If first impressions mean everything, then Francisco Lindor’s first chance to impress the New York faithful hardly lived up to expectations. Acquired in January 2021 from Cleveland for four players (including two who have become important members of the Guardians infield in Amed Rosario and 2022 All-Star Andrés Giménez) and immediately signed to a 10-year, $341 million contract, Lindor represented the first Truly Big Move of new Mets ownership.
It fizzled out before it even began. Lindor’s first month in New York was the second-worst month of his career. His first season ended with a .230/.322/.412 line, a 99 OPS+, every one of which represented a new low. The Mets finished eight games under .500, leading to a near-total turnover of the coaching staff.
If not quite a disaster -- his defense at shortstop remained strong -- it was at the very least a high-profile disappointment. All of which is important context, in case you haven’t noticed what’s happened since, which is this: Lindor has been fantastic. He’s been, by any metric, the best Mets player, even if Pete Alonso would likely win any popularity votes among Mets fandom.
But why stop there? He’s been one of the best players in baseball, too. He’s been so good, in fact, that if it’s possible for a four-time All-Star signed to the biggest contract in team history to be "underrated," he is indeed that, because when you think about the success of this year’s team, you might think about names like Alonso or Scherzer or Díaz or now deGrom before you think about Lindor. In fact, the Mets had four All-Stars this year (Alonso, Edwin Díaz, Jeff McNeil, and Starling Marte) and Lindor was not among them.
We’d like to end this bit by saying “here’s how he got back to stardom,” but we’re not exactly sure he ever left.
Wins Above Replacement, as a metric, isn’t infallible. But it generally does do a pretty good job of telling you which players are contributing in all facets of the game – important here, because Lindor has been baseball’s best-rated defensive shortstop over the last two seasons – and the fact that we can look at the leaderboards over a number of different time periods and show where Lindor ranks is pretty revealing.
WAR rankings (via FanGraphs)
In 2022? Lindor is in the top eight, among players like Manny Machado and Mookie Betts.
Over the last 30 days? Lindor is second-best, behind only Aaron Judge.
Over the last calendar year? Lindor is eighth-best, tied with Austin Riley and Corey Seager.
Since 2019? Lindor is ninth-best, between Trout and Rafael Devers.
Way back to 2016? This obviously includes his best years in Cleveland, but those count too. He’s fourth-best, behind only Betts, Mike Trout, and José Ramírez.
So when, we ask, was he not a star?
All of that includes not only his slow start to 2021 but his midseason slump in 2022, when he hit just .202/.255/.362 in June, right around when he injured a finger in a door in Los Angeles. That he rates so highly on so many flavors of WAR time frames – the last month, the last year, the last six years, so on – does help to express that the slow start to 2021 was more stardom interrupted than it was stardom ended.
Rather than get into the deep-and-dirty reasons for this year’s improvement – that he was probably some form of “unfortunate” in 2021, which has evened out this year; that he’s still using the closed stance instead of the more open one that failed him early last year; that April and July were two of his three pull-heaviest months ever, eschewing the all-fields approach this year’s Mets team has become known for, and on and on – there’s probably a more interesting question at hand here, and it is this:
Nearly two years into the contract, is this the player the Mets and their fans thought they’d be acquiring? If so, is that satisfying?
Nearly two full years into the contract, Lindor remains one of the 10 best position players in the sport, even with a start that was mostly out of character with the rest of his career. He might never live up to the contract, but his 126 OPS+ this year is not only better than all but one year of his Cleveland career (2018), it's better than the 118 OPS+ he put up across his time in Ohio -- time when he was unquestionably considered one of baseball's most elite talents.
But even if it doesn't feel that way, it's not hard to see why. Lindor isn't the young player who hit .306 his first two years in the league; he's not the slugger who had back-to-back-to-back 30-homer seasons between 2017-19, in part because those were some of the most dinger-friendly seasons in the history of the sport. He collects much of his value from his defense, which is harder to grasp than looking at a batting average or an OPS. But when he finishes the year with 25 or so homers, a line 25% better than league average and excellent defense, he'll have another 5 WAR season -- his fifth through age-28.
(How rare is that? Since integration in 1947, only 29 other players have done it, and we're talking the biggest of big names -- Mantle, Aaron, Griffey, Mays, Bench, etc. Eighteen of those 29 are Hall of Famers, and at least three more, in Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, absolutely will be.)
He'd also hardly be the first player to get off to a slow start in a new home with a massive new contract; just look at Corey Seager's first half in Texas this year.
“Life,” Lindor said in March, “was a little faster for me last year,” not just because of the trade and the contract, but also because of the addition of his first child to his family shortly before the trade out of Cleveland.
It wouldn't be New York baseball if rushes to judgment weren't made. Lindor's start wasn't what anyone wanted. But since then, he's been pretty much what you'd expect. He's been a star.