The following paragraphs will contain some blasphemy. There will be “what ifs”, and optimistic projections. All in an intellectual exercise to examine where Jacob deGrom lies within the New York Mets Pantheon.
For Christmas, Bill Madden’s latest book on Tom Seaver made its way to Mets fans across the country. Seaver is arguably the best right-handed pitcher of all-time, and thus certainly within the framework of the Mets franchise, he is The Franchise. He is appropriately afforded a level of love and respect his stature calls for. That was not always so, but everyone has come around on Tom Terrific.
Seaver pitched for the Mets for 12 seasons (11.5, grrrr). 400 games, 200 wins, 3000 innings, 2.57 ERA, 2500 strikeouts, 76 WAR. The top pitcher, the top player, for the Mets by wide margins. Seaver’s rotation partner, Jerry Koosman, is largely unheralded, but his accumulated stats in Mets history would be top tier on many teams without Seaver.
You may be saying, “Where are you going with this?”
deGrom started his career at age 26. That is quite late for a player that appears to be the best around. As a result, his career, to date, is approximately 40-45% of Seaver’s, but deGrom has some advantages.
deGrom is currently fourth in career WAR, passing Koosman in the abbreviated 2020. He is 3 WAR behind Dwight Gooden (11 seasons), and 11 WAR behind David Wright. You read that right – deGrom is a season and a half from placing himself as the second greatest Met of All Time. Sure, Ed Kranepool played 18 years with the Mets, but the best players have played 11 or 12. Wright is listed at 14 seasons, but we all know about his last three.
If deGrom plays out his current contract, four more seasons, he will pass Wright and Gooden handily, and be within a few seasons of Seaver’s WAR and Ks. If, like Seaver, he decides to finish his career with the Mets, and the Mets, now Wilpon-less, value deGrom and want to reward his greatness, offer him a two- or three-year extension to finish his career, deGrom will pass Seaver in those key categories, and be remarkably close in games and games started. Due to deGrom’s famously poor win rate, beyond his control, he is not likely to even approach Seaver in wins. deGrom could get closer if he can break out of his luck and win 20 for a couple of seasons.
When Gooden was so dominant, people wondered if he could supplant Seaver, but there are many obstacles – injuries, distractions – for any “next great player”. deGrom has dodged those by arriving to the majors late.
One statistic ignored thusfar is ERA. Seaver’s Met ERA was 2.57. deGrom’s is 2.61 and dropping significantly the last few seasons. After 2021, deGrom is likely to pass Seaver in ERA.
In five years, will we have to reconsider the greatest Met?
deGrom’s greatness is not limited to Mets superiority. In the “Wild Card Era” (since 1995), deGrom is second in ERA to Clayton Kershaw and third in ERA+ to Kershaw and Pedro Martinez. Expanding the era, and deGrom stays in second, whether is it is “Divisional Era” (1969), “Expansion Era” (1961), Integration Era (1947), or even “Live Ball Era” (1920). He is second in FIP, only behind Sandy Koufax. He stays third in ERA+. The caveat is deGrom has not hit his decline phase yet – Seaver’s ERA was 2.57 as a Met, but 2.86 for his career. We can expect deGrom’s last few seasons will be above his current rate, so he will have to drive his ERA down in the next few seasons to minimize the overall impact.
deGrom is more dominant than any of his peers, save Clayton Kershaw. He is definitely on pace for the Hall of Fame, and the Mets should keep him and pay him what it takes to become the next Tom Seaver.
From 2012-2015 Matt Harvey was fabulous on the mound for the New York Mets. His performance in the 2015 World Series was everything a fan wants from a top hurler. He had the persona, the confidence, the dominance and the city to deserve the moniker “The Dark Knight.” It was very fun to be a Mets fan for those seasons.
In 2016, Harvey hurt his arm. Pitchers hide injuries, sometimes subconsciously, because they feel like it is a pain they have worked through before, or maybe they just slept on it wrong. So, they adjust to avoid the pain on the mound. Dizzy Dean famously, perhaps apocryphally, had a line drive hit his foot, and to pitch through that he altered his motion and injured his arm. What was Harvey trying to pitch through?
With Statcast, we can see Harvey change his throwing angle. Statcast data started in 2015, which is key because it shows when he is good.
It may not be terribly obvious without a frame of reference, but his release point for all his pitches are pretty narrow and in the same vertical line. Here’s Jacob deGrom’s 2018:
You can see a nice “football” shape to their release points. Squashed into the vertical.
Justin Verlander’s 2019 season.
Here is Trevor Bauer’s 2020:
You get the idea.
Harvey started 2016 pretty well, but the release point charts show he was “rounding” his release points, and really only getting on top of this 4-seam fastball, and major league hitters only need the smallest of differentiation before you become dead meat. Couple that with declining velocities, and there is a recipe for disaster. Here is Harvey’s 2016 season:
Those pitches suddenly out from the pack are his last game, before shutting down the season. But that release point was tough to come back from.
One can see the roundness of his pitches. And the hand is much further from his body, with changeups being more prominent.
