Balanced Mets lineup sets example for MLB

The New York Mets’ recent acquisition of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco sent a welcome message to fans that Steve Cohen was not just an owner who would talk about winning, but would walk the walk. While other MLB teams have pointed to millions in lost revenue from 2020 and the free agent market has been notably sluggish, the Mets have established themselves in buying mode.

In addition to building a team that should be a legitimate pennant contender, Sandy Alderson and Jared Porter have put together a roster for 2021 that above all else will be fun to watch.

As an entire sport baseball has a problem. Even analytically-minded people like Theo Epstein agree. The rise of the three true outcomes hitter has turned baseball from an exciting, aesthetically-pleasing sport to a plodding game with a pronounced pace of play problem.

Epstein was just hired by MLB as a consultant regarding on-field matters, had this to say to reporters this week: “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give the fans more of what they want.”

When he departed the Chicago Cubs front office late last year, Epstein took some of the blame for helping turn baseball into what it has become.

Of course you can point to the abundance of hard-throwing pitchers and different pitching and defensive philosophies that have helped baseball become this way, but sabermetrics has undoubtedly led to lineups with less diversity. A lot of players are just kind of – the same. It has made the game boring to the average fan. Home runs are exciting, but when they are the primary mode of run-scoring, they lose their luster.

As they stand on the morning of January 18, the 2021 Mets lineup has a chance to be one of the most exciting in baseball simply because it is not a monolith. Built on players with a diverse skill set, it has the potential to be one of the most-fun to watch in MLB.

Sluggers

Starting with what has become the most-common category of hitter in baseball, unlike most of their franchise history, the Mets are well-stocked with power hitters. Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and Lindor are all threats to hit 30 home runs given a 162-game season and the presence of the DH in the National League. The Mets have never had a season where more than two players have mashed 30 round-trippers.

Both J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil surpassed 20 home runs in 2019, and Brandon Nimmo’s career high is 17 in 2018. New catcher James McCann hit 18 during his all-star season in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox. The club record of 242 home runs in 2019 could very well be in play in 2021, but of course the whole point is that these Mets should be able to do it in many ways.

Speedsters

A fun trivia question is “Who is the last MLB player to steal more than 70 bases in a season?” The answer is Jose Reyes in 2007, when he swiped 78. In fact, nobody has stolen more than 50 in a season since Dee Gordon had 60 thefts with Miami in 2017. The stolen base has ebbed and flowed throughout baseball history – Dom DiMaggio led the American League with 15 in the 1950 season – but we are definitely in a down-swing now.

After swiping a whopping 57 bases in 2019, the Mets stole only 20 in the shortened 2020 season. In each of the last two full seasons (’18 and ’19) Lindor swiped a combined 47 bases and was caught 15 times. Paired with Nimmo, the Mets have a duo who get on base at a high clip and can fly, a combination they haven’t had much of in recent years (e.g. Billy Hamilton). Nimmo has never really been a base stealer in his professional career, but even if they don’t put up huge totals, the top of the Mets lineup will have the speed to create chaos on the bases.

High Average

The importance of batting average has been on the decline in recent years, and for good reason – we have more informative statistics available. Just take this example from the 2020 Mets: Alonso hit .231 while Wilson Ramos hit .239. Nobody could possibly make a good-faith argument that Ramos was the better hitter last year, though.

But that doesn’t mean a .300 hitter isn’t valuable to every lineup. McNeil is the kind of throwback hitter that has gone by the wayside over the past 30 years. He hits for a high average, has strong but unspectacular patience, and has gap-to-gap power. He limits strikeouts and puts the ball in play, creating action that the game needs.

How much of a throwback is McNeil? Baseball Reference similarity scores rank the 10 most similar hitters to him through age 28, and the top nine all played before World War II.

A Model Team?

As Epstein and MLB search for ways to bring more action into the game and make it more free-flowing and athletic, the Mets could very well serve as a team which achieves that style more naturally. While they explore the measures of banning the shift and putting an end to the ludicrous “opener” trend, the Mets have assembled a lineup filled with players with diverse skill sets.

While the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins feature lineups capable of whacking 300 home runs the Mets are looking like a more well-balanced offense. Even the “other” guys like McCann and Davis can be capable hitters. Should the Mets sign George Springer as well, you’re looking at a top three lineup in the game and one of the best in franchise history. And maybe, just maybe, they can be the model franchise for getting baseball back to a more exciting version of play.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (NYY, AAA) and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.