Michael Conforto might create his own good luck

As another season in which the Mets were expected to compete (even before the playoffs were expanded) whimpers to an ignominious end, there do remain some bright spots in an otherwise weird and disappointing campaign. One of the shiniest is the youthful offensive core that ranked as one of the league’s best as the young mashers put on a display that hopefully portends good things in the coming years. Sure, take the 2020 season with a large chunk of salt, but the lineup put on an impressive show despite some struggles with runners in scoring position.

A key cog in the Mets’ hitting machine is 27-year-old Michael Conforto, who seems to be perpetually *this close* to breaking out into full-blown stardom. He appeared to be on the cusp of just such a breakout in 2017 when a freak injury ended his stellar season in late August. Conforto followed that up with strong seasons in 2018 and 2019, but didn’t quite replicate the elite performance he was on track for three years ago. In 2020 he seemed to rediscover that 2017 mojo before his season was again cut slightly short when he was placed on the injured list with hamstring tightness earlier this week. His 2020 wRC+ of 158 placed him on the cusp of the top ten best in baseball, a scenario Mets fans have been dreaming of since he was drafted in 2014.

Of course, the major caveat we need to take into account with Conforto’s performance in 2020 is his sky-high BABIP of .412. This is significantly higher than both his career average of .302 and the .328 he sported during his 2017 season. With just 54 games played in 2020, his overall performance screamed more “extended small-sample good luck for a talented player” than “breakout season.” As I was digging a little more deeply into BABIP and luck, though, I came across a two-year-old article at Pitcher List discussing the correlation between BABIP and various advanced hitting statistics. As it pertains to Conforto, the results were very interesting.

Before reading the article, the first thing I examined for Conforto’s 2020 was his line drive rate. Unsurprisingly, his LD% of 30.3% is both the highest of his career and significantly higher than his career average of 22.7%. As cursory examinations go, and due to a high correlation between BABIP and LD%, it seemed pretty obvious that luck was driving a good chunk of Conforto’s performance.

One of the more illuminating correlations in the Pitcher List article, and the one driving the discussion of this piece, is the high correlation between BABIP and how often a batter pulls the ball. If a batter consistently pulls the ball then he’s likely to make more outs as defenses shift against him, and thus his BABIP will be suppressed. That seems pretty obvious, but the article notes that the correlation between PULL% and BABIP is significantly higher for lefties than right-handed hitters. The article goes into a bit of detail regarding the circumstances for why this is the case (shorter throws from the right side of the infield, less room for error, etc.), but the key quote from author Dan Richards is:

“In general, then, Pull% is worth looking at more for lefties than for righties in determining whether a player has earned his BABIP. Sorry Scott Boras, but so long as the shift is around, pull-heavy lefties are going to have BABIP problems year in and year out.”

With that in mind, we start to get a clearer picture of the periods of success in Conforto’s career and during his 2020 performance specifically. Since 2015, Conforto is in the top 30 for total number of at-bats in which the defense employed a shift against him, and that remained consistent in 2020.

During his best years, Conforto has pulled the ball significantly less than during his simply “good” years. In fact, his lowest PULL% occurred during his best seasons in 2017 (32.4%) and 2020 (also 32.4%) and was almost 10% lower than his next best season. Unsurprisingly, his second-best BABIP (.328), AVG (.279), and wRC+ (147) all occurred in 2017 as well.

The takeaway in this seems fairly obvious even outside of BABIP: in the age of the defensive shift, hitting the ball to all fields will likely lead to more hits falling in, particularly for left-handed hitters. In Conforto’s case, and keeping in mind that he’s one of the most shifted-on lefties in the game, his greatest success comes when he is less predictable in where he puts the ball in play.

It’s important to remember that “high” correlation between these stats and BABIP is strictly within the vacuum of the discussion at hand. There doesn’t appear to be significantly high correlation, as traditionally defined, between any single stat and BABIP. In a game of inches like baseball, good old-fashioned luck comes into play no matter how much preparation a player makes nor how well he executes his game plan.

Still, it appears that Conforto can at the very least nudge luck in the right direction by approaching his at-bats with an aim to defeat the shifts so regularly employed against him. He might not really be a .320 batter, and his BABIP will certainly never sit above .400 in a normal season, but he has the tools to consistently be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. All he needs to do is keep creating a little bit of his own good luck, one plate appearance at a time.

Steven Matz’s move to the bullpen won’t stop the homers

Leave it to the Mets to take a seemingly obvious decision and make it in the most excruciatingly inept way with what appears to be an almost embarrassing lack of forethought. After days of refusing to commit to Steven Matz‘s next start and flirting with the idea of moving Seth Lugo into the rotation, the Mets appeared to announce their decision by keeping Lugo out of Wednesday’s win over the Marlin’s that the unexpectedly Lugo-less bullpen almost blew. Luis Rojas officially announced that Lugo would start in place of Matz the next day, with the added surprise that Lugo’s stay in the rotation would be more than simply a spot start.

To be completely fair, moving your most consistent and arguably best reliever into a role where he will almost certainly go from “borderline elite” to “mostly average” will have ripple effects on the entire pitching staff. The team has no idea what to expect from Lugo as a starter and even less insight into how Matz will perform as a reliever, and this lack of confidence was apparent in their indecisiveness. It’s possible that the move may strengthen a rotation ravaged by injuries while only slightly degrading a bullpen that still has some big names, but the team also runs the risk of both Matz and Lugo imploding in their swapped roles. In such a short season, and with a current record of 12-14, this would have a devastating effect on their postseason chances.

Of course, we can’t undersell just how much of a boon even an average performance from Lugo would be in the rotation considering its current state. It’s a near certainty that Lugo is less valuable as a starter than he has been as a reliever in a vacuum, but in the context of the Mets’ current situation the trade off may be worth it to bolster a rotation hurting for effective bodies. The problem with the Mets’ thinking here, however, is that it’s incredibly shortsighted.

