With the unprecedented nature of the upcoming 2020 season, there is a lot to be excited about. New faces, like Gerrit Cole and Mookie Betts, were added to what now look like juggernauts. For the first time, a season will be played live in front of empty seats (although one could argue the Marlins and Rays were ahead of their time). Players will be limited in how they interact with one another. No one has forgotten about what the Astros did, either. Hell, there were many times where the chances of Major League Baseball being played this year were far worse than ‘in jeopardy’. The list goes on and on.
To me, however, the most intriguing part of the 2020 season is its experimental nature. With the current CBA expiring after the 2021 season, some rule changes are imminent due to declining viewership and a “progressive” commissioner in Rob Manfred. Some of the most common rule changes, including the implementation of the designated hitter in the National League and the runner-on-second-in-extras rule, will be explored this year. Others, like a robotic strike zone, will have to wait.
If you’re a regular on baseball Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that fans love to speculate on how their teams will fill in their newly acquired DH slots in the lineup of their favorite National League group. This practice is a past-time within America’s past-time, and creating a new lineup rule only makes the exercise all the more interesting.
Mets fans are no exception. One user writes “Cespedes is healthy, Mets have the DH, watch out MLB.” Another user describes the Mets as “probably the only team ready to take full advantage of the DH.” A third claims “this Mets lineup could be the best offensive team in the league,” following with their ideal offensive arrangement in which Yoenis Cespedes DH’s in the clean-up spot.
The hype around a Mets lineup with ‘La Potencia’ as an integral cog is certainly understandable. The Amazins’ great run at the end of the 2015 regular season that lead to a World Series appearance can be attributed in part to Sandy Alderson’s acquisition of the Cuban slugger in the final moments of the trade deadline. In that late-2015 run, Cespedes played the best baseball of his life, slashing .287/.337/.604 with a .394 wOBA and 2.6 fWAR in 249 plate appearances. Fans saw him as a messiah, bringing the much-needed juice to an offense that, prior to his acquisition, was dead last in runs scored and 4th in the NL Wild Card standings.
Unfortunately, that player is long gone. Cespedes is now 34, and while he has still produced at above-average rates, he is a star in decline that has struggled to stay healthy. Yoenis’ 2017 season was defined by his hamstrings. Injuring his left hamstring kept him out six weeks, and an injury to his right one ended his season. In 2018, Cespedes’s season ended even earlier, this time to undergo surgeries on both of his heels. Worst of all, his 2019 never got started as he injured his ankle in a freak accident on his ranch while rehabbing from his heel surgeries.
The below table shows two key trends one must consider when analyzing Yo’s production:
Shown in the table is a decline in offensive production (I prefer to use wRC+ as a one-stop shop for offensive evaluation) as well as plate appearances. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections expect Yoenis to continue this decline.
Next, I’d like to point to a similar downward trend in Cespedes’ production, this time analyzing Statcast-backed expected stats (here, xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA). The metrics used here are based on players’ batted ball profiles and are used to show how a player should have produced. Differences from a player’s regular and expected stats can be interpreted as indicators of luck (or lack thereof).
According to Statcast, while Cespedes hit .262/.325/.496, he should have actually hit .199/.272/.396, giving him an OPS of .668 rather than .821. However, it is important to note that Yo’s 2018 season only lasted 157 plate appearances, a smaller-than-ideal sample size for evaluating his production.
Now, while Cespedes has shown a decline in his offensive output, his numbers still qualify as above average. In his seasons spoiled by injury, he has still created runs at a rate of about 20%-30% better than league average. While FanGraphs projects a continued drop off, if Yoenis were to hit his projections right on the nose, he’d be an above average hitter and a solid designated hitter in a league that has never been graced with the position outside of interleague play. Cespedes’ ability to still provide value to his team, despite limited at bats, is a testament to his talent. The biggest question mark for his 2020 season will be whether he can stick around.
The other Mets bat I’d like to address is Dominic Smith. Dom hit .282/.355/.525 with a .368 wOBA and 133 wRC+ over 197 PA last season. Unfortunately, Smith’s productivity at the plate was limited due to the presence of Pete Alonso and a foot injury that kept him out until game 162 against the Atlanta Braves, where he made some magic happen on his first swing since July and his last swing of the season.
Some have theorized that the Mets could roll out a platoon in which Cespedes faces lefties and Smith faces righties, and that seems to me like a solid strategy. The Mets could take it a step further (and, to me, a step smarter) and place Dom at first base and DH Pete Alonso when there’s a righty starter. Here are the two’s fielding statistics from the 2019 season at first base:
Granted, Smith has a much smaller sample size from last year, but he has had the reputation of being a solid-fielding first baseman. Scouts gave him a Present Value/Future Value fielding grade of 50/60 compared to Pete Alonso’s 40/40 (on a 20/80 scale).
Considering the team’s entirety of options, FanGraphs does not project the Mets to have formidable DH production. Their Depth Charts predict the Mets to rank 22nd in DH Win Above Replacement in the MLB, 9th in the National League and 3rd in the NL East. If these predictions come to exact fruition, the Mets will have accumulated 0.2 fWAR from the DH position (for reference, the Astros are projected to accumulate 1.5 fWAR at the position, the best in the majors).
One final lens to see this unique situation through is one of what the Mets are losing. You might be thinking “Pitchers?! So what, good riddance!” And while, yes, pitchers will always be below-average hitters at best, and most are just straight embarrassing, it is appropriate to take into consideration what is taken away when analyzing what is gained.
The Mets’ pitching staff has held a reputation of having relatively good-hitting pitchers, with starters like Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz, who all belong in the “Pitchers Who Rake” brotherhood. One glance at their numbers proves this theory. Below are some hitting statistics the Mets’ staff put up in 2019, along with accompanying NL ranks:
Let’s be clear; these numbers are incredibly underwhelming. The ranks, however, are what matter. The point I’m trying to make with these metrics is that most teams are getting to replace negative production (I’m talking a negative WAR), which is already an advantage no matter what DH options those teams have. However, the Mets have to replace the most formidable 9 spot in the majors.
Below is a bar chart depicting the projected increase from 2019 NL staff wOBA to 2020 NL DH wOBA:
The Mets actually suffer the lowest increase in wOBA from this new lineup spot, assuming projections hold up. Meanwhile, three of the top four teams in terms of wOBA-increase are NL East foes.
Now, who’s to say how the NL DH rule will work out for the Mets. Is it entirely possible that Yoenis Cespedes returns to even 80% of his 2015 form? Certainly, and if that were to occur, the Mets would benefit from the new rule. Unfortunately, those chances don’t seem too high, and having to replace the best hitting staff in the majors only hurts them. Whether or not this will bring value to the Mets will have to be seen throughout the year, but I believe the narrative that the Mets are “built for the new DH rule” is far from accurate.