It is about this time people should have noticed. His arm slot is off from his dominant period. Once a pitcher loses that due to injury can he every get it back or does the fear of re-injuring his shoulder override his ability to do what he knows to be needed. Frankly, it is tough to tell if he was coached in what he needed. The Mets gave him another shot in 2018, and it started out well, but the Mets lost patience quickly and shipped him off to the Reds, where he struggled.
His pitch releases were better, but still round, and fewer curveballs. He got a real chance with the Angels in 2019, was not good, and then spent 2020 with the Royals. His 2019 was very round, which basically works as tipping your pitches.
At least Harvey made some money in 2019. As noted 2020 started out with some control, but:
The last two games are represented by the wide release points, which flagged an injury, and he was put on the injured list with a lat strain.
Harvey is an unrestricted free agent. He signed for the minimum in 2020. Harvey hopefully will get healthy and spend some time re-learning how to pitch, his velocity was up some, but his spin rates were down. He needs to hold it like an egg.
Can the Dark Knight Return? Could Rick Peterson fix Harvey in 10 minutes?
This Met fan would love to see him given the chance.
The 2020 Mets were an “also-ran” footnote. The last week was an awfully bad week, but up until then the season was just “also-ran.” The best aspect of the COVID-shortened season was a free season for Noah Syndergaard to recover from TJ surgery. Michael Conforto’s best season was a plus, as was Dominic Smith’s. Hopefully, those 60 games count as Pete Alonso’s sophomore slump. Edwin Diaz seemed to rebound. In a nutshell, if Cohen wants to win now, and who does not, he should go full Huizinga. Complaints about budgets and salary caps to debate what Cohen will or will not do is speculation. This is what he can do.
Let us start with improving the pitching staff. Jacob deGrom, David Peterson, Syndergaard (after Memorial Day), and no one else. Trevor Bauer wants single-year contracts usually, and he would love to face the Braves more. If he takes a single-year contract, sign him. That is just $30M. The Mets can give Marcus Stroman a qualifying offer and if he accepts, have a solid rotation. The Tampa Rays have used a bullpen slot for their fifth starter and the Mets could effectively manage Seth Lugo and a few others to success, but that is a skill they must learn.
The Rays success can be instructional to the Mets coaching staff. In the bullpen, the Mets have a closer, but not much else. A stable of harder throwers, rather than guys who do not know where the ball is going. The best free agent the Mets can acquire could be from the Rays’ front office. Cohen should not keep anyone, in particular, from the bullpen, after Diaz. Dellin Betances makes sense, but he is not a key piece, and if throwing him in a trade makes the deal, it should be done.
There are key existing pieces on the team, and of good players that cannot easily be replaced from the free agent pool. Alonso is going to be at first base, Conforto is going to be in the outfield. Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, Jeff McNeil and Smith have options, making them attractive pieces. They are all left fielders, and thus all of them are unnecessary. On the infield, the Mets thus have three positions up for grabs at camp.
Admittedly, Robinson Cano is going to be on the roster. He does not have to start every game, and Cohen can add DJ LeMahieu if he wants to rock the New York market. LeMahieu is a terrific defensive player and a good hitter, even accepting his MLB leading average and AL leading OPS numbers from 2020. LeMahieu brings something important to the table – turning the double play, something the Mets have struggled with for some time.
Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez both play fine at shortstop, and even hit a little bit. But with deep pockets, why stop there? If the Mets want to win now, they have the option of bringing in players to do that. Didi Gregorius and Marcus Semien are available and tremendous upgrades. Semien may have been over-rated defensively in the past, and Gregorius’ arm seems to be fine. Either would improve the position.
Watching the World Series, it is evident that Justin Turner still has it, at least enough for a two-year contract, and that would make third base much more than a break-even position for the Mets. Even without Turner, this is where McNeil and LeMahieu can share time when Cano has to play.
Now the infield has Alonso, LeMahieu, Semien, and Turner. That is putting together a team that can hit a ton and turn it in the middle.
The outfield is a little more settled. With Conforto playing right field and some mix of Nimmo, Smith and McNeil in left field, the hole is center field. There is a prime center fielder available, George Springer. There are not really other available center fielders to significantly outperform Nimmo. Marcell Ozuna is a mediocre fielder and could be an option to upgrade left field.
There is just one catcher – J.T. Realmuto, so Cohen does not have much to dilly-dally with. Many people consider this to be a key pick up but catchers age poorly and the number of games for him to impact is mostly smaller.
One issue with free agents is they must be a win-now strategy because in order to reach free agency you need six years in MLB and most players do not reach the majors until 23 or 24. And even younger players get a year or two of free agency bought out, as the Mets are discussing with Conforto. So all of these players are around 30 or higher and should be given shorter contracts like two to three years.
How much better would this make the Mets? The infield would be more than 10 wins better. Adding Bauer and a good year from Stroman would add another handful of wins. The addition of these free agents would make the Mets favorites or nearly favorites for the NL East and possibly the NL pennant.
If Cohen didn’t buy the Mets to do that, then why bother?
The season mercifully came to an end on Sunday. The Mets went into Saturday with a chance at the playoffs and proceeded to dump the season in getting swept by the Washington Baseball Team, surging into the National League East cellar.