The Mets’ rotation hasn’t performed as hoped, though it was certainly knocked down a few notches in quality with the loss of both Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. Even so, the overall team results don’t quite match the individual, isolated performances of most of the staff. The table below includes a few key stats for all of the Mets’ starting pitchers so far this season.

Name IP HR/9 WHIP BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Jacob deGrom 28.0 0.64 0.89 .269 45 49 60
Steven Matz 23.0 3.52 1.57 .318 211 159 97
Corey Oswalt 4.1 0.00 1.15 .385 97 46 85
Robert Gsellman 3.2 2.45 2.45 .400 230 182 160
Walker Lockett 6.0 1.50 1.5 .333 176 117 125
Michael Wacha 14.0 1.93 1.64 .395 151 106 98
David Peterson 21.2 0.83 1.15 .250 68 92 110
Rick Porcello 25.0 0.72 1.64 .402 135 74 95

The numbers above generally paint an ugly picture, but if we look a bit closer we can see two of the main culprits for the rotation’s underwhelming performance so far this season (beyond the injuries): bad luck and suspect defense. The former can mostly be attributed to small sample sizes, but the latter is something the team was well aware of heading into the season. If we look at the differences between ERA- and FIP- for everybody but Jacob deGrom (class of his own) and David Peterson (possible blip), we see that their fielding independent performances have actually run the gamut from about average to quite good. Combine these independent performances with sky-high BABIP for pitchers like Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello, which are much higher than their career averages, and we begin to see why health isn’t the only poor luck that Mets starters have faced this season.

This is all mostly true for Matz as well, but the difference for him is that his ERA- and FIP- are so blindingly bad that better luck and/or defense wouldn’t be much of a boost. Matz’s main issue this year has been a HR/9 that is abnormally high (3.52) at more than double his career average (1.43). This is made even more evident by his 97 xFIP-, which normalizes home runs based on fly balls rather than raw home run totals. Interestingly, his fly ball rate this season is only slightly elevated, while his HR/FB rate has almost doubled. This sort of screams “juiced ball,” though it’s unclear why the ball didn’t affect him last season if that is indeed a contributing factor this year.

All this is to say that moving Matz to the bullpen won’t fix whatever issue is causing his astronomical home run rate, and putting him there would seemingly only exacerbate the situation should he find himself thrust into high-leverage situations. The better course of action here was likely working to fix Matz rather than upending the bullpen, but the Mets tend to take the harder road for reasons unknown.

The question that remains to be answered is whether the downgrade in the bullpen is ultimately worth the potential upgrade Lugo may provide to the rotation. On the bright side, Lugo will finally get the shot in the rotation that he’s been pining for over the last few seasons. Perhaps he’s learned enough in relief to translate his success there into a starting role, or maybe this will be his final shot at a career as a starter. Either way, the Mets have decided that we’ll all get to see soon enough. Of course, this all may be moot now that the team’s games are currently suspended due to positive COVID-19 tests. Poor Lugo just can’t seem to catch a break.

So far, so good, Edwin Diaz

It might be slightly hyperbolic to call 2020 a hellscape, but the good news is that baseball is officially back to return some sense of normalcy to our everyday lives. Despite feeling like we’re in the opening montage of a post-apocalyptic movie, baseball provides a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of seemingly endless bad news.

Yesterday the Mets held to their annual “win on opening day” tradition, with Jacob deGrom laughing at the concepts of “rust” and “normal human capability” as the Mets triumphed over the Braves to open the 2020 season. Of course, there was never any real concern regarding how deGrom would perform this season beyond his chances at a Cy Young award three-peat. One of his pitching staff cohorts had plenty of questions heading into 2020, however, though he certainly put our fears to rest for at least one night.

One of the toughest aspects of writing about baseball when there’s no baseball (besides the whole no baseball thing) is that there is no data to analyze and discuss. We’d be well past the halfway point of the season if we were living outside the darkest timeline, and we’d know things like whether or not Edwin Diaz bounced back or continued to shrivel like a salted slug under the bright New York City lights. Instead, we start our assessment of his sophomore year in Queens just a week shy of what would have normally been the July trade deadline. So far, so good, as the saying goes.

Back in January I wrote about Diaz’s poor performance in 2019 and the differences in things like the spin rate, release point, and movement on his pitches when compared to his stellar 2018 season. In summary, his opponents seemingly just kind of knocked him around all year without an apparent explanation. The process appeared solid yet the results weren’t ideal, which is to say 2020 was more or less about hoping that continued good execution would lead to better results. Not exactly a prospect to be excited about, for sure.

Diaz was thrown right into the fire and tasked with protecting a 1-0 lead while facing the heart of the Braves order in his 2020 debut, of course. Despite being slightly wild at times, he looked very good against a set of tough left-handed hitters. He induced a grounder on his first pitch to retire Ozzie Albies, walked Freddie Freeman after almost giving up a homer, then finished the game by striking out both Marcell Ozuna (the lone right-hander) and Matt Adams. The pitch location chart below, taken from Baseball Savant, shows the location of his thirteen pitches.

His wildness is apparent there, but he also did a good job of hammering the left-handers inside even if he didn’t quite get in there tight enough. He also did a good job of sequencing his pitches, mixing his slider and fastball effectively to keep Ozuna and Adams off balance specifically. The charts below are from Texas Leaguers and show the movement and release points of his pitches, a point of discussion in the article linked to earlier.

