What began as a far-off, unrealistic goal has never seemed more obtainable.
At the start of last season, Tony Tarasco, then the Mets’ first-base and outfield coach, told Brandon Nimmo to envision the year ending with him winning a Gold Glove. At the time Nimmo was coming off a shortened 2020 season in which he became the everyday center fielder and struggled on defense nearly every day.
Of 39 qualified center fielders in 2020, Nimmo was ranked 39th in outs above average, a comprehensive metric that evaluates defenders.
The visualizing did not have a payoff in 2021. But pining for gold is becoming less of a pipe dream and more of a possibility.
“I am playing well out there,” said Nimmo, whose quick jump, excellent speed and diving catch robbed the Brewers’ Hunter Renfroe of a hit in left-center field on Tuesday. “I think the biggest thing for me is stay healthy and be out there. And the sky’s the limit — maybe [a Gold Glove] could happen.”
Judging by outs above average — the same stat that indicated Nimmo was the majors’ worst center fielder two years ago — Nimmo and the Cardinals’ Harrison Bader were tied atop the National League leaderboard entering the Mets’ game against the Brewers on Wednesday.
Just before hitting free agency, the 29-year-old Nimmo is making an early case for a Gold Glove, an All-Star Game and a huge payday.
Nimmo traces his defensive improvement to two things. First, he’s playing deeper, with plenty of input from the Mets’ analytical minds, and said moving back “allows me to be a little bit more comfortable with coming in on balls and charging those hard.” Second, improved strength and conditioning have allowed him to become a faster runner.
Because of the COVID-19 restrictions in the 60-game 2020 season, Nimmo did not have great access to weight rooms. He underwent an offseason training program after that season designed to speed him up, which has worked.
He was a solid major league center fielder last season — solid enough to bump free-agent signing Starling Marte to right this season — and has kept the gains.
“That [speed] has helped me to make up a little bit of ground,” said Nimmo, who was the 19th-best center fielder last season, by outs above average. “The play [Tuesday], where I was right near the edge of my range and able to lay out and make that catch — if you’re just maybe a couple feet per second slower than that, then maybe you don’t have that opportunity.”
The above-average center fielder entered Wednesday with a .370 on-base percentage (13th-best in the NL) and some pop (four homers) as a speedy, top-of-the-lineup threat. He has an all-around skill set that “the game values,” Nimmo acknowledged.
He may hit free agency at peak value if he stays healthy the rest of the season — which is a major “if,” considering Nimmo’s significant injury history.
Nimmo said the Mets have not approached him about an extension.
“I think they’re just planning on seeing where this season ends up,” Nimmo said.
It could end up golden. The Mets have not had an outfielder win a Gold Glove since Juan Lagares in 2014. Bader won the NL Gold Glove for center field last season, while the Padres’ Trent Grisham, another threat this season, won it in 2020.
More plays like Nimmo stealing an extra-base hit from Renfroe would help his case. The ball looked like a gapper, and instead Nimmo charged into the gap and channeled Superman in his full-out dive.
“It’s hard to bring what [Nimmo] brings every night just from an effort standpoint and engagement,” manager Buck Showalter said. “The personality never wavers.”
Showalter has been around plenty of quality center fielders, from Bernie Williams (with the Yankees) to Devon White (with the Diamondbacks) to Adam Jones (with the Orioles).
Nimmo “fits with some of the better center fielders I’ve had,” Showalter said.