Tremendously, the Mets played well on offense. The starting nine only had Amed Rosario hitting below average. The Mets poor finish is solely on the shoulders of the pitching and defense. Jacob deGrom was stellar as usual, and rookie David Peterson was excellent. Both have a strong argument for their respective awards – deGrom could win his third consecutive Cy Young (check opponent quality) and Peterson was the top Rookie, and not just pitchers. Ke’Bryan Hayes must play more than that…
The pitching staff will have to be overhauled – Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Steven Matz combined for a 2-16 record with an ERA in the sixes. Seth Lugo struggled as a starter but showed flashes of competence. Porcello’s FIP certainly suggests he needed some defensive help. The bullpen did not implode, and Edwin Diaz pitched pretty well.
Let’s talk about the defense. Was it good? No. Was it terrible? No. Well, was it terrible for just 60 games? It was not good. The Mets posted the third-worst defense in the National League. Both the Phillies and the Nationals were significantly worse (7-8 runs), which is why they were just “bad” and not “terrible.” Based on what we expected, how did the Mets do?
As expected, Pete Alonso played first base, mashed a few home runs, made it through his sophomore slump, and performed approximately as expected on defense, perhaps even a slight improvement over 2019. Good work for Alonso in the field, now hit some dingers next year.
At second base, the Mets stumbled around just below average, by a couple of runs. As noted, the five-man committee turned in a performance just below average, and the runs not saved were small. That isn’t a reason not to upgrade the position with an everyday player, preferably one whose agent isn’t the General Manager.
Rosario had a good year with the glove, but rookie Andres Gimenez made some flashy plays, leading people to call for a “youth movement”, even though Rosario is 24. Gimenez was clearly an improvement at the plate, even if his shortstop play was about the same. Gimenez did field well at second and third, so there is definitely room for him on the team.
Third base had a similar five-man operation as second base, and four of them performed average or above. Unfortunately, J.D. Davis gave all of those runs back and more and posted the worst defensive numbers on the team. He simply cannot play third base competently and is more suited to be a designated hitter.
Instead of being an average infield, the Mets chipped away, playing 10 guys in various positions managed to post a -8 runs; in 60 games, or the equivalent of 22 runs over a full season. When the Mets look around for improvements this offseason, finding younger, better fielders is a must.
The Mets defensive bright spot was the outfield. That sounds odd if anyone watched the games, but Michael Conforto played well, a few runs above average. Brandon Nimmo was average when not in center field. Jeff McNeil played well in left and right fields and played half the time there.
In the preseason, we commented that the outfield should improve with Luis Rojas at the helm, and that came true. “Better” doesn’t necessarily mean good, and Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, Jake Marisnick and Davis were all below average generating a cumulative -5 runs (multiply by 2.7 to extrapolate to 162 games), and you can see that left and center need help stabilizing.
The Mets catching improved significantly, but it is hard to tell why. Wilson Ramos “just improved”. Perhaps he had an injury, perhaps it was the sample size, but the catching improved by ten runs. On the other hand, perhaps 2019 was an off year and he returned to his normal performance.
A couple of key takeaways: Davis should be traded for other talent. Nimmo should probably be traded for other talent. Nimmo and McNeil are remarkably similar, with McNeil being slightly better but also a year older. McNeil can also play infield. Cano mashing really makes it hard for the Mets to part with him; besides who would take that contract.
McNeil has a .319/.383/.501 career slash line, and a 139 OPS+, and 9+ WAR in three seasons. Mets fans shouldn’t talk about him as a “bit player”. The Mets have their own Ben Zobrist and should relish it.
Lastly, the Mets best player this year has been Smith. He leads the team in RBI, doubles, OPS, OPS+, and just nudged out on WAR, and so on. Keeping Smith in the lineup is critical to the Mets’ success. Smith’s defense in left field is adequate, and better than Davis’.
Smith has also been a leader on the field regarding how we move forward in society. He knelt for the anthem and spoke about social justice in America. His comments were moving and appreciated. The cancellation of the Mets-Marlins game, and the wins on Jackie Robinson Day were great for him. This writer will cheer him on. Black Lives Matter.
The Mets are having a tough end to the week, even with winning a double header over the Yankees. GM Brodie Van Wagenen was heard on a hot microphone complaining about how operations was going, and the Wilpons were not happy about it, leading to whispers of Van Wagenen possibly being fired. Then news of A-Rod stepping back from the table, allowing Steve Cohen to make a move. Cohen says he wants to spend spend spend if he is the owner. That part is good news for the Mets. Unfortunately, all of this is just gossip, and whatever will be, will be. Let’s focus on the field.
There will be awards if we make it to the end of the season, and possibly if we do not (like 1994). There will be a batting champion. Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon was batting .500 at the end of the day on August 11, leading to some “analysts” to talk about .400. Two weeks later, Blackmon still leads both leagues, at .374. He hit .218 the last 14 games. Regression to the mean is real. Mets second baseman Robinson Cano is hitting .378 but is 16 plate appearances short of qualifying. Maybe by the end of next week.
The Mets do not have any players in the basic count stats races, as Pete Alonso has struggled. Coupled with the COVID-related loss of games and innings, no player is likely to reach the plate appearances to keep up with the current leaders.
One concern is the Gold Glove Awards. With the regular season awards like Cy Young or Most Valuable Player, the “best player” is usually identified. Or perhaps the top tier that fans can enjoy a discussion about – is it Tatis, or is it Mookie Betts? Is the CY winner going to be deGrom for the third straight season or will Atlanta’s Max Fried stay unbeaten?