Without diving too deeply here, it should be noted that the horizontal movement on both his fastball and slider more closely resembled 2019 than it did 2018. The vertical movement on the fastball was similar to both 2018 and 2019. While the horizontal movement of his slider has remained fairly consistent from 2018 to yesterday, the vertical movement on it yesterday was closer to 2019 than 2018. It’s unclear if this should be concerning, but the sliders he threw yesterday broke almost two inches more than the average during his 2018 campaign. In theory more movement would seem to be advantageous, but 2019 proved to be a tough year for the young hurler. A huge caveat here is that movement metrics are averaged for any given season, and we’re only looking at five sliders here. Additionally, his release point remains remarkably consistent. You can find the actual numbers and charts here for reference.

Is this analysis a bit much for one game? It sure is! We’re literally thirteen pitches into Diaz’s 2020 campaign, so we obviously can’t assume he’s been cured of whatever ailed him last season nor should we really put too much stock into any small subset of pitches. Yesterday was a good start, though, and hopefully portends good things in the 59 games the Mets have left this season. Even with the expanded playoff format, every win counts in such an abbreviated season. Vintage Diaz is a weapon no other team has at the moment, and the Mets postseason hopes improve exponentially if they get the pitcher they thought they traded for before the 2019 season.

Mets’ offense may have advantage with extra-inning rule

Major League Baseball’s proposed 60-game season is tentatively set to start in less than a month, but it’s certainly more than simply a shortened version of the marathon we’ve grown accustomed to over the last century. Beyond the reduced number of games, there are aspects of the season that, in many ways, will make it quite an extraordinary experience necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National League will have the Designated Hitter for the first time, which should actually benefit the Mets; there will be no fans in the stands; rosters start at 30 players, then reduce to 26 a month into the season; and expanded playoffs may or may not still be in play as the league and the players hammer out the final details.

Perhaps the most puzzling and seemingly unnecessary new addition, tested during the 2017 World Baseball Classic and now a staple of minor league ball, is the rule that places a runner on second base at the start of every extra inning. The assumed impetus for the implementation of this rule is a desire to prevent exceedingly long games to reduce player and personnel exposure to potential infection. In theory this might make sense, but Jon Tayler at FanGraphs has essentially debunked this notion.

Still, a free runner in scoring position certainly presents teams with ample opportunity to score the winning or go-ahead run with no effort on their part. It may lead to some potentially interesting managerial decisions, but more likely than not we fans will be subjected to players flailing in their attempts to recapture the lost art of bunting.

The question is: does this benefit the Mets at all? Specifically, are the Mets a team built to take advantage of this situation should they find themselves playing extra frames in 2020? The first thing to note when answering that question is that we obviously can’t predict the future, and the statistics we do note are entirely descriptive in nature.

With that in mind, the obvious place to start is how the team performed with RISP in 2019. Their OPS of .799 with RISP last season placed them at 12th in baseball. Not too bad, right? Not so fast. Exactly half of the top ten teams in OPS with RISP made the playoffs, while the other half did not. In fact, some of the teams in the top ten (Pirates, Rockies) were quite bad last year. Simple stats like this have flaws, such as a lack of context and small sample sizes, but they do give us a bit of a peek at how a team generally performed within certain parameters.

“Run expectancy based on the 24 base-out states” (RE24) is an interesting, context-based metric for determining the number of runs a player or team scored (or allowed) relative to the expected number of runs in a given situation. Essentially, RE24 represents the number of runs scored (batters) or allowed (pitchers) when compared to the average number of runs expected based on base runners and number of outs. This formula includes a team’s ability to knock a runner in from second base with one or two outs, which is the context in which extra-inning games will be played this season. This is further reduced to the number of extra wins these RE24 values were worth (or REW). The key takeaway is that Mets batters were 7th in the MLB at 7.29 wins better than average based on REW in 2019.

Obviously the other team will get the free runner in extra innings as well, and this is where improvement in the Mets’ bullpen is going to be incredibly vital (though we knew that already). The bullpen’s 2019 REW of -4.99 was the 5th worst in baseball, which goes most of the way in explaining the team’s overall performance and their 7-9 record during extra-inning games in particular.

A dozen or so extra-inning games during a 162-game season would do relatively little to alter a team’s ultimate playoff hopes, of course. When the season is more than halved, however, every win a team can scrape together takes on that much more importance. The introduction of the new extra-inning rule adds a wrinkle that may have a dramatic effect on this season’s postseason picture, and managers will need to be thoughtful in how they choose to exploit and counter it when the decision inevitability comes knocking. The new rule won’t likely be the craziest or least predictable aspect of baseball’s experimental 2020 season, but it’ll be full of the tension that the MLB is likely hoping will ease the backlash that’s sure to come when the first team loses to a bunt and a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning.

Let’s discuss the Mets’ designated hitter options

Did that article title make you throw up a little? That’s understandable. Like it or not, however, the designated hitter (DH) is coming to the National League (NL) for the 2020 season. It will once again vanish into the ether in 2021 like some bad dream, but it will most certainly come back for good at some point. It may return as soon as the 2022 season after the next collective bargaining agreement is established. Despite the protestations of we purists, it just makes too much sense for both the owners (by route of pitcher health) and the players (by route of more money and longer careers) for it not to happen. It’s become a question of “when” rather than “if” over the last few years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has simply provided a trial period to get us used to it before the band-aid is eventually ripped off entirely.

Now that we’ve accepted the inevitable, let’s talk a little about how the DH will affect the Mets roster, however large that ends up being in 2020. The Mets’ defense in 2019 was…not good. They were 28th in DRS at -86. Small samples of defensive metrics should be taken with a grain of salt, but this is a clear indication that the team was shooting themselves in the very same foot they probably used to kick the ball all over the field.

As my colleague Chris Dial argued back in March, though, many of the Mets’ defensive woes can be attributed to an awkwardly constructed roster and players playing out of their optimal positions. Additionally, the potential returns of Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie make it that much tougher to get the best bats into the lineup without sacrificing defense. The DH will (mostly) help solve both of these problems by enabling Luis Rojas to maximize the offensive potential of his flawed roster with less of an impact on the team’s defensive performance.

