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.