Gold Gloves require volume. A baseball season usually means 162 games, and a “Cal Ripken” season that means 1400 innings. Even with that many innings, defensive players get about 500 chances up the middle, and down from there. As strikeouts and home runs have gone up, defensive chances keep going down. Gold Glove ballots also get sent out at the start of September…typically. That means a players performance, summarized on the ballots, is just through about 142 games, and to qualify, a fielder needs 710 innings. That works out to be “the starter” because the player played five innings per game, just like a pitcher getting a win.
All the statheads will wince at the idea that 700 innings is enough to determine the best fielder, but usually that’s not where everyone is. Players have usually played most of the games, with 1000-1200 innings. And since defensive runs prevented is mostly a count stat, more innings allows to accumulate more runs.
In 1999, Rafael Palmeiro won the Gold Glove for first base. Everyone knows he did not play first base. He was the DH. Lee Stevens, in case anyone was wondering. But Palmeiro did play 29 games at first, and that worked out to be 246 innings.
Why is that relevant?
Right now, the St. Louis Cardinals have played 23 games. Even if they play 60, which is unlikely, many of those games will be seven innings long. The Cardinals have several particularly good fielders – Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, but they will struggle to see enough chances to differentiate themselves from other fielders. There will be players eligible for the Gold Glove that have played 200 innings.
It is undetermined how Rawlings will go forward. Let’s take a look at how these could shake out. SABR has the SDI, and research shows it strongly influences the voting. Here are some leaders at the halfway point. At first base in the American League, Matt Olson and Yuli Gurriel, known good fielders, are at the top, and in the National League Anthony Rizzo. At second, Cleveland’s Cesar Hernandez leads the way. Last year’s winner, White Sox Yolmer Sanchez is out of baseball, released by the Giants last Friday, after not playing this season. It is not unusual for second base to have some fluctuation. In the NL, with Wong missing time, Kike Hernandez has a big lead, but Wong is moving up. Anthony Rendon moved to the AL, and leads third basemen, as Matt Chapman had one bad week, and we do not know if he has enough time to make up for it. Yes, Nolan Arenado has a good lead in the National League.
At short stop, Seattle’s J.P. Crawford has a solid lead, as Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons are languishing around average. Trevor Story leads the NL shortstops, but last year’s winner Nick Ahmed is just barely behind.
Left field is almost always a “sort of” award, as the chances are fewer, and the players are rotated more. Nonetheless, it is a surprise to see a Boston Red Sox player at the top in Alex Verdugo. The Green Monster is always tough to account for, and really keeps a good Red Sox fielder from shining, but in 200 innings, anything can happen! In the NL, the Diamondbacks David Peralta, 2019 winner, has a lead.
American League center field is loaded with terrific fielders, and one of the best, is Byron Buxton. Buxton has battled injuries the last couple of seasons, but this year is well atop the field, even as Kevin Kiermaier and Luis Robert and Ramon Laureano and George Springer…you get the idea. It is fun to watch that whole collection. In the NL, 2019 winner, Cody Bellinger is trailing Trent Grisham.
Last year there was some controversy when Aaron Judge did not quite qualify and had prevented the most runs. This year, he is going to struggle to qualify, and he is in the top three, but Max Kepler of Minnesota and Anthony Santander of Baltimore have a lead and played more innings. The NL now has Mookie Betts, who is one of the best fielders of the decade, and he has the most runs saved above average of any player at any position.
At catcher, Christian Vazquez of the Red Sox leads the AL and the Brewers Omar Narvaez leads the NL. Yadier Molina, who has won nine is not too far back, and with seven inning games, could catch up and tie Johnny Bench for the second-most catcher Gold Gloves.
You may notice no Mets were mentioned. In this analysis, the only Mets that appeared in the SDI potential voting were Luis Guillorme at second, Andres Gimenez at short and Billy Hamilton in center. Looking at team performances, the Dodgers lead the NL at +10 runs, and the Mets are next to last at -9 runs. The Nationals are the worst at -10 runs. That is two wins the Dodgers have over the Mets just on catching the ball. The Braves are the only NL East team above average at +2.
The key to being a good manager, according to Jim Leyland, is being sure to put your players in a position to succeed. One of the keys to preventing runs is doing a good job of having your pitching and defense work together. The biggest key for the Mets will be in not giving away extra runs.
The Mets’ starting position players are not known for their defense. This is less of a problem for pitchers like Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, who strike out lots of hitters, but it is an issue for pitchers who do not. Critics will often say you have to play who you have, but players are available to balance, particularly with expanded rosters, the needs of each pitcher.
In the Mets’ heyday (or heyest day) of the mid-80s, manager Davey Johnson was clever about his personnel use. Most Met fans are familiar with Howard Johnson playing shortstop, poorly, on days where Sid Fernandez pitched. The truth is that Johnson started behind all the Mets staff, but he did evolve to playing shortstop mostly behind Fernandez. As Johnson was not a strong infielder, putting him in a premium position is risky, unless there is a reduced chance of him getting balls hit to him. Likewise, if Fernandez is going to pitch, a good manager puts better outfielders on the field.
