The real reasons behind Mets' slump at plate

New York has fewest extra-base hits in the Majors

August 6th, 2021

We’ve been waiting for months for the Mets offense to wake up, waiting for that one big moment, that one injured player to return, that one sign of life that might indicate that a group that was projected to be a competitive unit would really be better than what it’s shown. (“What it’s shown,” for the record: The second-lowest runs per game in the Majors, and the weakest Mets offense since the cursed 1992 club.)

It hasn’t happened. They’ve swapped out players, fired hitting coaches, held meetings, and it just hasn’t happened. No team, save for the Mets' crosstown rivals in the Bronx, has underperformed its preseason projections by as much. Now, a Mets club that's been in first place since May 8 is headed into Philadelphia just a half-game up after losing to Miami on Thursday.

Why hasn’t it happened? Might it still? We already looked into what’s been ailing the Yankees. What about the Mets? Here’s what it is -- and what it's not.

1. It's not strikeouts, not bad luck or being "clutch"

Let’s get these out of the way real quick. It’s not strikeouts. The non-pitching Mets hitters have a 22.6% strikeout rate, a nearly average 13th-lowest. They have the 13th-highest walk rate, and even if neither of those figures is elite, they’re not the cause of this, either.

It’s not “bad luck,” not really. They have the 23rd-best quality of contact in baseball, by Statcast numbers, and the 24th-best actual outcomes on that contact. For better or worse -- mostly worse -- they are earning what they're getting. We'll get back to that in a second, but for now, it's not just balls finding gloves.

It’s not even really clutch performance, somewhat surprisingly. Including recent Mets games like Thursday's, when they stranded 15 baserunners, it's hard to see this team struggle without noting how many runners have been left on base, and yet: The Mets have only the 21st-most runners left on base this season. (Oddly, not only do they have the fewest sacrifice flies in baseball, 12, they might challenge the previous full-season record of 19, by the 1971 Padres.)

You might want to point to the fact that they’re just the 19th-best offense with runners on, and also 19th-best with runners in scoring position, and 22nd with the bases loaded, and say that’s all bad, and it is, but they’re also just a very similar 21st-best with the bases empty. So whatever this is, it’s not specific to the biggest spots (though it might be more likely in the early innings). It’s happening all the time.

2. They're fine when they don't make contact, but not when they do

Every pitch has a value, even ones not put in play. That is, taking a ball is valuable; it puts you in a more favorable count, or is a walk. Taking a strike costs you value, because it puts you in a worse count, or is a strikeout. For example, Mets hitters this year have an .814 OPS after starting with a 1-0 count, but a .550 OPS after starting with an 0-1 count. We don’t usually think about the outcome of the first pitch that gets you in more advantageous position, but every strike or ball changes the equation of the plate appearance in some way -- fractions of good or negative value -- and since there have been nearly 400,000 pitches this year that haven't been contacted in fair territory by a batted ball, that many pitches can’t be ignored. Those have value, too, and they all add up to something that can be ranked, and so we can show this.

When the ball is not contacted: The Mets are baseball's fifth-best offense.

When the ball is contacted: The Mets are baseball's fifth-worst offense.

This is it, more than anything. The Mets swing at strikes more than all but three other teams, and only one team eats fewer called strikes. When they're either taking balls or strikes of any variety (including fouls), they're one of baseball's most efficient offenses.

Yet when they contact the ball, they're ahead of only the Cardinals, Rangers, D-backs and Pirates in terms of generating value. As we said above, they have the 24th-best quality of contact, and that's led to the fifth-worst run value on that contact -- which you might expect from a club with the sixth-fewest homers and the absolute fewest extra-base hits in baseball -- and this is the entire story right here.

It doesn't help matters, obviously, that they're the least effective baserunning team in baseball. But that's a blip on the radar compared to this simple fact: When they make contact, it's not the kind that makes damage.


3. It's at least a little about Citi Field

This isn't all of it, but it's enough to at least mention: Citi Field is where offense goes to die.

In the most simple view, the Mets have baseball's second-weakest home slugging percentage this year (.363), yet the 13th-best on the road (.402), a difference of 39 points. In 2020, they had the 11th-best home slugging, and the best on the road. It's been like this for quite some time. Take 2015-21 together, really, and you'll find the same: Since that year, when the reached the World Series, the Mets' offense has the fifth-worst slugging percentage at home ... and the second best on the road.

It's a big deal. Just look at Pete Alonso, who has hit 17 of his 24 homers this year on the road. Look at Dominic Smith, who has a .582 OPS at home and an .830 mark away. Look at Jacob deGrom, who has a home OPS allowed that is 101 points lower than away over his career.

Look, too, at the Statcast numbers, which have Citi Field over the 2019-21 span as baseball's fifth-hardest hitters' park and absolutely the hardest at which to just get a hit. This year, the Mets have the 26th-best hard-hit rate at home and the 16th-best on the road, showing that whatever it is about Citi that keeps offense down, it's not just about whether the ball carries well or not; it's about making it harder to just make good contact.

You can see it in the runs-per-game totals, too:

Home: 3.4 runs/game
Road: 4.2 runs/game

The offense-suppressing quality of Citi Field is not the entire story here, but it's part of this. If everyone always says "but Coors" when talking about a Rockies hitter's home numbers, it might be worth saying "but Citi" for the home numbers of the Mets.

4. Three important players are underperforming

Even so, Citi Field's reputation as a pitchers' park isn't a new one. As we said at the top, the Mets are underperforming. They were projected to score the 14th-most runs per game, not the 29th most.