This isn’t to say that Rojas doesn’t have a challenging task in actually leveraging the DH to maximize the team’s performance. If Cespedes shows even a hint of his former prowess with the bat, you have to put him into the lineup as often as possible, right? Given his injury history, the DH spot is perfect for him. That still doesn’t solve the defensive issues, though. Perhaps it would be best to plug Robinson Cano into the DH spot to free up second base for Jeff McNeil and third base for J.D. Davis (where he’s only below average rather than an outfield disaster). This would allow for Brandon Nimmo to transition from a poor defender in center field to a plus defender in left field, with Jake Marisnick‘s elite defense in center. If Amed Rosario‘s bat continues to develop, the DH would also allow for him to be kept in the lineup with someone like Luis Guillorme manning shortstop periodically.

There really are a multitude of options for Rojas given how this roster is constructed, particularly with an expanded roster in 2020, and I suspect we will see a plethora of mid-game defensive positional swaps during the upcoming season. As much as NL purists hate the idea of the DH, the Mets are among the teams that would benefit the most from the introduction of an additional bat to the lineup. Truth be told, I’ve personally started coming around to the idea of the DH in the senior circuit. Perhaps it’s because of the inevitability of it, or maybe it’s the aftereffect of watching what poor in-game management does to a team over the last few years. Either way, we’re about to witness the experiment in real-time whether we like it or not. At the very least, they’ll have somewhere to play Cano during the last forever years of his contract. That’s kind of a win, right?

Let’s end with a couple of questions for discussion:

  • What would be your ideal DH scenario for this team?
  • What historical Mets player would have benefited the most from the DH while he played for the team?

The Enigmatic Steven Matz

Two of the most interesting things about Mets pitcher Steven Matz have (mostly) nothing to do with his numbers on the field. Like teammate Jacob deGrom, Matz consistently goes about his business in a professional manner that contrasts with the club chaos that often surrounds him. Perhaps more interesting, however, is that he isn’t really a polarizing figure among the fan base despite a history of disappointing performance that belies his former top prospect status and the promise he flashed during the Mets’ 2015 run to the World Series and his 2016 rookie season. The former point likely contributes to the latter, as Matz displays none of the bravado of a Matt Harvey or Noah Syndergaard, though never truly had as high a ceiling as either player.

The title of this piece may not seem quite apt for a player like Matz. Indeed, “enigmatic” is a loaded word generally reserved for players, like the aforementioned Harvey, with outsized personalities as big as their significant talent. Here, though, we use it in the most literal sense. Matz, despite being in the league since 2015, is a difficult pitcher to understand. Perhaps more succinctly, and as Brian Joura wrote in his projection article in February, Matz is a riddle.

The two main knocks on Matz over his career have been his inability to stay on the field and his inconsistency when he does take the mound. At this point in his career, and after two straight seasons of 30 starts, it appears as though his health issues are mostly behind him (knock on wood). That just leaves his performance, which has ultimately not been up to the standards he set for himself from 2015-2016.

Matz’s 105 ERA- and 105 FIP- from 2016-2019 are both right around average, and place him around 100th of the 140 starting pitchers that qualified during the selected time frame. His xFIP- of 95 and SIERA of 4.15 are also about average, though that SIERA value is right on the cusp of below average. Those xFIP- and SIERA values place him around 50th of those 140 players, a much more palatable place for sure. It should be noted that these values are certainly buoyed a bit by his 2016 season, and the 2018-2019 version of Matz is very likely his true talent level.

These statistics attempt to isolate the true talent level and performance of a pitcher, and what they tell us about Matz is what we’ve seen over the last 4 years: he’s an inconsistent and average pitcher that mixes in stellar stretches with awful ones.

That inconsistency can be maddening for a team looking to solidify their front five and give themselves the best possible chance to win. It’s why we continuously see Matz having to fight for his rotation spot, most recently because of the offseason additions of Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha. It’s also why the team briefly moved him to the bullpen last season after a disastrous June.

We shouldn’t forget that there’s immense value in what Matz brings to the table, though. He’s a number three at his best, a number five at his worst, and roughly a solid number four the rest of the time. That’s particularly valuable for a team that just lost their number three starter and will likely lose his replacement whether or not the 2020 season actually occurs. Talk of trading Matz, who doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, seems problematic for a team with little pitching prospect talent ready to step in right away.

Technically speaking, Matz only has three “full” seasons as a starter. He’s been hampered by injuries, of course, and there remains the adage that southpaw pitchers take a bit longer to develop than their right-handed counterparts. Is it possible that he still has room to grow before he hits free agency? Sure, particularly if Jeremy Hefner can pick up where Phil Regan left off in helping Matz finish 2019 strong. Then again, this may be a riddle that the Mets simply cannot solve.

The loss of Noah Syndergaard and the Mets’ playoff hopes

News of Noah Syndergaard‘s Tommy John surgery, which occurred successfully this past Thursday in Florida, wasn’t really all that surprising given the prevalence of the procedure across baseball and the max effort delivery of his 100+ mph heaters. It was actually more surprising that he was the lone outlier in his own rotation for two seasons before the Mets traded for Marcus Stroman last summer, as Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and Jason Vargas all had the surgery at some point in their careers. It was more inevitable than unexpected under the circumstances.

Syndergaard’s injury leaves the team and its fans with a lot of questions moving forward, but it does solve the logjam in the rotation the Mets created when they signed Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha and allegedly promised them both spots in the starting rotation. We now know that the team structured Wacha’s contract in such a way that it provides incentives for him to appear in relief, and that they believe Porcello provides no value out of the bullpen. As such, the final spot in the Mets’ rotation became an intriguing Spring Training story that matched Wacha against the incumbent Matz.