It is fun to note that Fernandez was what is known as a fly ball pitcher. He was *the* fly ball pitcher. In September of 1993, he pitched a game where there were no infield assists – it was all fly balls and strikeouts. The newspaper article mentioned it was the 11th time in MLB history. The Mets usual outfield included Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman. In this game, the Mets had a good set of defenders. When Fernandez pitched, Bonilla played third. Fortunately for Fernandez, Coleman’s season was ending when he came off the Disabled List at the end of July.
With the current starting pitchers (or at least as planned), deGrom is a strikeout pitcher, with slight ground ball tendencies. Syndergaard is a strikeout pitcher with stronger ground ball tendencies. Marcus Stroman is a severe ground ball pitcher. Steven Matz is a slight ground ball pitcher in batted ball distribution. When you have these pitchers, putting a solid infield together becomes critical. Having a strong catcher, with top framing skills becomes more valuable.
The current infield of Jeff McNeil at third, Amed Rosario at short, Robinson Cano at second base and Pete Alonso at first gives the Mets a solid fielding infield. Rosario was improving, and Cano is a veteran and they make an adequate/average double play combination.
The pitchers can have confidence the manager is putting them in a position to win.
Then the Mets run into problems. Wilson Ramos has a quite natural aging curve to his defensive stats. He came in the league decent, improved and was above average, and over his 10-year career has seen his defense decline, and he is a not a good fielder. This hurts the Mets in a couple of ways – not just stolen base runs, but also in framing runs and giving the opponents extra chances. With a strikeout staff, framing can really get the Mets out of tough innings.
What the Mets cannot afford to do is put fielders and pitchers in a position where they are not likely to be successful. J.D. Davis is not an outfielder. In limited time in left field, he struggled. Dominic Smith is not an outfielder, either. When manager Luis Rojas writes Davis in left field and Michael Conforto in right field and Brandon Nimmo in center, he is giving up runs. He is not putting the team on the field that is most likely to win, given the starting pitchers.
When Stroman pitches, you can put Davis, Nimmo and Conforto in the outfield. Even in today’s environment of launch angle, Stroman is going to allow only a handful of chances to those outfielders.
Which brings me to Sunday, July 26, 2020’s starting pitcher Rick Porcello. Porcello is the opposite of the rest of the staff. He is an extreme fly ball pitcher – like Fernandez, Lucas Giolito, and Justin Verlander. Porcello might be successful with the Mets, but if they start an outfield of Davis, Nimmo and Conforto, he will probably not be. That is a good time to put Davis at third and give Jake Marisnick a start in the outfield. Instead of a personal catcher, think of it as a personal outfielder.
The lesson is to put the defense on the field that supports your pitchers. Give the ground ball pitchers a tight double play combination. Give the fly ball pitchers good outfielders. Give the strikeout pitchers a good catcher. The roster is big enough to have those variety of players. Put those players in a position to succeed.
The Mets historical performance defensively has been, in a word, bad. As we have examined the best and worst fielders in Mets history, it was evident identifying bad players was a little easier than identifying outstanding players. At second base, the answer was largely “no one.” It is never easy to explain *why* the Mets have ignored fielding all these years. Perhaps a little inferiority complex to the offense of the Bronx Bombers. Part of that is related to signing and playing old veterans.
Fielding is a younger person’s game. The aging curve starts earlier and peaks earlier than the offensive curve. You come into the league at your fastest, but still haven’t learned all the nuances, and generally, you peak your second or third year in the league – call it 24-25, and then you begin a decline, some of it faster than others depending on how reliant a player has been on speed. Leg or arm injuries hasten the decline a bit more than on offense where running and throwing are more important. It is all more intuitive than one might expect.
As we look at the ten best defensive teams the Mets have fielded, they get dominated by youth, and some pitching, but the link to pitching is not as strong as one would assume. They are absolutely linked, but as strikeouts become more prevalent, defense is marginally less important. As opponents’ slugging increases, defense becomes marginally more important. It mostly comes out in the wash. Any Mets fan guessing at the best defensive teams would get about half of the seasons correct. When a team plays well, they win.
The countdown begins.
10 – 2005, ~10 defensive runs saved.
First, yes, it is shocking that the tenth best season, out of 68, is a mere 10 runs above average. It highlights how poorly the Mets have selected players for their defensive prowess. This +10 does represent a significant improvement over the average Mets team. This was the early years of David Wrght (age 22) and Jose Reyes (age 22) but they were not the anchors of the team defensively. Carlos Beltran (age 28) and Cliff Floyd (age 32) were the strong performers, bringing the Mets team to the positive side of the ledger. Floyd’s contribution was mostly due to his arm, in preventing additional bases, and throwing our runners. Floyd had 15 assists from left field.
9 – 1976, ~11 defensive runs saved
This Mets team really was the last hurrah for several Met fan favorites. The Mets dumped everyone after 45 games into 1977, but these players really had gelled into a decent core. None of these guys were outstanding, but they hovered in the average range, and one or two new faces, Roy Staiger and Mike Phillips in the infield, and Jerry Grote giving way to the much younger John Stearns propped up the older players. The core of the last few years, Ed Kranepool, Felix Millan, Bud Harrelson, and Wayne Garrett had played well, but age was taking its toll, and Garrett was shipped off to Montreal with Del Unser.
