How the Mets can mitigate their defensive issues

Since the 2019 season ended, there have a plethora of articles written about the Mets’ (reportedly) terrible defense, and their lack of personnel moves to address them.

Good news – these reports are overstated.  Do the Mets have holes in their defense?  Yes.  Are they insurmountable? No. The Mets have three positions where defense is an issue.  No, it isn’t “infield, outfield, and catcher.”  Sort of.

On the infield, the Mets have defensive issues at first base.  Of course, that’s basically “too bad” because Pete Alonso is going to play first base and he is going to mash home runs.  Other good news about Alonso is that he is young, and seemingly nimble enough to improve.  He wasn’t even terrible – he was just notably below average.  This is not a position where the Mets can improve on the open market. Alonso is good for 5-6 WAR, and if he improves his defense, a little more.

The rest of the infield is tolerable.  Robinson Cano is something of a concern, and age is a good predictor of declining defense.  He was injured, so perhaps his weakness last year was attributable to that.  He has, over the last decade, muddled around average, and will probably muddle around average, although slightly below in 2020.  But the runs there are going to be small. Whether or not he can turn the double play will be the biggest issue for him.  Last year, second base was an issue defensively because the fill-ins not named Jeff McNeil played poorly.

McNeil is a solid infielder.  He isn’t a good outfielder. When articles cite the Mets defensive struggles, they overlook the out-of-position players the Mets were cobbling together.  McNeil was above average at second base, and about average at third base, which in a league with Nolan Arenado is no small feat.  McNeil playing in left field is something the Mets must avoid.

It has been widely reported Amed Rosario struggled in the first six weeks, accumulating all of his lower scores, and leveling off the last four months of the season. Historical data often shows young players having a learning curve, rather than stepping in and being at the top of their game. Balls are hit harder, the runners are faster, and there is more pressure in general.  Rosario’s summer reliably indicates he’ll be average or better for 2020, washing out the concerns of defense at shortstop.

The infield will be about average, a little below at first base, a little above at third, and settling in as a perfectly cromulent defensive squad.

In the outfield, Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo are average fielders. Nimmo is around average in center field at chasing flies, and Conforto is a little above in right field.  Both are likely to perform better with some stability in their positions, rather than flipflopping every day.  Nimmo’s arm is certainly below average, but a late game replacement can generally reduce the damage done.  Conforto must stay on the field.

Is there a problem in the outfield? Yes, and it is left field.  The Mets ran nine different left fielders out there, and nine different right fielders, with three or four infielders taking turns in those rotations.  That’s a management issue; not a “Mets can’t play defense” issue, and there are new sheriffs in town.  Carlos Beltran would almost certainly have improved the outfield defense as manager – he could probably still play it better than who the Mets sent out there.  Luis Rojas believes in putting players in a position where they will succeed.  That should mean better and more stable defense in the outfield.

However, Rojas cannot put someone in left field who isn’t on his roster.  The current plan, barring a Festivus, sorry, Cespedes Miracle, is to play J.D. Davis in left field.  Succinctly, that is a terrible plan.  Davis was well below average in left field, in a count stat, in a *third* of a season.  Five hundred innings, and Davis was already at the bottom of the list.  Putting Davis in left every day, his bat notwithstanding, is a bad idea.  As any young player might, Davis surely will work diligently to improve, but he is not built for the role. The Mets need to put an outfielder in left field.  On the open market, Yasiel Puig is still looking for work.  He would be 10-20 runs better than Davis in the outfield.  This isn’t so much a plea for Puig specifically, but rather an outfielder that can hit average-ish.  No offense to Jake Marisnick – he’s a defensive substitute.  Davis is a liability, and a significant one, but there are easy remedies.

The last position defense is an issue is catcher.  And it is.  Big time.  Unfortunately, unless the Mets come up with a trade package, this wasn’t going to be easy to solve.  There were 28 free agent catchers this offseason. John Ryan Murphy was the only one under 29.  That’s an old crowd. On the one hand, of course it is – catchers probably accumulate service time later and slower, so they achieve free agency later than many players.  That means Wilson Ramos has got to improve. Jacob deGrom did win his second Cy Young Award, so perhaps the catcher defensive assessments are missing something, but it doesn’t seem likely that so many metrics would regard his defense so poorly if that were the case.  Sometimes, teams must overcome a gap in their performance.

The Mets could be better.  McNeil could be the everyday second baseman and add 10 runs or more to the defensive ledger and allow the Mets to shift Davis to third base, where he is “only” slightly below average, but in the average neighborhood.  Stability for both would also likely improve their performances slightly.  Putting any experienced outfielder in left or center (keeping Conforto in right, but moving Nimmo to accommodate) that can put up offensive numbers similar to Cano, as Puig would, could mean an instant 20-30 defensive runs above the current projected lineup.  That would wash out the catcher concerns, reduce starting pitcher workload, and in today’s competitive environment, two or three extra wins is the difference between the playoffs and sitting at home.

Imagine, signing Puig, or if Cespedes can play by the time the season starts, for a few seasons and putting players in the right positions, stabilizes this team’s defense and puts them on a better path to victory.

Problem solved.

13 comments for “How the Mets can mitigate their defensive issues

  1. Joe Vasile
    March 23, 2020 at 10:25 am

    I’m certainly no apologist for J.D. Davis, and I do love Yasiel Puig, but I think you are way off base that inserting Puig and shifting things around would improve the Mets by 20-30 runs. That implies that just with this one defensive move that the team is going to be improved by 2-3 wins this year? What are you using to base this off of?