The loss of Syndergaard is obviously a blow to the Mets’ 2020 season (should it occur) and a potentially significant chunk of 2021, but just how large is the drop between his projected production and that of the Matz/Wacha combination? Would it help if I said that this team needed all aspects of its roster to perform well for a chance to seriously contend in the NL East anyway?

FanGraphs projected the Mets to have the second-best rotation in baseball per fWAR, with a healthy Syndergaard’s 4.6 fWAR bested only by deGrom (6.1). This would have been the ideal scenario for a team built on pitching, as an elite rotation would theoretically do the heavy lifting while a competent bullpen, above average lineup, and solid bench rounded out the edges of a roster with dreams of contention. The loss of Syndergaard alters the road the Mets need to take to make the postseason, and it’s unclear if the team now has the horses to pull it off.

The updated projections that include increased playing time and adjusted fWAR for both Matz (2.0) and Wacha (1.4) peg the Mets’ rotation as eighth best. The carryover effect of the rotation downgrade, of course, is that the team’s general projected win total has dropped from around 87-89 (depending on which system you like) to somewhere in the neighborhood of 84-85 wins. As most fans are aware, the difference between two or three wins in that range generally means the difference between securing a wild card spot and watching the playoffs from home.

So where can the team turn for those extra few wins they’ll miss with Syndergaard going down? Frankly, they’re going to need some above average performances from the rest of their roster and a bit of luck with any further injuries. The same can obviously be said for any team on the fringes of contention, but it’s never a position you want for your team heading into a season with such promise.

The good news is there are some players on the roster that FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projection system may be undervaluing because they simply don’t know what to do with them. Brandon Nimmo‘s projected 1.9 fWAR underscores an understandably skeptical view of his ability to stay on the field for a full season, but he’s shown he can be a 4.0+ fWAR player given the chance and good health. While there is belief that Jeff McNeil is the real deal (3.6), FanGraphs isn’t quite as sold on J.D. Davis (1.3). Similarly, Yoenis Cespedes‘ 1.0 projected fWAR reflects the total uncertainty of what the Mets can expect from him in the final season of his contract.

The bad news is that depth is paper thin for parts of the Mets’ roster, particularly for the rotation. Should either deGrom and/or Stroman go down for any significant amount of time, things could get ugly very quickly. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that the team is depending heavily on a bounce-back season from a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last year. Additionally, and barring a significant trade to upgrade the rotation, a postseason front three of deGrom/Stroman/Porcello is a lot less intimidating in a short series than deGrom/Syndergaard/Stroman.

A playoff berth isn’t impossible for the Mets in 2020, but the loss of Syndergaard has made it significantly more difficult in what may be the toughest division in baseball. They’ll need a lot of luck with regard to the injury bug, performances matching potential, Brodie Van Wagenen to make some shrewd depth/upgrade trades during the season, and for new manager Luis Rojas to hit the ground running. Hey, what’s a Mets season without at least a little adversity and a consistent feeling of running against the wind?

Noah Syndergaard’s pitch-framing dependency

It feels like ages since the Mets entered a season with an offense widely considered to be a potent weapon, but that’s the case as we head into a 2020 campaign replete with high expectations. A lineup stacked with reigning Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso, a resurgent Michael Conforto, a rising J.D. Davis, a potential batting champion in Jeff McNeil, and an outfielder with spurts atop the leader boards in Brandon Nimmo is certainly one for which we should be excited. That doesn’t even include guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie who, however seemingly unlikely, could provide major contributions off of the bench.

Potential offensive potency aside, though, this team is still built on pitching and will only go as far as it takes them. This is something the Mets should keep in mind as they fill out the edges of their roster, particularly as they determine who they slot into the backup catcher position when they head north. The competition boils down to Tomas Nido, who is out of options, and frequent Met Rene Rivera, who has the longer and better track record. For the purpose of this article it actually doesn’t matter which one makes the cut, though either one will likely significantly impact the team’s success this year.

Why is the backup catcher so important on this team? There are two main points to consider in this scenario, and both of them relate to primary catcher Wilson Ramos. First, Ramos played the most games of his career as a 31-year-old last season. That’s not a trend you like to see for backstops, especially for ones where both statistics and the eye test confirm a distinct decline in his capability behind the plate. While Ramos provides the clearly superior offense when compared to any of the backup options, he’ll need to play in fewer games to keep him fresh as he ages.

Second, and more directly related to the pitching staff, the battery dynamic of Ramos and Noah Syndergaard was a continuing drama that unfolded over the course of the 2019 season. Despite denials, multiple reports stated that Syndergaard wished to pitch to Nido rather than Ramos. It’s easy to write this off as Syndergaard reaching for straws during yet another season in which his results didn’t match his potential, but the numbers actually support him. Below are a few select statistics for Syndergaard broken down by catcher for 2019:

By Catcher
Split G IP ERA SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
Travis d’Arnaud 2 10.0 8.10 2.00 .391 .451 .565 1.016
Tomas Nido 12 78.0 2.88 3.76 .230 .284 .364 .648
Wilson Ramos 16 97.0 5.20 4.41 .258 .303 .427 .731
Rene Rivera 2 12.2 2.84 8.00 .265 .288 .408 .697
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/22/2020.

He clearly performed better when Nido was behind the plate, though it’s unclear why that was the case. Former manager Mickey Callaway noted that Nido was better at handling pitches down in the zone than Ramos, which is an important factor considering Syndergaard’s sinker is likely his best weapon. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Nido may be an equalizer against something that’s been plaguing Syndergaard for years: his command.

Nido’s pitch framing (2.4) was rated much higher than Ramos’s (-7.6) for 2019, which may have played an important role in Syndergaard’s performance. If the right-hander can’t quite locate his pitches, that extra bit of help from his catcher could absolutely determine the outcome of any given at-bat.

