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.