For all their star power — Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, for starters — the ultimate success of the 2023 New York Mets is heavily reliant on two less-talked-about players: Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo.
Why is that? Well, in order to understand the makeup of today’s Mets, let’s turn back the clock to 2014, when teams were playing a much different game than they are in 2023.
The San Francisco Giants beat the Kansas City Royals in the World Series that year, hitting 132 home runs to the Royals’ 95, which ranked last in the majors. Turn back a year earlier and the St. Louis Cardinals reached the Fall Classic after ranking 27th in the majors with 125 homers. In 2012, the Giants won the World Series after ranking last in the majors with 103.
As batting averages have declined and strikeouts increased over the past decade, teams have relied more and more on home runs. The average team in 2022 hit 174 home runs. When home runs were more plentiful in 2021, the average team hit 198. Early in 2023, home runs are up slightly from last season, especially when comparing April to April.
It’s not just the total number of home runs that has jumped either: In 2014, just 33.4% of all runs came via the home run. By 2021, that figure had climbed to 42.8% and it was 39.9% the following season. Not surprisingly, outhomering the competition has become a more common formula for winning, too, as five of the past six World Series champions ranked in the top four in the majors in home runs during their title-winning season.
Here’s where we get back to the Mets: They’re trying to win with an offensive style more like what we saw a decade ago than what we see from the offensive powerhouses of today. Even with Alonso slugging 40 home runs in 2022, the Mets were below the major league average with 171 home runs.
That’s where two of the most important players in the major leagues come in. With McNeil hitting .326 with a .382 OBP (and just nine home runs) and Nimmo hitting .274 with a .367 OBP (and 16 home runs) last season, the Mets tied for fifth in the majors in runs. They scored 25 more runs than the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, even though the Phillies hit 34 more home runs. They scored just 17 fewer runs than the NL East-winning Atlanta Braves, even though the Braves hit 72 more home runs. Turns out getting on base at a high clip can still be a good way to score runs.
That leaves one big question for the Mets in 2023: Can McNeil and Nimmo do it again?
McNeil was tied for 16th among position players with 5.7 bWAR in 2022 and signed a four-year, $50 million contract extension in the offseason that includes a club option for 2027. Nimmo timed his career year perfectly, hitting free agency this past winter coming off a 5.1 bWAR season. He re-signed with the Mets for eight years and $162 million — a shocking deal for a player who turned 30 in March and has been healthy enough to play 100 games only twice.
When he is on the field, Nimmo has always been a productive player. He played 151 games and scored 102 runs as the Mets’ leadoff hitter in 2022, and his career .385 OBP going into 2023 ranked seventh among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2017.
“One of the things that we talk about when we’re going to extend a longer-term deal with a player is, ‘Can we trust him with the contract? Can we trust his intentions? Can we trust the heart of the player?'” Mets general manager Billy Eppler said after re-signing Nimmo. “And so many people here think the world of him.”
Known for his upbeat attitude and always-present smile, Nimmo is indeed a popular teammate. And if the early going of the season is any indication, he won’t have a problem replicating his 2022 success.
He’s off to a tremendous start, raising his leadoff skills to another level and hitting .375/.489/.500 with 15 walks and just nine strikeouts. He helped the Mets take the rubber game of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium with his second career five-hit game — and it was a dominant display of hitting.
Facing former teammate Noah Syndergaard in his first three at-bats Wednesday, Nimmo reached down against a changeup to hit a soft line drive into right-center, dropped a perfect bunt single down the third-base line and then reached down on another changeup and drilled it 431 feet to right field for his first home run. Against the bullpen, he connected on a hard-hit infield single (105.1 mph exit velocity) and then singled sharply to left field. Three of the hits came with two strikes, a testament to Nimmo’s suddenly improved contact ability.
“He’s something to watch,” manager Buck Showalter said after that win. “He’s playing as good as I’ve seen him play right now, and he’s played good for a long time.”
For McNeil, it’s simply continuing to do what he usually does: hit .300. He’s done that in four of his five seasons, including capturing the batting title last season with a .326 average. He’s batting .288 with nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts and boasts a .422 OBP.
Both McNeil and Nimmo have past success to draw from — but that’s not to say they won’t have their challenges this year, either. Just as various injuries linger in Nimmo’s background, McNeil’s subpar 2021 season, when he hit just .251, lingers as a reminder that a .300 season isn’t automatic.
While the Mets will need to rely on both players’ ability to get on base if they are to live up to their own lofty season expectations, the continued importance of the home run cannot be underscored. Like last season, New York is once again in the middle of the pack in home runs — and that’s with Alonso leading the majors with 10. Lindor is the only other player with more than two, though.
Here’s another way of looking at the importance of homers in today’s game. I broke all 30 MLB teams into three tiers based on their home run production: the top 10, the middle 10 and the bottom 10. Here’s how they fared the past two seasons by average of each group:
Top tier: 231 home runs, 805 runs, 93 wins
Middle tier: 198 home runs, 722 runs, 82 wins
Bottom tier: 166 home runs, 675 runs, 69 wins
Top tier: 214 home runs, 760 runs, 93 wins
Middle tier: 169 home runs, 681 runs, 77 wins
Bottom tier: 138 home runs, 641 runs, 73 wins
The Mets fell into the middle tier in 2022. They won 101 games, but they and the Baltimore Orioles were the only teams in the middle tier with winning records. For the most part, you have to hit home runs to score enough runs to be a playoff team.
Of course, what’s especially interesting about 2023 is that the new rule changes night help the Mets even more. Batting average is up a bit — and the Mets were second in the majors in average last season, so they might benefit from the defensive restrictions. That may not impact McNeil and Nimmo directly, though, as they were not guys who were shifted against.
Showalter is even turning the Mets loose on the bases, where they’ve stolen 21 bases in 23 attempts. The only time the Mets averaged more than a steal a game was in 2007, when Jose Reyes swiped 78 bases and David Wright stole 34. Even with the new rules, it’s a stark change for a team that hasn’t stolen more than 71 bases since 2014.
So, the plan remains: Get on base and hope Lindor or Alonso pop one, but otherwise get into scoring position and drive in the run the old-fashioned way — with a base hit. It can still work, even in 2023 — but the two on-base specialists are going to have to lead the way.