On June 22nd, The New York Mets signed Austin Jackson to a Major League deal. The move itself was a minor one, and it was a smart move to add a player of Jackson’s experience and defensive skills to the team. And Jackson, to his credit, has been on fire since coming to the Mets — batting a red hot .361/.404/.530 which is good for a blistering 160 OPS+ in 23 games. However, due to addition and red hot hitting of Austin Jackson, the Mets have put themselves in front of another question they have not yet answered: Who will be the team’s center fielder moving forward?
The Mets, currently sitting on a 54–70 record and 15 games behind the division leading Atlanta Braves, should no longer be concerned with moves that solely impact the 2018 season. This is a time to start thinking about rebuilding and assessing what kind of moves need to be made over the winter. And while Jackson is not as old players like Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes, at 31 years old we can say we have a good idea of what kind of player he is and will be moving forward. So that is what makes the decision, not necessarily to play him everyday, but to play him everyday in center field, so disheartening.
Now granted, Jackson is a natural center fielder and that is a position he’s played pretty exclusively for most of his career. However, despite his recent hot streak Jackson has not been someone who anyone factored into the Mets’ future, primarily because he wasn’t even on the team until a month and a half ago. And while the team’s outfield situation has been dire this season, there are at least two players out there who should strongly entrenched in the Mets’ future decisions — Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo. Conforto, while he has had his ups and downs, has been given the chance to prove that he can be a productive everyday player. He’s been bounced around the outfield, but he has at least been given the playing time. Up until this season, the same cannot be said for Nimmo. And even this season, much of his playing time has been thanks to the fact Jay Bruce and Yoenis Cespedes being firmly entrenched on the disabled list. That scenario, however, has given Nimmo the chance to prove that he is more than a “fourth outfielder”, but instead has a chance to be one of the stars the team builds their next playoff run around.
This season, in 110 games, Nimmo has hit an impressive .265/.387/.503 to go along with a 148 OPS+. According to Fangraphs.com, Nimmo is the 12th best outfielder in the Majors this season according to WAR. For the season, Nimmo has spent almost an equal amount of time at all 3 outfield spots — 38 games in right field, 34 games in center, and 31 games in left. To disuss the UZR or DRS stats of roughly 35 games at each position would be a futile exercise, but overall his defensive numbers are roughly average across 3 outfield positions. Not terrible, but also not truly informative to his ability.
Drafted in 2011 as the Mets first round pick (13th overall) Nimmo was always touted as an athletic player with the potential to stick at center field provided he didn’t bulk up. While many scouts believed he would eventually bulk up, Nimmo has kept an athletic frame which still flashes all of the tools he projected to have coming out of high school in Wyoming. Now, at 25 years old, Nimmo is a young player who seems to be finally putting all of those tools together, including the ability to play well in the outfield. While defensive metrics are often hard to abide by in a single season sample, we do have the benefit of other data, such as Statcast.
Statcast, as most of us who watch a good amount of baseball will know, is a tracking technology that is able to track players and measure data previously impossible or too difficult to track on a per player basis. And while the data does not tell us Nimmo is an elite outfielder, or a potential gold glove winner, it does tell us that he is perhaps a better defender than he is getting credit for. This season, according to Baseball Savant, Nimmo has made 4 Outs Above Average (OAA) this season, which places him in the top 30 of all of MLB. Not great or elite, but pretty good. Same goes for his Actual Catch Percentage of 92%. In addition, we can look at video highlights on MLB.com like this one for further evidence:
Statcast labeled this one a “4 Star Catch”, and on the season Nimmo has made 4 out of 6 4 star rated catches on the season, good for a 66.7% completion rate. On 3 star catches, he’s 10 for 11 (90.9%), 11 for 11 (100%) on 2 star catches, and 8 for 9 (88.9%) on 1 star catches. However, on 5 star catches, Nimmo is only 1 for 11 (9.1%) on those this year. All of that I think reinforces the idea that while not an defender, Nimmo can at the very least hold his own and may even be slightly above average with his glove. Adding a decent to slightly above average glove to what would be the 3rd best ISO percentage among qualified center fielders means Nimmo could be a borderline star as the Mets everyday center fielder. But, why is it so important that the team views Brandon Nimmo as their center fielder? Why can’t they simply keep using him all across the outfield like they’ve done this season?
Due to a depleted roster, especially in the outfield, this season the Mets have had the ability (or need) to play Nimmo (as well as Conforto) in different outfield configurations. Heading into next season, however, that flexibility will presumably go away. That is because Jay Bruce (currently working his way back to full health) and Yoenis Cespedes (albeit sometime mid summer next year) will be returning to the fold. Now, in Bruce’s case, it seems like the team will be looking to play more at first base. However, first base is already a position Bruce has stated he doesn’t want to play in the past, as recently as this season. In fact, as recently as this April, Nimmo was sent back down to the minors in order to make room for Bruce in the outfield.
In addition, Bruce playing exclusively at first base would create other playing time issues, such as blocking Peter Alonso (a home run mashing 1B only prospect in Triple-A) as well cutting into Wilmer Flores and Dominic Smith’s playing time (if the club is still planning on using Smith in some capacity next season). And once Cespedes is back and ready to play, that will lock down left field which is where he’s played exclusively the last two seasons. So even with Jay Bruce at first base, that allows Conforto to play right field, but only really leaves Nimmo with center field as a long term option for playing time.
With that being the case, it should be important to management and the front office to see as much of Nimmo as possible in center field for the rest of this lost season. While it’s great Jackson has been hot since coming to the team, and while he might have a role as a fourth or fifth outfielder next season, Nimmo is the one with star upside offensively and is still trying to find his home in the outfield. Nimmo has the pedigree, the tools, and the athleticism to play a league average center fielder defensively with the offensive potential to give the team a real advantage heading into 2019.