“Jeff McNeil is hitting sixth. Do you know how good your freaking lineup is when Jeff McNeil is hitting sixth?”
The quote is from a top NL executive when asked a simple question: What do you like about this Mets team?
The executive added: “They were hard to pitch to last year and they just replaced (Amed) Rosario) and (Wilson) Ramos with (Francisco) Lindor and (James) McCann.”
The executive offered two other words: “Holy crap!”
This enthusiasm led me to two other questions: Is this the best lineup in New York (you know, Mets vs. Yankees) and does this have a chance to be the best Mets offense ever?
Before tackling either, let’s gauge this version of the Mets. I like OPS-plus as a starting point because it adjusts for league and park and, thus, makes comparing across leagues and eras fairer. If you are unfamiliar, 100 represents average major league production. So if you are at 110 that is 10 percent over league average, 120 is 20 percent over, etc. (all stats via Baseball Reference).
In the last two seasons combined, these are the OPS-plus for the Mets’ projected eight regular position players: Dom Smith (150), Pete Alonso (141), McNeil (140), Michael Conforto (135), J.D. Davis (129), Brandon Nimmo (127), Lindor (114) and McCann (114).
So that is eight players at a 114 OPS-plus or better. Just 109 players who batted 350 times between 2019-20 reached 114-plus. Of those 107 are active (Howie Kendrick retired, Edwin Encarnacion is unsigned). The only other team that has eight players on its current roster at 114 or better for 2019-20 is … yep, the Yankees: D.J. LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Mike Tauchman and Brett Gardner.
That Yankee group has two 2021 non-starters in Tauchman and Gardner, but also lacks Giancarlo Stanton, whose OPS-plus the past two years is 141, but in just 166 plate appearances due to injury. Also, when doing any Mets-Yankees comp, keep in mind the Yanks get the extra bat with Stanton as their DH, and the Mets won’t have a DH except for interleague games in AL cities.
As a way to dream on this Mets lineup, though, how about we do a little cherry picking? For example, what if this spring revival suggests the Mets are going to get closer to the 2019 Alonso of 53 homers than the guy who struggled vs. fastballs last year? What if the excellence that Conforto, Nimmo and Smith displayed last year are their new norms? Lindor struggled (for him) last year, but he hit 32 homers in 2019 and had a 132 OPS-plus in 2018.
A similar game could be played with the Yankees: They get the 2020 Frazier and Voit, for example, but the 2019 Judge, Torres and Gary Sanchez.
What might be the separator — and it is bizarre considering the teams’ histories — is just how much better lineup diversity the Mets have because of terrific lefty hitters. Switch-hitter Aaron Hicks is the only lefty in the Yankees regular lineup. The Yankees’ best lefty hitter this century (sorry to fans of Jason Giambi or Hideki Matsui) is Robinson Cano, who will not play for the Mets this year after being suspended for a positive PED test.
The Mets with Conforto, McNeil, Nimmo, Smith and the switch-hitting Lindor might have the best group of lefty hitters in the sport, even without Cano. Smith, Conforto, McNeil and Nimmo ranked in the top 10 among qualified lefty hitters in OPS-plus last year.
Of course, there could be injuries or drops in performance. But when it comes to the Mets, remember that last year they ranked 28th (out of 30 teams) in shortstop OPS-plus at 74 (26 percent worse than MLB average) and 22nd at catcher OPS-plus at 72. Lindor and McCann should help a team that, even with those failings at two positions, had a 120 OPS-plus (albeit with a strong season from Cano). They trailed only the Dodgers (121) and Padres (121), whose lineups pretty much have returned intact, but was better than the fourth-place Yankees (118).
Nevertheless, the Mets were 13th in runs per game (4.77) and the Yanks were fourth (5.25). The Mets were perhaps the majors’ worst baserunning team, and their 90 OPS-plus with runners in scoring position ranked 23rd. So to maximize their excellence at getting on base and slugging, the 2021 Mets need to be better on the bases and in the clutch.
That will be true too if the 2021 version also wants to be the best Mets offense ever. Their 120 OPS-plus last year is best in team history (of course in just 60 games). The 1988 Mets of Keith Hernandez, Howard Johnson, Kevin McReynolds and Darryl Strawberry are next at 111. In fact, the next three are the 1986-88 powerhouses representing the best run in Mets history. The 1986-88 Mets averaged the exact 4.77 as last year’s team, but that ranked fifth in the majors for those three seasons and was by far the best in the NL.
What will the 2021 group do over 162 games? It will be fascinating to watch what a team that has Jeff McNeil hitting sixth will do.