Here's what Lindor brings to the Mets

January 7th, 2021

Remember when Mets fans were anxious that Steve Cohen hadn’t made any big moves?

That was hours ago. -- the uber-talented, 1,000-kilowatt superstar known as Mr. Smile -- is now a New York Met (and so is fan-favorite starter Carlos Carrasco). You can debate how Cleveland fared on its return for Lindor, but there’s no doubt that the Amazin’s added a bonafide brand name to their roster. If Cohen and team president Sandy Alderson convince Lindor to sign a long-term extension beyond 2021, he could be one of the sports stars in New York for years to come.

But let’s put aside the bold ink and winnow down on an X’s-and-O’s question: What are the Mets getting in Francisco Lindor the player, and how does he help them win? Let’s dig into a few numbers that could shed light on what we’ll see from Lindor in Queens.

2020 aside, the hit tools are still there

If you’ve followed baseball at all in the last few years, you’re aware that Lindor, a four-time All-Star, routinely ranks among the best shortstops in the game. He’s been the most valuable shortstop, in fact, by FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement since starting his first full season in 2016 (and by a healthy margin). In that span, Lindor has put up three of the 11 most valuable seasons by any shortstop, most recently when he was an 8-win player in 2018.

But what’s interesting is that while Lindor was (and possibly still is) set to command a massive, industry-topping contract after this season, he’s actually coming off his worst full-time performance in 2020, when a slugging dip held him to a league-average 102 OPS+. Putting last year’s shortened season aside, the ‘19 campaign also saw Lindor take a half-step back (4.4 fWAR, 118 OPS+) from the heights of his top-10 American League MVP Award finish in ‘18 (7.6 fWAR, 132 OPS+).

Related

Yes, 2018 feels like a lifetime ago, but it really wasn’t that long since Lindor and bash mate José Ramírez were putting on a nightly hitting clinic. The nitty-gritty stat that still sticks out from that year, when Lindor led the Majors with 129 runs scored and nearly paired 40 home runs (he had 38) with 40 doubles, was his pristine batted-ball profile: only two players put more hard-hit fly balls and line drives in play.

Most hard-hit fly balls+line drives, 2018

  1. Freddie Freeman (ATL): 156
  2. Matt Carpenter (STL): 155
  3. Lindor (CLE): 153
  4. Alex Bregman (HOU): 151
  5. Mookie Betts (BOS, now LAD): 149

Hard-hit air balls (the goal of every hitter) accounted for roughly 28% of Lindor’s balls in play in 2018. That rate took a hit in ‘19 (23%), but in ‘20 it was right back up to … 28%. Pulling that stat apart, Lindor’s ‘20 hard-hit rate was basically identical (41%) to ‘19, as was his rate of sweet-spot contact (balls hit with productive launch angles). He struck out and walked at roughly the same rates, too.

If anything, this might have to do with pitch recognition. In 2018, MLB.com senior data architect Tom Tango’s swing/take formula rated Lindor as elite in terms of value gained from his decisions on pitches in four segments of the zone: its “heart,” the “shadows” surrounding the edges, the “chase” areas that favor pitchers and the “waste” area for noncompetitive offerings. But Lindor regressed significantly in the chase areas in ‘19, and he struggled there again in ‘20. Perhaps related: pitchers are shelving the fastballs he pounds and throwing him more curveballs and sliders.

This seems like something Lindor can turn around, perhaps with greater focus and motivation in his new surroundings. The power and launch are still very much intact.

Forget the bat for a second -- Lindor is still a wizard with the glove

Did you forget how good Lindor is with the leather? You shouldn’t. Manning one of the most important positions on the diamond, he remained an elite defender during stretches where his bat lagged.

Lindor finished the abbreviated 2020 with 5 Outs Above Average (Statcast’s range-based metric that considers an infielder’s distance from the ball, the time he has to get there, the distance from the base he needs to throw to and the speed of the runner). That total tied him for second behind Fernando Tatis Jr. among shortstops, and he’s landed comfortably in the top five at his position in three of the metric’s first four seasons.

Lindor still has all the fast-twitch instincts and range to ensure that he lands on the weekly highlight reels -- and the Mets' pitching staff should benefit from having him behind them. Rosario was a well-below-average defender in 2019 before making some improvements in '20.

Projections say …

FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski quickly released his ZiPS projection for Lindor, and the answer it came up with was essentially, "No need to worry." Lindor is ZiPS’ top projected shortstop for 2021 by total WAR value (5.8), per Szymborski, with the system believing he’ll return to 30-homer production, a well-above-average hitting line and plenty of speed, too. It's a season that could already rival the best by any shortstop in Mets history.

Lindor’s 2021 ZiPS projection: .268/.335/.487, 32 HR, 38 2B, 88 RBI, 122 OPS+, 20 SB

That’s not quite as prolific as Lindor’s 2018, but maybe that was his best season anyway (he turned 25 that summer). We’re really picking nits here, because Lindor should still routinely be a top-five shortstop by his performance on the field -- not to mention the leadership and charisma he’ll bring to the Mets off it. Suddenly the Mets’ offense (sneakily right there with the Dodgers last year) looks formidable, even before it potentially adds George Springer.

Projected Mets lineup for 2021 (per MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo)
Jeff McNeil LF
Francisco Lindor SS
Michael Conforto RF
Dom Smith DH*
Pete Alonso 1B
Brandon Nimmo CF
J.D. Davis 3B
James McCann C
Luis Guillorme 2B
*if there is a DH in the National League in 2021

Dig into Lindor’s 2020 “struggles” if you must, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. The Mets just added an elite superstar in his prime, and Steve Cohen might just be getting started.