Who stole Jobu’s rum?
Despite an exciting offseason that had Mets fans excited going into the season, the team has gotten off to a sluggish start. Despite Jacob deGrom’s brilliance and relative cromulence from the rest of the staff, the Mets are 9-10 to start the season. The biggest culprit has been an offense that seem stuck in first gear. The constant stops-and-starts caused by COVID and the weather have almost certainly played a role, but it feels like the majority of the Met lineup is struggling right now. We’ve seen better from Francisco Lindor, Michael Conforto, Dom Smith, and Jeff McNeil in the past, so what exactly is going on?
Surprisingly, the peripheral stats don’t show much difference between the 2020 Mets offense and the disappointing iteration to start this season. Their strikeout rate is almost identical, and they’re actually walking a bit more. On the batted ball front, this year’s mix is arguably better, with slightly more line drives, slightly fewer ground balls, and a halved infield fly ball percentage. It’s notable that two of the biggest culprits in the Mets’ current struggles—Lindor and Conforto—are both hitting more than 10% more ground balls than they have at other times in their career, and the Mets as a team probably hit too many ground balls. Nevertheless, they succeeded despite that sub-optimality last season.
The most striking change is in the Mets HR/FB% rate, which checks in at a paltry 11.3% after sitting at around 17% over the last two seasons. Now, the rate is down leaguewide this season, both due to the cold April weather and changes in the ball. But the Mets falling off a cliff in this department is odd. Their Barrel% and Hard Hit% are basically in line with 2020 (though both do rank lower relative to the rest of the league), and their launch angle and exit velocity numbers are largely unchanged. There’s no clear reason why the team-wide HR/FB% should be dipping more for the Mets than it is for the league as a whole, so this would be an area you’d expect positive regression in. Statcast seems to agree; the Mets are the 7th best offense in baseball by xwOBA but also have the 2nd largest gap between their expected and actual results, indicating they’ve been horrifically unlucky (though it’s worth noting this is again confounded by the new ball).
Of course, the lede has been buried a bit here. Despite how frustrating they’ve been to watch, the Mets have what is basically a league average offense—a team-wide 93 wRC+ that ranks 18th in the majors. That’s not to say the frustration isn’t misplaced, because the Mets also rank dead last in runs per game at 2.85. If you were solely to look at their run differential (like Pythagorean records do), you might conclude that the Mets are one of the worst teams in the majors and they’re lucky to be .500. If you instead consider how many runs the Mets should have scored given their underlying offense (like BaseRuns), you’d see the team should actually be scoring more like 3.48 R/G. That’s still the second-worst mark in baseball, but the Mets also have the single largest margin in expected vs. actual runs on this season by more than a fifth of a run per game.
So what’s the conclusion here? The Mets are hitting the ball in a very similar way to last season but are seeing markedly worse results on their fly balls for no apparent reason. Despite that shortcoming, the offense is more mediocre than disastrous in terms of wRC+, but has gotten horrifically unlucky in terms of both sequencing and batted ball luck. This analysis is confounded by small samples, the new ball, and the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, of course, but it would seem to suggest the Mets are due for some positive regression.
Given these limited and possibly questionable data, we should be falling back on our priors a bit. Lindor and Conforto are stars who will almost certainly remember how to hit. McNeil should as well, and Smith has a reasonable chance to do so, too, though he’s the guy I’m most concerned about. Once the team’s luck stabilizes, the offense should improve in terms of both the underlying quality and the actual run production. Perhaps that’s not the easiest thing to remember while watching the offense flail night after night, but better times should be ahead.