As the Mets sit with a 69-80 record, when expectations were for the team to win 90+ games this year, it’s easy to imagine that many more things went wrong than what went right with the club this season. It’s too painful – and too lengthy – to list all of the ways the wheels fell off here in 2023. So, let’s just hit the lowlights. There were injuries to the starting rotation, a dreadful bullpen construction, a bunch of veteran hitters falling short of what was expected of them and a couple of rookies who failed to prove they belonged on the team.
All of that leaves us looking for sliver linings. And something more substantial than Phil Bickford has had six scoreless appearances in his last seven outings. Fortunately, the Mets have two things to potentially hang their hat on, one a guy coming on out of seemingly nowhere and the other a guy that was undervalued by far too many people, both inside and outside of the organization. The former is DJ Stewart and the latter is Ronny Mauricio.
By now the Stewart story is well-known among Mets fans. A former first-round pick of the Orioles when Buck Showalter was their manager, Stewart failed to impress in parts of five years in Baltimore before joining the Mets as a free agent prior to this season. Then, when given a chance here with the Mets out of contention, Stewart has done a great job at the plate, with a 150 OPS+ in 152 PA.
Clearly, Stewart wasn’t this good with the Orioles. But the thing is, it’s not like he was awful, either. Stewart had 622 PA in his tenure in Baltimore, or essentially a full season’s worth of playing time. And in that span, he hit 26 HR and had a 97 OPS+. Stewart put up these numbers with a .254 BABIP. So, we have an essentially league-average hitter despite one running a 40-something point deficit with balls in play. And one with power, too.
This year he has a .308 BABIP and the aforementioned 150 OPS+. Is this all due to better luck on balls in play? Well, not exactly. After a .188 ISO in his time with the Orioles, Stewart has a .311 ISO here in 2023. It’s possible that’s nothing more than an unsustainable hot streak. But he started from a pretty good place and then the Mets organization helped him make an adjustment. This is from Will Sammon in The Athletic:
One day while working in the batting cage with Triple-A Syracuse hitting coach Collin Hetzler, Stewart stumbled into using a toe tap at the plate that has helped him unlock more power. The idea stemmed from Hetzler — who in 2022 the Mets named as their minor-league staff member of the year — wanting Stewart to get the ball more in the air. Stewart’s bat path had become steep; a lot of his most hard-hit balls were sliced with excessive spin. Data in April and May confirmed the high ground-ball rate. Thus, Hetzler and Stewart wanted the burly outfielder to get behind the ball longer. Instead of always thinking about left-center field, the left-handed batter changed his target to right-center. It all stemmed from a posture and point-of-contact adjustment. Hetzler suggested taking a step back with his front foot, but Stewart found the toe tap and ran with it. Ever since, his results have improved.
It’s always nice when we have an explanation for the leap in performance. Stewart is having success this year because of a big increase in BABIP and a mechanical adjustment that helped unlock even more power. If only we could wrap it up that tidy.
By now, you should be familiar with the idea of a six-week hot streak. When this concept was first introduced here back in 2018, here was the description: “In rough terms, these unusual streaks comprise six weeks or 30 games or 120 PA. Now, maybe it’s 37 games or maybe it’s 98 PA. But this is the general ballpark.”
Starting on 8/1, when he went 2-3 with a double and a walk, and ending on 9/12, when he went 3-5 with a double, Stewart played in 31 games and in 106 PA he posted a .298/.365/.692 line, with a .353 BABIP. Before August, Stewart nearly put up an identical mark to his time with the Orioles, with a .200/.320/.400 line. And in his last five games, Stewart has just a .452 OPS.
Stewart’s time in Baltimore indicates a perfectly reasonable bench player. His time in New York offers hope of not only a starting-caliber player but one who could be a key cog in the offense. It’s difficult for me to believe he’s that good. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could perform some kind of quasi-platoon next year with Starling Marte. While not as hopeless against lefties as Daniel Vogelbach, Stewart hits RHP much better, with a .150-point lifetime edge in OPS when he has the platoon advantage.
Which brings us to Mauricio.
Long-touted as one of the Mets’ top prospects, Mauricio had four straight seasons where he was on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list. Then he went out and hit 26 HR in Double-A at age 21 and somehow fell off BA’s list prior to this season. And the same goes for the lists from MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, who both dropped Mauricio after featuring him on their list the three previous seasons.
And it wasn’t just outside evaluators who didn’t believe in Mauricio. The Mets failed to call him up earlier in the year despite the fact that he was tearing the cover off the ball in Syracuse the first two months of the season while the MLB club was struggling for offense. And it turns out that was the best thing possible for Mauricio. He couldn’t keep up his blistering pace and fell off for the next six weeks or so. If he had been promoted, the story would be how he couldn’t hit MLB pitching. Instead his drop in performance is just considered the normal ups and down of a season.
The Mets called up Mauricio when rosters expanded in September and immediately inserted him into the lineup at second base. A shortstop through most of his minor league tenure, the Mets finally gave Mauricio some playing time at other positions this year and he didn’t really excel at any of them. He looked fine at 2B. The Mets have also given him a few games at third base, too. Mauricio claims he feels most comfortable at 3B if he isn’t going to play SS. It will be curious to see where he plays the rest of this season. My hope is that they let him play some outfield, too, which seems like his long-term defensive home. We shall see.
But Mauricio’s value is going to come with his bat and he has posted some impressive exit velocities here in his first exposure to MLB pitching. His very first PA ended with a ball with a 117.3 exit velocity, the highest mark posted by a Met this season. With a .400 BABIP, the hits are falling in for Mauricio, allowing him to post a .770 OPS despite having just 3 XBH in 51 PA.
However, the takeaway from his initial MLB experience is that while he likes to swing the bat, he makes enough contact not to be too alarmed. Ideally, Mauricio wouldn’t have a 42.1 O-Swing%. But he makes contact on 60.8% of those swings on pitches outside the zone. Compare that to the mark of fellow rookies Francisco Alvarez (56.5%), Brett Baty (53.7%) and Mark Vientos (52%). It should still be a point of emphasis to cut down on his chase rate moving forward.
It’s a reasonable forecast to have both Stewart and Mauricio on the 2024 Mets Opening Day roster. It’s not outlandish to picture both of them getting 300 or more PA next year. And it’s on the table that both could be in the Opening Day lineup. If that’s the case, it will indeed be a silver lining in this otherwise forgettable year of 2023 in Mets baseball.