An enduring sight from the summer of 2015 is from the July 31 game against the Washington Nationals, when leading off in the bottom of the 12th in a 1-1 game, Wilmer Flores jacked a 95 mph fastball to the left-center Party Deck to send the Mets home as winners. That win pulled the Mets to within one game of the first place Nationals.
Flores proudly clutched his jersey as he was heading for the celebration at home, tugging at the orange lettering that spelled out “Mets” across his chest. It was a great sight to behold after just days before Flores was seen sobbing on the field after he learned he’d been traded along with Zack Wheeler to the Milwaukee Brewers for center-fielder Carlos Gomez. So much emotion spilled out from Flores the night of the walk-off, and he endeared himself to Met fans that felt for the guy after what had transpired some 48 hours prior.
Flores was tugging at his jersey as if to say this is his home, and he wants to be apart of this future with the only team he’s ever known since he was sixteen. He got his wish as the deal was nixed due to hip issues with Gomez that GM Sandy Alderson was concerned about after seeing his medical reports. That led to the eventual trade with the Detroit Tigers of Yoenis Cespedes just minutes before the trade deadline.
I bring up this moment from last season’s memorable run because it was an important highlight, as it was a type of starting point of when the Mets would take off and not look back in the National League East. From August 1st on, the Mets would go 37-22, and finish the year at 90-72. The game winning home run from Flores served as a rallying cry for this team, and brought some magic to Citi Field that fans would soon not forget.
Flores played a significant role for the Mets last season, even as he heard the complaints and rumblings from fans and media alike about his defense at short, and whether he could be an everyday shortstop for this club. He would end up playing 103 games at short, and 37 at second base, and eventually saw himself back at short from the 7th inning of Game 2 of the NLDS all the way to Game 5 of the World Series, after Ruben Tejada broke his leg in the collision with Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley.
Flash forward to the offseason, where the Mets signed free agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for 2-years, and traded LHP Jon Niese for second baseman Neil Walker, revamping their middle infield for more stability both offensively and defensively. Flores would play a crucial role for this squad as Terry Collins would explain, as it would allow for Flores to be a jack-of-all-trades type player, able to move around the infield and spell guys over the grueling 162-game season.
“We’ve got to certainly go into spring training and give Wilmer a chance to play around the infield a little bit more, put him in some different positions to where we can give guys days off,” Collins said.
During the second half of last season, Collins had veterans Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to rely on for bench roles, as they were two guys Alderson traded for before the deadline to help shore up the inefficiencies the Mets were facing with a depleted lineup that had the likes of John Mayberry Jr., and Eric Campbell starting. With their departures in the offseason, Collins knew that Flores would be accepting a role that was of high importance for a player of his age.
“Last year, our bench was huge for us down the stretch,” Terry Collins said. “Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe helped change the team in the second half. Wilmer is going to have a big role and we need to see him in it this spring.”
“Kelly and Juan were veteran players,” the Mets manager said. “This is a big role we are asking of a young player. We need Wilmer to handle it like a veteran.”
In 2016, Flores has seen time at all four infield spots. He’s spelled David Wright at third several games, probably the position he’ll be at most for the season due to Wright’s spinal stenosis. He’s handled first base well for Lucas Duda, and even got a few innings in at second and short, familiar territory for the 24-year-old.
However, Flores’ bat has yet to materialize, compiling a stat line of .107/.194/.214. He currently has one extra base hit – a home run – and six strikeouts along with three walks.
Looking at his FanGraphs page, what’s interesting to see is that Flores’ K% is at its highest since 2013, currently at 19.4%. He’s also not getting lucky with the balls he does hit, as his BABIP is sitting at .095, which if he registered for qualifying at-bats would place him dead last in that category.
He’s also not driving the ball with force, as Flores’ average distance on balls hit is at 197.16, the MLB average is currently at 214.84 feet. His average general velocity off the bat is at 69.86 mph, under the MLB average, which is 73.14 mph. What Flores does seem to be doing is getting under the ball a lot, as his average height of balls hit is at 43.15, well above the MLB average of 37.25 feet.
A positive for Flores, per his Plate Discipline stats, is that he’s actually swinging at a lot less outside pitches than he ever has before, meaning he’s being more patient at the plate. On the year, Flores is at 21.8%, down from 2014 where he registered at 33.2% and in 2015 where he was at 31.4%. (These stats were before Saturday’s game.)
The problem for Flores however, is that he’s not making the same contact with pitches inside the zone as he has in years past. For the past two seasons, Flores has been around 88-89%, this season he’s at 77.1%.
For Flores to be effective, he’s going to need to be able to catch up to the fastballs he’s getting, which is up this year at 62.4% of the pitches he sees. That’s the pitch that seems to be causing him issues lately, as Fangraphs Pitch Values has him registered at -2.8 on fastball runs above average on the season. (These stats were before Saturday’s game.)
Is it possible that Flores is struggling early due to the fact that he’s not starting on an everyday basis? Perhaps, as he’s always been a starter in the minor leagues and last year saw a bulk of the action at shortstop. Maybe he’s just settling into his role as a super utility player, and will find his rhythm over the course of the next several weeks.
Looking at his April stats from 2015, Flores got off to a much better start to the year, batting .254/.293/.408 with three home runs, and eight RBIs. He cooled off in the months of May and June, and picked it back up in July and August, with an OPS of .709 and .843 respectively. I expect that with continued playing time, Flores will break out of his early season slump, and perform more like the Wilmer we saw last year, with some power and good numbers with RISP.
He’s going to continue to see his fair share of playing time, as Collins will continue to monitor Wright’s playing time, and give Cabrera, Walker, and Duda all their own time off. But the Mets’ skipper acknowledged it’s time for his utility infielder to step up.
“He’s really scuffling,” Collins said after yesterday’s 6-5 win. “It’s tearing him up. I’ve had enough talks with him to know. This guy started it for us last year, and now he’s not playing much. You talk about a guy who is a little stressed out because he’s not pulling on his end, it’s Wilmer Flores, who was a big part of our lineup — and he will be. As I’ve told him many times, we’ve got a long way to go yet.”
The Mets’ bench is supposed to be a strength this year, and Flores is an essential part of it. With the home run in Saturday’s afternoon game against the San Francisco Giants, hopefully it’s a starting point for Flores to turn his early season struggles around and give the Citi Faithful more magic in the 2016 season.