A similar dynamic played out in 2018 where Syndergaard was at his best with Nido behind the plate, and Nido’s pitch-framing easily outperformed the other catchers on the roster. His 2017 was decimated by injuries, but it should come as no surprise that Syndergaard’s best season in 2016 was anchored by a trio of catchers that had superior framing numbers in Rivera, Travis d’Arnaud, and Kevin Plawecki.

Is pitch-framing really the key to maximizing a Syndergaard pitching performance? While there’s obviously any number of factors that could sway his results on any given day, the numbers sure do seem to suggest it as at least a plausible correlation. Is it enough to merit giving in and allowing Syndergaard his own personal catcher? I think so, at least.

One could argue that the greater issue, the one with the most impact on this club’s future, is the fact that Syndergaard simply needs to finally harness his significant potential. That’s obvious, of course, though easier said than done. On the other hand, it makes sense for the team to squeeze every advantage they can out of their roster, and making Nido or Rivera his personal catcher seems a small price to pay for the potential payoff.

The Mets’ 2020 bullpen and the Edwin Diaz dilemma

According FanGraphs’ Steamer system, the 2020 New York Mets are projected to have the top bullpen in the National League and the third-best relief corps in all of baseball with an even 5.0 fWAR. That’s a seemingly preposterous notion to a fan base that suffered through a season sunk by what was, for large parts of the year, a historically bad bullpen. If your immediate reaction was to scoff at the absurdity of it all, you’re not alone.

Still, it was easy to be fairly high on the Mets’ relievers heading into the 2019 season. The team traded for dominant closer Edwin Diaz, re-signed formerly dominant closer Jeurys Familia, and added Justin Wilson to a bullpen that already included stud Seth Lugo and the (usually) dependable Robert Gsellman. It looked pretty good on paper, anyway.

There were plenty of reasons that last season’s bullpen was such a disaster. Injury, poor performance, lack of depth, bad bullpen management, lack of starter length early in the season, and plain bad luck are just a few that can reasonably be applied to the 2019 Mets’ beleaguered bullpen. Perhaps the singular most relevant reason for the collapse, however, is also a most clichéd baseball adage: bullpens are volatile.

First-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen looked to make a splash in a now infamous move that traded some of the Mets’ future for win-now reliever Diaz and win-yesterday second baseman Robinson Cano. It’s hard to imagine how the trade could have turned out any worse considering both players flopped, but the floundering Diaz will likely have the bigger impact on the success (or failure) of the 2020 Mets.

By now you’ve seen multiple analyses that center on Diaz’s poor 2019 performance from the outcome perspective (increased HR rate, walks, etc.), and we’ll definitely touch on that a bit further in this article. As a change of pace, though, this piece focuses more on the execution and behavior of his pitches in an attempt to identify any key differences between 2018 and 2019 that may have led to such contrasting results.

There’s understandably been a lot of chatter about his slider and its ineffectiveness this past season, but his fastball was noticeably worse in 2019 as well. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more striking example of the consequences of a two-pitch reliever losing both of his weapons, and the situation was made all the worse for Diaz as a newly-acquired, high-profile player in the New York market.

The table below presents various data points pertaining to Diaz’s arsenal (his four-seam fastball and slider) for both 2018 and 2019. The information is sourced from Statcast and Pitch/FX data from multiple sites, including FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball. I’ve also included a scatter plot from Brooks Baseball below the table that depicts the average movement of his pitches in 2018 and 2019. This is in an effort to provide a bit more context for the positive and negative numbers associated with pitch movement and release points, and there’s a short primer at the end of this article providing additional detail*.

2019 FS 2018 FS 2019 SL 2018 SL
Spin Rate 2371 2341 2367 2377
H-Move(in) -7.04 -5.96 0.97 1.17
V-Move(in) 7.91 8.9 2.72 2.4
Velo 97.8 97.9 89.8 89.7
V-Release(ft) 5.14 5.31 5.35 5.45
H-Release(ft) -2.93 -2.76 -2.85 -2.7
HardHitRate 47.50% 36.90% 42.60% 32.70%
FB% 30.77% 26.19% 29.79% 18.75%
HR 9 2 6 3
BAA .237 .188 .333 .121
K% 41.50% 32.90% 35.90% 56.40%

The first things to note are that the spin rate on his four-seamer ticked up by 30rpm and both the horizontal and vertical movement changed fairly significantly. That 30rpm may seem insignificant, but keep in mind that even a difference of 100rpm at high velocities can impact swinging strike percentages significantly. Oddly, the upward vertical movement on his four-seamer actually decreased rather than increased with the higher spin rate. You’d typically see the reverse, where more backspin leads to an increase in the “rise” of a four-seam fastball. There’s a difference of a full inch here, which is considerable for a game where mere millimeters mean the difference between a home run and a pop fly. The change in horizontal movement on his fastball also indicates an increase in sidespin, causing it to cut more into right-handers and away from lefties. These differences could indicate a slight change in his grip, where the pitch acts a bit more like a two-seamer but is still clearly a four-seam fastball.

It’s likely that his slower slider wasn’t affected as much by the smaller 10rpm decrease in spin rate, though with this pitch its horizontal movement would be impacted more by changes in the spin rate. We can see that there’s less than an inch of difference in vertical and horizontal movement on the pitch between 2018 and 2019, though it’s worth pointing out that it had more lift and less break away from right-handers than it did in 2018. Again, small differences can have huge consequences.

The changes in the release point for both pitches were included in the table because it’s an interesting data point, and I thought perhaps inconsistencies here may have been a potential cause of his bad fortune. Though he had a slightly lower, flatter release point for both pitches in 2019, it really is negligible. As an aside, I plotted both pitches by month for 2018 and 2019 in the charts below, and he’s actually been remarkably consistent.

