom, Williams joined the Mets at mid-season and was extremely reliable, avoiding walks and getting ground balls as both a starter and reliever. Ticketed for the bullpen to start 2022, Williams probably also represents the Mets’ best starting rotation depth option.
Meanwhile, old friend Noah Syndergaard initially gushed about the Mets extending him a qualifying offer early in the offseason, then took a few million more to jump ship for the Angels. It’s hard to know what Thor’s thinking really was, but his line to the media was uncertainty over the Mets front office. So he could be a casualty of Alderson taking too long to settle on Eppler. Given that Noah’s last good year was 2018 and his only pitches since 2019 were two cameos in 2021’s final week, the Mets may be lucky that the Angels outbid them.
Edwin Diaz – stock: unchanged
At this point, Mets fans know what to expect from Diaz: nasy stuff, erratic control, plenty of dominant outings, but far too many clunkers for your ninth-inning last line of defense. There are some days when Diaz is getting under the ball, and his slider is flat and his fastball is wild, and on those days what he really needs is a quick hook. If Showalter has the guts to yank his closer at those times, then we can just appreciate how Diaz blows opponents away when he’s on.
Trevor May – stock: unchanged
May had some good stretches and some bad stretches, putting up similar overall numbers to his recent seasons as a Twin. While not exactly a shut-down asset, May is a perfectly fine member of the late-inning relief corps.
Seth Lugo – stock: unchanged
Lugo was less reliable in 2021 than he had been for the past few years, with a few costly mistakes at big moments. His velocity and secondary stuff looked the same, so if he can locate a bit better and command his fastball, it’s easy to imagine better in 2022.
Adam Ottavino – stock: down
Ottavino’s had some good years, but not recently, as he hasn’t been able to consistently locate his wipeout slider. He might be primarily a righty specialist, which is less than what Miguel Castro offered the Mets.
Joely Rodriguez – stock: down
Established LOOGY Aaron Loup is replaced by LOOGY-hopeful Rodriguez, a desperation last-second lefty acquisition in exchange for the much more talented Miguel Castro.
Loup leaves the Mets after posting one of the team’s all-time best relief performances in 2021, with an 0.95 ERA and a team-leading 2 WPA. In a season of up-and-down pitching, Loup was the one constant who the Mets could rely on to slam the door on opponents’ rallies. He expressed a desire to return, but quickly signed elsewhere when the Angels made an aggressive bid for him early in the offseason and the then-in-progress Mets front office didn’t match.
Gone is Jeurys Familia, who looked like his old self for a few months in 2021 before he started getting the ball up and allowing big homers.
Minor leaguers of note
The Mets dealt Pete Crow-Armstrong for a few months of Baez and J.T. Ginn for a year of Bassitt, while Matthew Allan got Tommy John surgery and had a setback in his recovery. That leaves the Mets’ top prospects as Ronny Mauricio, who still impresses with his tools and tantalizes with his youth despite poor offensive stats; Brett Baty and Mark Vientos, who can crush the ball but have serious contact issues; and the system’s crown jewel, Francisco Alvarez. Alvarez tore up high-A ball, something 19-year-old catchers don’t do very often, vaulting him to the status of a top-ten prospect in baseball.
None of this group projects to help in 2022 except perhaps for Vientos, who clubbed 25 HRs in 83 games in AA and AAA.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor and Dominic Smith (performance); Jacob deGrom (injuries)
Stock down: Nimmo, J.D. Davis, McCann, Carrasco, Peterson, the middle of the bullpen
Stock unchanged: most of the bullpen, the bench, and the new OFs replacing their 2021 counterparts
Stock up: new acquisitions Escobar and Bassitt
Stock way up: Alvarez achieving top prospect status; Megill making the majors out of nowhere; the arrival of Scherzer
Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis continued to fall from their 2019 peaks. At virtually every other position, the Mets have either stayed the same for a while, or have been up and down.
What it all means
The 2022 roster looks good on paper, but so did the 2021 squad that finished 76-86. The hope now is that a new manager, a few key new faces, and better luck on the injury front will help the team turn the page from recent disappointments. With an expanded playoff field in 2022 and a record payroll, the Mets really need to earn a postseason berth at minimum. Replacing the reviled Wilpons with a big-spending owner was supposed to change the team’s fortunes, and if that doesn’t happen this year, Mets fans may be wondering if their team is cursed or broken in some more intractable way.
Fans would also love to see some signs of a model for future success, seeing as how no team can simply buy top free agents year after year. With several high picks coming their way in the next draft, it seems likely that the Mets hope to follow the Dodgers’ blueprint from a decade back, spending money for success in the short term while laying the building blocks for a sustainable winner in the future. Certainly it would help the Mets if they can draft and develop players like Corey Seager, but they’ll also need a front office and analytics team that’s ahead of the curve, able to spot players like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor and help them take their performance to new levels. Billy Eppler’s time with the Angels was not at all promising in this regard, as the team consistently failed to fill out a useful roster around its superstars. Some claim owner Arte Moreno was overly involved, but Moreno, like Cohen, was certainly motivated to shell out big bucks for a winner. The Angels simply failed to develop young talent, and to identify and nurture pitching talent more generally.
Based on the 2021 hitting coach debacle, the Mets have yet to learn that more analytics and more effective analytics are two different things. Today’s best franchises don’t use pitcher tendency data to flood hitters’ brains; they use biomechanical metrics and training to improve swings and pitches. Hopefully Cohen will outgrow Alderson at some point and put baseball infrastructure decisions in the hands of a more innovative brain trust. We don’t know for sure that Eppler isn’t that guy, but we have no particular reason to think that he is, either. Much of Billy’s experience came under Brian Cashman, so if Eppler can turn Yankees-like budgets into Yankees-like results, that would certainly mean a lot more wins than the Mets have seen lately. That may not be the same as catching up to the Rays, er, Braves, though.
In 2021, Mets fans looked to see the start of a new era, both on the field and in the front office. They’ll be looking even more desperately for that in 2022.