In order to dig deeper, we'll have to look at each player, rather than as a whole lineup.

Let’s go back to the end of March, right before the season began. At the time, FanGraphs projected 13 Mets hitters who were expected to get at least 100 plate appearances this year. A dozen of them, all except for Albert Almora Jr., actually have done so. If we compare what was projected to what’s actually happened, we can narrow down who’s at fault here, and potentially why.

To get there, we’ll show projected Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) before the season compared to what’s actually happened. The takeaways here are interesting, if you thought this was going to be about individual underperformance up and down the lineup, because that's not really true at all.

J.D. Davis (.304/.413/.500) has been very good, in obviously limited time. So has Brandon Nimmo, when he's been available. Backups Tomás Nido, Luis Guillorme, and Jonathan Villar have offered more than you’d expect. Alonso has given pretty much exactly what was expected. So has James McCann, because the projections correctly included a career of underwhelming performance, not just 111 very good plate appearances for the 2020 White Sox.

Jeff McNeil’s season is complicated; he’s been slightly worse than expected, which was itself worse than he’d been in the past, but has still been an above-average hitter (111 OPS+) overall. Kevin Pillar has been worse, too, but if the underperformance of a fourth outfielder who has spent a career being a below-average hitter is what sinks your team, you have larger problems.

Instead, the blame here can largely be placed on three hitters: Francisco Lindor, Smith and Michael Conforto.

We previously broke down Lindor’s struggles, and he’d begun to clearly turn it around (.827 OPS in June/July) before he was injured; he's expected back in late August. Smith got off to a very poor start as well, with a mere .673 OPS through the end of June, but he’s been performing about as expected for the last two months.

Conforto, however, hasn't shown such signs of life, with his struggles clearly costing him confidence in the eyes of manager Luis Rojas. It's not even just about health, either; he had a .692 OPS when he was hurt, and he's had a .640 mark in six weeks since he's been back. There's not one great answer for him, other than to say that there might actually be a luck component here, because it was clear last year he was getting wildly unsustainable batted-ball fortune, and that's gone the other way this year -- despite not terribly different underlying metrics.

But of course, all of that "when he's been available" and "in obviously limited time" wording above is doing a lot of work, because ...

5. They have been plagued by injuries

No one wants excuses, but the Mets have certainly had their share.

Ten batters appeared for the team on Opening Day, and nine of them -- all except catcher McCann -- have missed time with various bumps, bruises, fractures and strains. So it’s that, to some extent, especially when you look back at some of those infamous mid-May lineups that featured things like “an outfield of Cameron Maybin, Johneshwy Fargas and Khalil Lee, looking at an infield that late in the game had Brandon Drury and Wilfredo Tovar on the right side.”

According to the injury database at Baseball Prospectus, only four teams have missed more days to injury, and no team has missed a higher percentage of its projected value to aches and pains.

Most projected WAR lost to injury
9.6 -- Mets
8.6 -- Dodgers
6.7 -- Yankees
6.4 -- Padres

That includes the pitchers, too, so it’s easy, and not entirely incorrect, to point to health as a primary reason for New York’s issues on both sides of the ball. Even those who are back on the active roster might still be feeling the aftereffects of some of those maladies.

So we’ll stipulate to that part, that Nimmo’s finger and Lindor’s oblique and the hamstrings of Conforto and McNeil and the hands of Davis and Alonso and all the rest of it have been a factor, because how could it not be? That's a lot of plate appearances taken by lesser hitters, or so you'd think.

6. The replacements have been underwhelming.

The Mets had 11 hitters on their Opening Day roster, and as we said, most of them got injured at some point. The replace-Mets had their moments, to be sure. Drury has actually been quite good. Billy McKinney’s New York pitstop between Milwaukee and Los Angeles produced a few huge moments; for a minute there, organizational catcher Patrick Mazeika was gaining a reputation for softly hit walk-offs. Still, all the below-average plate appearances from Almora, José Peraza, Mason Williams and so on begin to add up. To what?

To look at that, we checked into the 11 Mets on the Opening Day roster and compared them to the seemingly endless litany of passers through who weren't, from Peraza early on to the recently acquired Javier Báez, and compared their performances.

The 11 Opening Day hitters: .318 wOBA
Everyone else who has passed through: .286 wOBA

In one sense: Well, yes, of course, if the replacements were as good as the starters, well, they wouldn't be replacements. Twenty-four of the 30 teams have had worse hitting from the non-Opening Day rosters, and only two (Milwaukee, thanks largely to Willy Adames, and the Cubs, thanks largely to Patrick Wisdom) have received meaningfully better production.

On the other hand: That's about 15 percent of the team's plate appearances this year going to a collection of worse players.

7. All of which means ... ?

Well, they're certainly not moving out of Citi Field any time soon, and they've already changed hitting coaches once. But they'll get Lindor back, and McNeil, Alonso and Nimmo have all been very good over the last month. Fate has to turn back Conforto's way at some point, too.

Besides, there's this. There's the fact that a brutal April ruined all their numbers.

Runs/game, Mets by month
April: 2.9
May: 4.2
June: 3.5
July: 4.6

In April, the Mets had baseball's weakest runs per game. In July, it was tied for 15th best. If that doesn't sound exciting, it's at least better than "last," and remember what we said a few hundred words ago, referring to what we saw way back in March: "they were projected to score the 14th-most runs per game." The shape of it may not be what we thought, because it never is. There are lots of reasons here. But ultimately, they'll be who we thought they were. They almost always are.