So what does all of this get us besides a closer look at some cool Statcast and Pitch/FX data? Well, at the very least we can see that some of his mechanics have remained consistent between 2018 and 2019. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that the slight changes in the behavior of his pitches led to the carnage that was his 2019 in Queens, but hitters were clearly locked in when he took the mound. This is evidenced by the sample of outcome metrics in the table that really drive home just how thoroughly Diaz was thrashed last season.

The hard hit rate for each of his pitches in 2019 was astronomical and averaged out to 45.3%, which was in the bottom 2% of the MLB. Statcast also has a statistic known as Barrel, which essentially leverages exit velocity and launch angle to identify how many times a batter “squares up” on a pitch. Unsurprisingly, Diaz’s 10.1 Barrel% was in the bottom 8% of the MLB last season. The huge increases in his fly ball rate, home runs allowed, and batting average against are well known at this point, but they’re quite stark when compared to the small changes in his pitch behavior.

If we consider that his 2019 pitches acted very similarly to their 2018 counterparts, and there was no dip in velocity, then we’re left with questions centered on things like his ability to hit his location, pitch tipping, sequencing, and just plain bad luck.

It’s difficult to analyze differences in the sequencing of his pitches and the predictability of the choices he and his battery mate made in any given at bat, though it should be noted that he only leaned on his four-seamer slightly more often in 2019 than he did the season before. Likewise, and while still a possibility, it would be surprising if he was tipping his pitches and we have yet to hear about it. Still, the authority with which hitters demolished his offerings and the roughly 10% increase in their pull rate against him sure make it seem like they had a good idea of what was coming. In terms of luck, attributing his ills to the cruel fates certainly seems like a cop out, but the .377 BABIP that hitters tallied against him combined with the almost 10% increase in contact on his pitches outside the zone sort of bear that line of thinking out a bit.

What does Diaz need to fix and how does he do it? Is there actually something that needs fixing? It may be that the Mets eventually do identify the cause for his down year and he makes the appropriate corrections heading in 2020, but it’s possible that we already identified the primary cause many paragraphs ago. Relievers are a fickle bunch, and it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Diaz had a 58-inning blip that was more catastrophic to his team’s fortunes than most sample sizes that small.

Returning to the premise of our headline, the dilemma the Mets are presented with is whether or not to hand Diaz the closer role at the outset of the 2020 season and make it his to lose. With a year in the New York spotlight under his belt, and the hope for a regression to the mean regarding luck, do they bank on him getting back on course as the anchor for what has the potential to be an elite bullpen? Or do they hand the reins to someone like Lugo and make Diaz earn it back like he did in Seattle in 2017? For what it’s worth, I’m of the opinion that you plug Diaz in as the closer and remove him if he once again plays himself out of that role. Only, you know, do it sooner.

It might be hyperbolic to state that the success of the Mets’ 2020 bullpen depends on which version of Diaz manifests itself next season, but it’s not that far from the truth. As we saw this past season, it only takes one failing cog to throw the entire machine into disarray. A healthy and effective quartet of Lugo, Familia, Diaz, and the newly-acquired Dellin Betances could certainly make that projection a reality, but there are many “ifs” involved in reaching that ideal scenario. Can Diaz and Familia regain their form? Will a healthy Betances come close to resembling his former, dominant self? Will the time bomb that is Lugo’s elbow continue to hold up?

That 5.0 fWAR projection would absolutely look nice on the Mets’ bullpen this season, but before we start counting those chickens we should remember that Steamer was pretty high on the Mets’ bullpen in 2019 as well. What did the projection gods foresee before last season for Mets relief pitchers? Second in the NL and third in the MLB with an fWAR of 4.3. Of course, they just missed the mark on that one by landing at a robust 0.7 fWAR. Relievers, man.

* The X and Y axes intersect at the center with a value of zero. The perspective is from the catcher’s point of view with the intersection acting as the center of home plate. Negative numbers on the Y-axis represent downward movement, while positive numbers represent upward movement. Likewise, negative numbers on the X-axis represent pitches moving towards a right-handed batter while positive numbers represent pitches moving away. The locations of the bubbles are relative to the center of the chart and do not represent where the pitches landed within the strike zone.

Mets360 2017 projection review: Travis d’Arnaud, Rene Rivera & Kevin Plawecki

Our Mets360 preseason projection review series now turns its attention to a trio of catchers in Travis d’Arnaud, Rene Rivera, and Kevin Plawecki. Like the 2017 infield, there were questions surrounding the breakdown of playing time for the team’s catching corp heading into the season. D’Arnaud’s history of injury and poor 2016 combined with Plawecki’s inability to break out meant that, presumably, Rivera would see a fairly significant amount of time behind the dish in 2017. We took a crack at projecting both playing time and performance for all three backstops, which proved to be a bit challenging.

Player PA OPS
d’Arnaud 411 .750
Rivera 198 .612
Plawecki 122 .610

The staff struggled just a bit with playing time projection, but as a group we saw d’Arnaud cracking 400 plate appearances for the first time since 2014. We also projected him to improve his OPS significantly when compared to his poor 2016 season. We didn’t think too highly of Rivera’s or Plawecki’s bats and didn’t see either of them cracking 200 plate appearances, however. Here’s how the catchers actually did, with the best and worst individual projections among our group:

d’Arnaud
PA – 376
Best – Koehler (370)
Worst – Ryan (515)

OPS – .735
Best – Hangley (.735)
Worst – Allison (.640)

Rivera
PA – 237
Best – O’Malley (218)
Worst – Allison (450)

OPS – .736
Best – Hangley (.690)
Worst – Barbieri (.559)

Plawecki
PA – 118
Best – Ryan (90)
Worst – Allison (320)

OPS – .764
Best – Hangley (.725)
Worst – Netter (.490)

Well, this is quite an interesting set of results. We greatly underestimated the offensive performance of both Rivera and Plawecki, with the latter performing the best of the trio. However, we were quite close on plate appearances give or take a few from d’Arnaud and Rivera. What we didn’t foresee was the Mets placing Rivera on waivers and the Cubs claiming him in mid-August, thereby necessitating a call up for Plawecki to finish out the season. Nor did we foresee Plawecki getting the bulk of the starts behind the dish once called up and hitting to the tune of a 137 wRC+. It was a weird season.