    From poking around on a few stat websites it looks like this comes from UZR/150, which is notoriously fickle in one season samples, and even more so when it comes to a sample size as small as 585.1 innings in LF like Davis had in 2019. For evidence of this, you just have to look at Puig’s UZR/150 marks in the last five seasons in RF: 6.7, -0.6, 14.3, -6.0, -1.2. Statcast’s Outs Above Average has Puig at -1, -5, 0 in the last three years.

    Also what you don’t take into account is the possibility that Davis might actually improve in LF in 2020. Between any work he put in during the offseason to improve his outfield defense, increased comfort at the position, and coaching, there’s certainly no reason to assume that he is going to be a -15 in left field this year. It’s not a bad thought to entertain, but I don’t see it paying as big dividends.

    Editor’s Note – Please do not capitalize words in your post, as that is a violation of our Comment Policy.

    • Chris Dial
      March 23, 2020 at 10:55 am

      It’s a pretty straightforward look at it.
      Current alignment: LF Davis -15 (improvement from -20 from 2019 full season), 2B Cano -5, 3B McNeil 0
      Alternative: LF Puig 0, 2B McNeil +5, 3B Davis -5

      That’s 20 runs better, and it credits Davis with some improvement, although I don’t see any reason to expect that. He’s HoJo/Keith Miller/Juan Samuel. He’s an infielder. Davis could easily be -25 in LF as well. Absence of any evidence of Davis’ improvement, the most likely outcome is his past performance.

      No, I don’t use UZR. I glance at it, but DRS and RED (two metrics used for SABR SDI – RED is based on STATS Zone Rating) and Statcast’s OAA are where I assess defense from. Note Statcast’s OAA equates to about 0.8 runs per OAA, which puts Puig at -1, -4, 0 in runs. That’s “around” average.

  2. David Klein
    March 23, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    Puig is no longer a good defender and is just a league average hitter it’s not 2013 anymore

    • Chris Dial
      March 23, 2020 at 12:03 pm

      Agreed. Both of those things are what I claim in the article.

  3. March 23, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    Again we come back to how terrible the Cano trade was.

    However much sense it makes to bench Cano, it’s not happening as long as BVW is calling the shots.

    I find it curious that you think Beltran would have been allowed to make personnel changes. My opinion is those type of decisions come from above and it’s the manager’s job to sell them to the players and the press.

    The delayed start to the season gives Cespedes more time to recover. It will be fascinating how BVW handles his former client in a battle for playing time with Davis, his most successful acquisition to date.

    • Chris Dial
      March 23, 2020 at 1:15 pm

      the Cano trade has gotten worse, but theoretically, he could have lifted the Mets to the playoffs last year.

      WRT Beltran, I think many areas his role would be to execute, but I also think that BVW et al would listen if Beltran said “I’ve worked with him; he can’t play the OF.”

      It’s pretty clear Cepedes in the OF and Cano on the bench creates more value for the Mets.

      • Remember1969
        March 23, 2020 at 3:10 pm

        It’s pretty clear to me that the Cespedes of 2015 in the outfield would create more value, but with nothing other than the media to go on, my suspicion is that the Cespedes of 2020 in left field will yield worse results than the JD Davis of 2020.
        The man is 34 years old, hasn’t played (or really even run) at all in well over a year and a half, or regularly in nearly 3.5 years (since 2016). I just don’t see how after two heel surgeries and a broken ankle, you can put him out there and expect the gold glove caliber defense. My personal opinion is that his defense will either keep him on the bench/DH roles or get him traded to an AL team if he can come back and show any bat at all.

        • Chris Dial
          March 23, 2020 at 5:20 pm

          I think it is fair to think Cespedes’ days in the OF are nimbered, and he may not be able to do it competently (as Davis cannot). Please note I am not suggesting Cespedes plays Gold Glove defense. Just “about” average. I’m more confident Puig can.

  4. Metsense
    March 23, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    In theory, you present a plausible solution on paper .
    I agree that McNeil is a better 2B than Cano. Cano can still hit RHP and BVW would not sit Cano on the bench. Cano should get a reduced role and sit vs LHP and McNeil play 2B and JD play 3B and Cespedes play LF..
    When Cano plays, then McNeil play 3B and JD/ Cespedes shares LF. McNeil is a better defensive 3B than JD. Marisnick should be the late inning defensive replacement in CF forcing Nimmo to LF replacing JD/Cespedes. I would rather have McNeil settle into 3B than to him start in LF and move to 3B in the same game.
    The Mets have a good clubhouse and Puig has a bad reputation so the Mets should avoid signing him.

  5. March 23, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    Think I read somewhere that Cespedes and Puig played on some Cuban National Team together. If they did, Cespedes was probably the star. Have you heard this and do you have any insight into the relationship between the two?

  6. TexasGusCC
    March 24, 2020 at 1:51 am

    https://wfan.radio.com/media/audio-channel/mike-francesa-alex-rodriguez-4

    The above is a interview that I have referenced several times where ARod as Cano’s best friend says he can be a gold glove third baseman. He claims that he has a bazooka for an arm.

    I still think that Cano at 3B is a plus in two ways: puts McNeil at 2B and keeps Cano in a position where range isn’t a necessity, but a strong arm is. I see Cano and see Adrian Beltre his last two years and that’s serviceable (maybe the Mariners can think they misused him and give back Kelenic, Dunn and Bautista for him). Cano will hit in the 6 or 7 spot and Davis can play in different positions if Cespedes can get ready, including first base if Smith can get moved. This solves two infield spots.

    • Chris Dial
      March 24, 2020 at 1:44 pm

      That’s certainly an approach. I’d rather have the younger bats than 37 yo Cano.

      • TexasGusCC
        March 25, 2020 at 1:44 am

        Amen.

        No way another owner lets his GM make that trade. Jeffrey had to hire his golf buddy… That’s why you can’t have friends in business Jeff.

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