• Philip

Can Francisco Lindor Improve Enough to be Worth His Contract?

The New York Mets made one of the, if not the biggest moves of the past offseason when they acquired shortstop Francisco Lindor from the Cleveland Indians and promptly signed him to a 10 year, $341 million extension. Lindor was a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner with Cleveland, and was presumably just entering his prime at 27 years old. The young star had hit over 30 home runs every season from 2017-2019, and had only posted a sub-.800 OPS once in his career. With great power for a middle infielder, solid contact skills, a decent (if unspectacular) ability to draw walks, and elite defense, the Mets seemingly had their new franchise cornerstone.

Unfortunately for the non-Yankee fan segment of the New York population, Lindor has thus far been a massive disappointment. Entering play on Thursday, the former MVP candidate was slashing .217/.309/.365/.674 with 9 homers, and had only been worth 1.7 bWAR. Signing players to decade-long extensions always comes with risks, but the hope is that the player will be so productive at the beginning of the contract that he will be worth more than his annual value, and will thus make it worth paying him more than his production deserves when he inevitably declines in his mid-30s.

Less than half a season into his new deal, Lindor hasn’t been worth anything close to the $22.3 million dollars the Mets are paying him in 2021. Although it has not hurt the team significantly—the Mets are currently first in the NL East at 38-31—Lindor failing to produce is extremely worrisome for anyone concerned with the long-term success of the franchise.

Luckily for the Mets and their fans, it appears that Lindor may finally be turning a corner. Through 45 games in April and May, Lindor hit just .198/.295/.299/.595 with 4 home runs and was a nearly automatic out for several stretches. Since the start of June, however, Lindor has posted a .256/.337/.500/.837 line with 5 round-trippers in 23 games.

Part of this has been simple luck. Lindor’s BABIP is still only .230 on the season, but was a mind-bogglingly low .216 through the season’s first two months. The league-wide BABIP is around .300, leaving Lindor with plenty of room for positive regression. Lindor is not striking out at an alarming rate (just 16.0% in 2021, although this is a career high), and is walking more than he ever has in his career (10.8% of the time). He is hitting the ball hard more frequently than he was in his great stretch from 2017-2019, and he’s also posting a career-high average exit-velocity (90.7 MPH).

Unfortunately, Lindor’s underperformance has not entirely been due to bad luck. He is hitting line drives only 15.4% of the time, by far the lowest rate of his career. This could be due to any number of reasons, including the simple fact that offense is down massively across the league. It is, however, something that the Mets should be concerned about. Furthermore, Lindor is hitting home runs on only 11.5% of his fly balls. That figure was 14.0%, 17.3%, and 17.4% in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. It is possible that his lack of line drives is related to his lower HR/FB%. His average launch angle sits at 10.9 degrees, the lowest he’s posted since 2016. Additionally, Citi Field is a more difficult place to hit than Progressive Field.

The Mets signed Lindor hoping he would be the superstar that he was in Cleveland. He has yet to return to that level of performance, but is seemingly headed in the right direction. It is possible that he never returns to the perennial MVP candidate that he was for that three-season stretch, but it is unlikely that he is already falling off a cliff at 27. Playing in New York instead of Cleveland may be hurting him offensively, and the terrible league-wide offensive environment definitely is. However, for Lindor to be worth his humungous contract, he has to find a way to improve. Part of his improvement will undoubtedly be a result of better luck. If he can get his HR/FB% and line drive rate back up to what they were in seasons past, that will only help. If not, however, his contract may end up as another data point demonstrating that long-term contracts almost always turn out poorly for the teams.