If Plawecki truly has turned a corner and d’Arnaud can continuously provide the production he did in 2017, the Mets may actually find themselves with a strong duo behind the plate. Of course, those are pretty big “ifs” for two of the more underwhelming Mets prospects in recent years.

Mets360 2017 projection review: Yoenis Cespedes

Next up in our preseason projection review series is Yoenis Cespedes, slugger extraordinaire. Cespedes predictably opted out of the short-term deal he signed with the Mets at the end of the 2016 season, once again becoming a free agent. The Mets, amazingly, ponied up the cash to re-sign him to a four year pact shortly thereafter. Cespedes wasn’t quite as valuable in 2016 as he had been in 2015, though his wRC+ was 135 in both years. The drop in his overall fWAR (6.7 vs 3.2) mostly had to due with his poor defensive rating, particularly in center field, and time missed with leg issues.

The plan was to keep him out of center in 2017, which would theoretically limit the damage to his overall value as well as the stress on his legs. Even so, much of the Mets’ success would depend on the defensive output of an outfield that was looking pretty ugly on that side of the ball. Our Mets360 staff projections below attempted to peg his UZR/150 in what would presumably be mostly left field in 2017:

PA – 611
AVG – .285
OBP – .343
SLG – .523
HR – 32
RBI – 102
UZR/150 – 2.7

The individual projections were generally very similar, leading to an overall offensive projection that matched pretty closely with his 2016 performance. Where the staff diverged significantly was in the projections for his UZR/150, with a range from -2.5 to 15.7. Here’s how he actually performed, with the best and worst individual projections among our group:

PA – 321
Best – Fox (520)
Worst – Walendin (680)

AVG – .292
Best – Allison (.287)
Worst – Fox (.275)

OBP – .352
Best – Barbierr (.353)
Worst – Koehler (.315)

SLG – .540
Best – Koehler (.540)
Worst – Fox, Netter (.510)

HR – 17
Best – Barbieri (29)
Worst – Netter (41)

RBI – 42
Best – Rogan (88)
Worst – Netter (118)

UZR/150 – -5.2
Best – Barbieri (-2.5)
Worst – Ryan (15.7)

Like so many players we’ve reviewed so far, our projections were thrown completely out of whack because of the time Cespedes missed due to injury. He played in just 81 of the team’s games after missing significant time with leg issues that the Mets, you guessed it, completely mismanaged.

When he was actually healthy enough to play he was having another very strong year at the plate, though. His power numbers were reminiscent of his 2015 while the improved walk rate he managed in 2016 carried over into 2017. Perhaps unsurprising considering the leg issues, his base running and defense were net negatives that dragged down his overall value. This was also the case in 2016, and it’s not such a leap to say that he may now have some deep-seated trepidation when it comes to pushing it with his legs.

I’m tired of writing it, you’re tired of reading it, but perhaps the steps the team has taken this offseason to restructure how they handle injuries will keep disasters like 2017 from happening again. For his part, Cespedes has stated that he’ll tweak his training routine to focus more on resistance and agility in the hope of preventing, or at the very least lessening the severity of, injuries to his lower body.

Mets360 2017 projection review: David Wright, Jose Reyes, Wilmer Flores

Next up in our preseason projection review series is a trio of infielders in David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Wilmer Flores. The Mets’ infield picture heading into the 2017 season was a bit muddied in terms of who played where and how often. They needed to find playing time for the trio, and the question marks surrounding the health of Wright and Lucas Duda added a wrinkle to whatever formula they devised to spread the wealth. As such, our Mets360 projections attempted to factor in playing time via plate appearances:

Player PA OPS
Wright 216 .765
Reyes 433 .711
Flores 378 .750

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, we foresaw Reyes getting the most playing time of the three even though we also projected him to be the least productive. We weren’t particularly bullish on Wright’s playing time, and even then we were still too optimistic. We’ll cover the actual production of Reyes and Flores below, but first a quick note on Wright. The poor guy can’t catch a break, as he had to shut down his rehab after only three Hi-A games with shoulder trouble that led to rotator cuff surgery in September. A month later he underwent additional surgery on his lower back. It was the first year of his career that he didn’t suit up for a single major league game and it certainly doesn’t portend a positive outlook on his future in the big leagues.

Here’s how Reyes and Flores actually did, with the best and worst individual projections among our group:

Reyes
PA – 561
Best – Ryan (574)
Worst – Koehler (350)

OPS – .728
Best – Rogan (.730)
Worst – Hangley (.820)

Flores
PA – 362
Best – Barbieri (335)
Worst – Hangley (213)

OPS – .795
Best – Fox (.795)
Worst – Allison (.673)

As a group we were on point with Reyes getting the most playing time. We undershot the playing time for both Reyes and Flores because of the time we allocated to Wright, though, and Reyes inherited the bulk of those at-bats. Interestingly, we underestimated the production for both Flores and Reyes by a good bit.

The Mets are once again entering a season with question marks surrounding the infield. Unlike 2017, however, the lack of viable starting options lies at the heart of the uncertainty. Duda is gone, Reyes is unquestionably no longer a starter, Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario are still very raw, Adrian Gonzalez…exists(?), and any fantasy that Wright will ever return to the diamond is all but squashed. Although the team re-signed Reyes as a utility player, it remains to be seen who starts at second and third, and time is getting short as we inch closer and closer to Spring Training.