8 – 1995, ~13 defensive runs saved
This strike season was not a great one for the Mets. Sure they finished second in the NL East, but had a losing record. This was a new beginning for the Mets, with younger players playing throughout the lineup, with no player particularly strong defensively, except Edgardo Alfonzo, but no player really sinking the defense except Jose Vizcaino. It was a pool of average performances, with a set of slightly above average performances from Ryan Thompson, Chris Jones, Jeff Kent, and Carl Everett.
7 – 1999, ~18 defensive runs saved
There is a pattern emerging, and it will become more evident as we climb into the top five. When a team signs players, or promotes young players that can play defense, the team has good defensive seasons, and often good overall seasons. The 1999 team included one of the top fielding first basemen in history, and he did more than just field groundballs well. John Olerud was smooth and prevented throwing errors from the infield at a remarkable rate throughout his career. Alfonzo had matured, 25 years old now, and was an incredibly good defender. The Mets had added Robin Ventura, whose defensive performance arguably put him on a WAR scale with the league MVPs that season, and of course, Rey Ordonez anchoring it all. This infield defense was airtight. These four were worth 80 runs saved! That should make you wince at the outfielders’ performance. Just a shift in personnel – getting Darryl Hamilton earlier. The Mets won 97 games, and a wild card slot, but that outfield defense was just terrible.
6 – 2007, ~24 defensive runs saved
This Met team was riding the crest of the Wright-Reyes-Beltran defense from a couple of years earlier. Carlos Delgado was playing adequately, and the outfield platoons were performing around average. The only blemish defensively was Shawn Green. Green was on his last legs, and had Lastings Milledge performed as his projections suggested, 2007 may have turned out differently.
As we head into the top five defensive Mets teams, take a note of the total runs saved, and how different they look.
5 – 1997, ~45 defensive runs saved
This team saved nearly twice as many as the previous teams. The core of the 1999 team was in place with Ordonez, Alfonzo and Olerud were playing well. At second base, we all recall the husk of Carlos Baerga, but for this season, he was putting an average defensive performance on the field. The pitching staff was a good groundball staff, and the infield kept the Mets in games and the playoff hunt heading down the home stretch.
4 – 1970, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1970 team had solid defensive players in their prime. Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Grote, Harrelson, Garrett. Art Shamsky playing great defense. Agee as an anchor in center field everyone else performing just above average really drives a team to a solid defensive performance. This team and the 1997 team epitomize what a couple of good fielders and no sinkholes can do for a team. The 1970 team could have done better with fewer sinkholes at the plate, as Harrelson, Grote and Ken Boswell had managed hitting much at all.
3 – 1996, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1996 team is the very peak of the Rey Ordonez Mets. The Mets had also brought in Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, both of whom were good fielders, and with Alex Ochoa and Everett coming along the defensive learning curve, the outfield shone. With Ordonez and Alfonzo anchoring the infield, the Mets needed a little more help from the corners. Butch Huskey and Tim Bogar were not enough to keep those holes from being costly. As we saw with the addition of Olerud, a good first baseman can cure a lot of infield ills.
2 – 2006, ~52 defensive runs saved
Defense can push teams to championships. The 2006 Mets were a solid hitting team, and a good pitching team, and an excellent fielding team. Wright, Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Floyd, and the additional playing time for Endy Chavez, and addition of Jose Valentin. This was an excellent defensive tam all around, and Chavez provided the Mets with arguably the greatest catch in team history. This was the best team in the NL, despite how it all ended.
1 – 1969, ~53 defensive runs saved
The best defensive team in Mets history was one of the youngest as well. The defensive innings went to players 26 and under. We’ve mentioned the players as they were all part of the 1970 team as well. Jones had his best defensive season, Agee Grote and Harrelson were at the top of their games defensively. Only four players performed below average, and all were just barely below. It was a great team all around.
A few quick notes – the 1986 team was about the 11th best, but nearly all of that was Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, with a little Rafael Santana. 2008-2010 were solid teams. But on the whole, after 68 years, the Mets team *average* a defensive performance of -15 runs saved. So all of these teams outperformed Met-spectations by another win and a half.
It is always interesting and exciting to hear about the best fielders. Rarely do we get a good look at the terribly bad fielders. Derek Jeter is always mentioned as a terrible fielder and having the worst negative performance of any fielder. This has some bias toward the good hitters, like Jeter. In looking at the worst fielders the Mets have ever jogged out there, it is important to standardize based on chances, while keeping an eye on small samples. Pitchers and catchers aren’t included in this because we’re going to examine batted balls, and pitchers and catchers have very few chances to field those, and no one likes to hear anything disparaging about Mike Piazza’s time behind the dish.
Data from prior to 1988 is limited to Retrosheet data, while the most recent 30 years we have RED (STATS zone data-based), UZR and DRS (last 18 years).
Standardizing chances to 400 levels the playing field, as middle fielders – shortstop, second base and center field – get close to 500 chances, but the corners get between 250 and 400. This keeps Darryl Strawberry from immediately being the worst, simply because he played the most innings in right field for the Mets.
