Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is just showing up. And the Mets believe the other 20% can be willed to happen by a veteran. Most often this veteran comes from another club but it happens with players on their team, too. There’s no better explanation for why guys like Wilmer Flores and Juan Lagares continued to get chances. Flores was going to will himself to be adequate defensively while Lagares was going to use some Jedi mind trick to be adequate offensively.
Collectively, the Mets’ center fielders provided bottom-third production in baseball. Baseball-Reference had them ranked 23rd in the majors while FanGraphs had them 27th. And a large reason for this lack of production was their insistence on playing Lagares. He led all of the players the Mets trotted out to the position with 272 PA. The next highest was Brandon Nimmo with 148.
Now, you might say this is only because Nimmo missed so much time last year with an injury. And that’s certainly part of it. But in the opening month of the season, including the games played in March, Lagares and Nimmo each made 11 starts in CF while Keon Broxton made seven. In an ideal world, you play Nimmo in an outfield corner. But when your other center field options are Broxton and Lagares in the majors and Carlos Gomez in the minors – well, let’s just say you’re not living in an ideal world.
Certainly, the Mets hoped that either Broxton or Lagares would show enough so that they wouldn’t have to play Nimmo in CF. And with two options to play third base opening the season on the IL, that allowed the Mets to get Jeff McNeil into the lineup without having to play him primarily in the outfield. On paper, the Mets considered this a win. They certainly didn’t want to bury McNeil but they didn’t want to trout out an OF where two of the three guys would be considerably below average defensively at their position.
Unfortunately, Lagares put up a .616 OPS in April while Broxton had a .369 mark.
Center field was a black hole offensively and far from stellar defensively until the third week of June, when the Mets did something they clearly didn’t want to do – they moved Michael Conforto there. He ended up playing 37 games in CF and produced a .901 OPS. Of course there was a defensive downgrade that happened. Conforto had a (-4) DRS and a (-1.9) UZR in 268 innings in CF.
But the downgrade was nowhere near as big as the offensive upgrade. People still think of Lagares being a Gold Glove defender in center. But in 703.2 innings defensively, he put up a (-2) DRS and a (-2.9) UZR. Forget Gold Glove – he wasn’t even an average defender in center last year. When the Mets installed Conforto in center last year, Lagares was scuffling away with a .521 OPS. The move allowed the Mets to get Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis into the outfield on a regular basis.
In addition to not wanting Conforto in center, the Mets didn’t want Smith in the outfield, either. And they weren’t exactly doing cartwheels about Davis, either. And let’s not kid ourselves, neither Smith (-3 DRS in 223 innings) nor Davis (-11 DRS in 585.1 innings) distinguished themselves defensively. There was a reason to prefer these guys not to play these positions.
But coming into 2019, Conforto had never played more than 501.2 innings in center field in any season, while Smith had played 90 innings and Davis had 26 innings total in the outfield defensively. Which was more likely – some incremental improvement from those guys once they got more reps or that 30-year-old Lagares would magically improve upon his 86 OPS+? Lagares finished with a 63 OPS+ last year.
Lagares was the Opening Day center fielder and Smith didn’t play a game in the OF until May 27, when he pinch hit in the eighth inning and then finished out the game there. By then he had a .946 OPS.
It’s up for debate if it’s harder to know what the right thing is or if it’s harder to actually do the right thing. A corollary is it’s hard to know when is the right time to deviate from a plan, however well-constructed in theory, when it’s simply not working in reality.
The theory was that Lagares was by far the Mets’ best defensive outfielder and that the club would be best off if it could play Conforto and Nimmo in the corners, while playing Davis and McNeil as little as possible and Smith not at all in the outfield.
The Mets deserve at least some partial credit that they recognized early on that McNeil needed to be in the lineup every day, regardless of where he played. That certainly wasn’t in their offseason plan – else that disastrous trade never would have been made. Certainly injuries made that easier. But where was that recognition with Broxton and Lagares?
Broxton was unbelievably horrible but lasted until mid-May. And even then, the main impetus for his subtraction from the team wasn’t his .371 OPS – it was that he popped off to the media about his playing time. And the Mets bent over backwards looking for playing time for Lagares, despite all evidence to the contrary that it would end up worthwhile. Before his five-game hot streak in mid August, Lagares had a .512 OPS. After those five games, where he went 11-21, Lagares posted a .658 OPS.
When a guy who has never hit in his MLB career does even worse than usual, how much rope do you give him? Especially when his defense was no longer anything special? And why was the next plan to promote a 33 year old from the minors who in the previous four years had a 91 OPS+, including a 76 OPS+ in 2018? And it’s not like Gomez was great defensively, either. From 2015-18, he had a (-3 DRS) in CF.
Conforto ended up being the Mets’ fifth option to play CF last year. And that’s a big reason why their overall production – offense + defense – at the position was so poor. At one time, Gomez (2013) and Lagares (2014) were Gold Glove Award winners but in 2019 they were not even average defensive performers. They weren’t average offensive performers, either. But they got shots because of their reputation.
Perhaps the Mets would have won a couple of more games in May and June if they didn’t live in the past with their valuation of defensive play and if they gave more shots to guys who could do … something offensively.
Most Mets fans would list CF as a place to upgrade this offseason. Again, ideally you would play Nimmo and Conforto in the corners and have a solid defensive guy in the middle. But with the Mets being strapped monetarily, it’s unlikely they will have the luxury to import a good defensive CF who’s not a zero offensively.
Without a doubt, the Mets should add a good defensive center fielder in the offseason. But reality dictates this will be a reserve. They need to be ready to go with Nimmo and/or Conforto as their primary CFer and go to the defensive guy in the late innings of close games. Otherwise we’re going to see the debacle of April-May-June of last year, playing guys who can’t hit a lick at the position.
And it would be nice if they put an emphasis on signing, developing and keeping a guy to play center. They did that in the 2018 draft but then foolishly gave him away in the disastrous deal. They signed Alexander Ramirez, a CF from the Dominican Republic, for $2.1 million dollars back in July. But it will be years before he’s ready. Maybe one of the SS prospects in the system will move to CF and be ready to contribute in a couple of years.
But in 2020, it’s Nimmo/Conforto or bust (again.)