There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the Mets defensive woes after Terry Collins
essentially called his team on it this week. “When you’re a team that relies on pitching the way we do, that’s built the way we are, it’s disappointing when your defense isn’t sharp,” he noted before the Mets’ rained-out game against the Nationals. This isn’t a shocker to any Mets fan, but it brings into focus one of the more ridiculous philosophies in how this team was built. How on earth can a team built on pitching put so little stock into its defensive chops, particularly on the infield?
The common thinking is that the current front office doesn’t put much of a premium on defense in general, instead embracing the assumption that the strikeouts their elite staff racks up would limit any potential damage a porous defense would cause. There’s a certain mad (yet understandable) logic in that, and let’s not pretend that baseball as a whole has been valuing defense (or speed) as much as they did in the past.
To get a rough idea of where Sandy Alderson seemed to place defense on his team-building priority list, let’s take a quick look at the Mets’ team defense since he took the helm.
The first thing to point out is that, no, your eyes have not been deceiving you. While we tend to deride the “I saw it with my eyes” method of evaluating defense, it’s quite clear that the team’s defense this year has been particularly bad. In fact, it hasn’t been this objectively bad since 2011 and 2012 when Lucas Duda and Scott Hairston were lumbering around in the outfield. An interesting note here is that those 2013-2015 defenses weren’t half bad. In fact, they were firmly in the middle of the pack all of those years. What happened in 2016 and 2017?
Well, in both years there were various toxic combinations of both infielders and outfielders. There’s plenty of blame to go around, honestly. Wilmer Flores has been terrible everywhere he’s played, Brandon Nimmo has been awful in the outfield, David Wright is a shell of his former self, Yoenis Cespedes was a butcher in center field, and other various fielding alignments were generally a net negative. This season has been especially brutal for the infield in terms of DRS, with Asdrubal Cabrera (-10/SS, -3/2B), Jose Reyes (-5/SS, -4/3B), and Flores (-4/3B) being particularly bad on the left side.
You can see why calls for the potential defensive improvements the likes of Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith are likely to bring are getting louder as the team falls deeper into the cellar. The problem is that this solution will account for very little improvement in the grand scheme of things. First, it does a disservice to how well Duda has played first base. He’s actually hovered around average over his career and is quite possibly in the midst of his best defensive year ever. Second, and more importantly, it’s disingenuous to assign blame to the defense for the team’s woes in any meaningful way when we consider pitching performance.
As regular readers have no doubt noticed, I’ve made it a habit of piling on the criticism of the team’s pitching this season. It’s been bad, plain and simple. The left side of the Mets’ infield defense has been bottom-of-the-league bad, also plain and simple. These two don’t really tie together in this scenario, though, at least not to the point where the defense has noticeably dragged down the pitching.
For instance, the pitching staff has not given up a noticeable increase in groundballs when compared to 2015 and 2016. Instead, they’ve actually given up an absurd number of home runs this season. As a matter of fact, their current HR/9 rate (1.40) is the highest in their history, beating out their second worst of 1.21 in 1962*. Sure, we have to acknowledge that pitchers may have given up home runs to batters they may not have faced if not for defensive miscues. How do those scenarios stack up when compared to the number of runs given up as a result of the sharp increase in batters walked by the pitching staff, though?
Look, the Mets need to improve the defense surrounding what they thought to be an elite pitching staff if they intend on being a consistently competitive team. There’s no arguing that point. They have no one to blame but the pitching staff for the debacle that is this season, however, and they need to figure out what the heck happened if they’re going to right the ship for 2018 and beyond.
*I’d be remiss not to point out that the current league average HR/9 rate (1.27) is the highest it’s ever been and that we’re currently seeing levels of home runs we haven’t seen since the late 90s/early 2000s. Nevertheless, the Mets actually led the league in 2016 with a HR/9 of 0.95.