First base is the position which gets the fewest ground balls to field, which makes it difficult to really damage the team defensively. That does not mean the Mets have not tried. We all remember the ill-advised idea of moving Piazza out from behind the plate to first, to improve his defense. It did not work. Marv Throneberry was nicknamed “Mr. Strangeglove” for his reputation as a poor fielder, but he only spent 800 innings at first for the Mets. It will not surprise many to learn Dave Kingman caused the most damage at first base for the Mets at -22 runs, but he played more innings than our “winner”. Mo Vaughn coughed up 20 runs, and did it in fewer innings, at a pace of -12 runs per 400 chances. Vaughn was such a bad fielder; he defines the limit – what’s the worst you can be and still be allowed to play.
At second base, when looking for a good fielder, there really were not many choices, and they were not particularly good. For the “skillet” award, the Mets have several to choose from. Luis Castillo was not good, Roberto Alomar was bad, but the worst two really battled it out. Daniel Murphy just missed being the worst fielding second baseman for the Mets. The honor goes our favorite wunderkind, Gregg Jefferies. Jefferies was a very bright spot in 1988, but simply could not find a position to play competently, and that spells doom in the NL. Jefferies, once he left the Mets, moved to first base and left field.
Third base has long been a hole for the Mets. In the team’s first 20 years, 46 Mets played third base for at least 10 games. In the 80s broadcasts, this was a constant note every time a new hope took his position at the hot corner. Hubie Brooks, Howard Johnson, Dave Magadan, Gregg Jefferies, Bobby Bonilla. The ensuing 20 years, 1982-2001, a mere 33 different Mets played 10 or more games at third. And in the last 18, since David Wright stepped on the field, only 25 Mets managed the feat. That is 120 players with ten games at third. The Phillies, *since 1883* have only had 169 different players, with just 76 during the Mets’ existence (Pirates 79, Cards 81, Cubs 93, to round out the old NL East). With so many players cycling through the position, only a few can accumulate any innings to really stand out as a poor fielder.
Fortunately (?), the Mets happened to put one of the worst defensive players across all positions all years at third base for nearly 2000 innings. No, not Bonilla – he was not bad. Not Howard Johnson, who was quite bad. In second place for the worst third baseman over 1000 innings and per 400 chances is Jefferies, but that would be too cruel. The worst fielder for the Mets at third base, costing nearly 20 runs per season’s worth of chances is Ty Wigginton. Wigginton was kind of this Ron Cey looking character, who could seemingly hit a little, but was just too slow on defense.
Shortstop has had none of the same issues. Only 80 players have been at short for 10 games for the Mets since 1962. The names have been reasonably stable for a few seasons. As for poor fielding, the Mets have had surprisingly good fielding at shortstop, and if they did not, the Mets have not kept playing them at short. Somewhere there is an odd mindset in the Mets front office about how important the shortstop glove is as compared to second or third base. There is only one shortstop with double digit performance underwater. Asdrubal Cabrera was not good, but at least he could hit. The other shortstops in the below average area – Jose Vizcaino, Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada, Rafael Santana – were all in the “close enough to average” category.
Left field has always been a merry-go-round for baseball teams. Where can we get the biggest bat doing the least amount of damage in the outfield? The Mets acquired 40-year-old Rickey Henderson for the 2000 pennant chase, and he was bad. Unbelievably bad. But a good deal of his poor runs saved is tied to a weak arm, rather than a pure inability to get to fly balls. Benny Agbayani has the worst run of chasing down flies, followed closely by Roger Cedeno. Cedeno was also terrible in right field and center. This is a real toss-up for this – Henderson had just over 1,000 innings and spilled 20 runs all over the field, where Agbayani just lacked the ability to close and make catches at -17 runs per season.
In center field, the Mets have done a good job of keeping the bad players out of there. It is easy to picture Howard Johnson flailing away, but he only had 700 innings in center. Mookie Wilson struggled too, mostly due to a weak arm. The interesting part is here is where the old-timers get to represent the Mets. One of my favorite players as a kid landed right at the top of poor center fielders. Lee Mazzilli was a bad center fielder when he was young, which is an unusual thing to pull off. Youth has speed and reaction times, and yet, Mazzilli was still not particularly good. He was not as bad as other positions, only losing ten runs per 400 chances, which, given the other positional performances was not too bad.
Right field was patrolled by many a Met fans favorite, Le Grand Orange. Rusty Staub was a nimble, round fielder, with a quick throw, and his assist numbers often lead people to think of him as a good fielder. Misplays to the outfield often present assist opportunities as runners try to take the extra base. Staub was not adept at flagging down balls, and did not catch flies well, losing about 20 runs to the league average a season. Fortunately, the Mets opted to play another first baseman out of position in right field. Another bat who the Mets felt could “hold his own” in right. Lucas Duda could not. Duda cost the Mets over 25 runs per 400 chances in right, making him the worst fielder the Mets have allowed to play for over a thousand innings. At least Staub fans do not have to hear “he was the worst fielding right fielder the Mets ever had.”
1B – Vaughn
2B – Jefferies
3B – Wigginton
SS – Cabrera
LF – Henderson/Agbayani
CF – Mazzilli
RF – Duda
Recently there was some chatter about who the best Met defensive players have been. Marv Throneberry or Keith Hernandez – Bud Harrelson or Rey Ordonez, and so on. Anecdotally, there are a couple of Mets with tremendous defensive reputations, and Gold Gloves, but were they deserving, given what we have learned from advanced metrics? Let us look.
First, there are limitations. Advanced metrics data – specifically where the ball was hit – trajectory, speed, etc. only began in the mid-1980s, when Bill James, created Project Scoresheet out of his Baseball Abstracts, where volunteers scored games and mailed them in and a database was created. In 1987, STATS, with John Dewan at the helm, developed Zone Rating, as a business – not volunteers. This made the system robust, with quality control, and improved upon the Project Scoresheet system. Prior to 1987, Sean Smith developed Total Zone, relying on Retrosheet data to calculate runs saved. That means data from pre-STATS era have larger error bars, and are generally less reliable, simply due to a lack of available information. It is still valuable, and critical to understanding the previous eras. For this article, we will be looking at several metrics and trying to find a happy medium. This will include RED (STATS-based), DRS from SIS, TZ (found on Baseball-Reference, and a sprinkle of cross-reference of UZR. These stats are used to make up the SDI, SABR’s defensive index used to provide guidance and votes for the Gold Gloves since 2014.
When we consider the best defensive players, there is always the question of position. Keith Hernandez was a fantastic first baseman. What we have learned in the development of sabermetrics is the value of position, relative to other positions. How many available first basemen are there? Roughly, the rest of the team. How many competent shortstops? A much narrower field. So, when we talk about the best fielders, there is always the question of whether Rey Ordonez would have been a better first baseman than Keith Hernandez would have been at shortstop. That is WAR’s view – because the replacement defensively at first base is a much poorer fielder than the replacement at shortstop.
For this piece, we are considering runs saved, rather than positional adjustments. That value is a different discussion of “better fielder”. Pitchers and catchers, as Johnny Bench was not a Met, will be relegated to another discussion.
There are several positions where it is easy to identify the best fielders. Keith Hernandez is the best fielding first baseman in Mets history – possibly in all of MLB. John Olerud was a tremendous first baseman, and had he played with the Mets for six seasons, may have challenged Hernandez. Olerud was certainly among the best his three years in New York. Rey Ordonez is the best fielding shortstop in Mets history. The only other shortstop to accumulate close to as many runs saved is Bud Harrelson, and he played twice as many years.
The rest of the positions are far less obvious. At second base, people will instinctively say Edgardo Alfonzo, who was particularly good, but spent much more time at third base, playing even better. That is, of course, how the defensive spectrum works. You may be tempted to name a famous signee, or developed player, like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Daniel Murphy, or Jeff Kent. These second basemen played long careers, but not so much with the Mets, and with the Mets, they were all bad, except Kent, who made it to average, as a second baseman. There are only 14 players with 1000 innings at second base for the Mets, and the one who prevented the most runs is a converted good shortstop, Jose Valentin. Valentin was a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with the White Sox a decade earlier but was still a good glove man with the Mets.
At third base, there is an obvious answer. It is not David Wright. Wright did have a Gold Glove-worthy season and won a couple more that he did not deserve with the Mets. Alfonzo was excellent at third base. Robin Ventura is one of the best fielding third basemen of all time, and his tenure with the Mets is the top performance at the position.
On the infield, Ordonez leads the way as the best defender. Hernandez is up there, Alfonzo is for his performance at multiple positions, and Ventura. Whatever the case, the Mets have not thought too much about the importance of defense on the infield.
The outfield is a little trickier. The Mets have been blessed with two “utility” outfielders who have been more than defensive substitutions. They played all three defensive positions and been recognized as defensive studs. Every Mets fan loves Endy Chavez for one of the greatest catches in history. He was routinely fantastic as a defender, across all the various metrics, and one of the Mets top three outfielders. Likewise, Juan Lagares, who is a bit more of a defensive substitute, but has garnered lots of innings due to injuries to the regulars and has taken full advantage. He was stellar from his first year and maintained his performance even with irregular playing time. Additionally, the Mets had Carlos Beltran patrol center field, in his prime, and he was excellent. Beltran was a great center fielder, who never really adjusted to right field.
You might say it is not right to only address the outfield with three center fielders. Fair. The next best outfielder is Angel Pagan, but that does not get us anywhere. From a purely positional aspect, the best left fielder is Bernard Gilkey, with honorable mention to Michael Conforto. Conforto would have supplanted Gilkey if he had been left in left. Right field has had lots of turnover. Darryl Strawberrry’s 9,000 innings were played sometimes good and sometimes bad, better with his arm than with his fly catching. Curtis Granderson played a good right field, since he was a center fielder, that is to be expected. Since Strawberry’s departure, right field has been a disaster. Ryan Church started strong, but a concussion derailed him.
In summary, the best outfielders are center fielders, and we can give a nod to Gilkey for hanging close.
Where does that leave the list? The numbers for Juan Lagares vary quite a bit, but consensus is, despite his part-time efforts, he is the most consistent outfielder and has saved the most runs, followed by Ordonez and Hernandez.
All in all, the Mets have undervalued defense, and it has hurt them a great deal. With any luck, they will look for well-rounded players who can catch as well as hit.