The key to being a good manager, according to Jim Leyland, is being sure to put your players in a position to succeed. One of the keys to preventing runs is doing a good job of having your pitching and defense work together. The biggest key for the Mets will be in not giving away extra runs.
The Mets’ starting position players are not known for their defense. This is less of a problem for pitchers like Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, who strike out lots of hitters, but it is an issue for pitchers who do not. Critics will often say you have to play who you have, but players are available to balance, particularly with expanded rosters, the needs of each pitcher.
In the Mets’ heyday (or heyest day) of the mid-80s, manager Davey Johnson was clever about his personnel use. Most Met fans are familiar with Howard Johnson playing shortstop, poorly, on days where Sid Fernandez pitched. The truth is that Johnson started behind all the Mets staff, but he did evolve to playing shortstop mostly behind Fernandez. As Johnson was not a strong infielder, putting him in a premium position is risky, unless there is a reduced chance of him getting balls hit to him. Likewise, if Fernandez is going to pitch, a good manager puts better outfielders on the field.
It is fun to note that Fernandez was what is known as a fly ball pitcher. He was *the* fly ball pitcher. In September of 1993, he pitched a game where there were no infield assists – it was all fly balls and strikeouts. The newspaper article mentioned it was the 11th time in MLB history. The Mets usual outfield included Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman. In this game, the Mets had a good set of defenders. When Fernandez pitched, Bonilla played third. Fortunately for Fernandez, Coleman’s season was ending when he came off the Disabled List at the end of July.
With the current starting pitchers (or at least as planned), deGrom is a strikeout pitcher, with slight ground ball tendencies. Syndergaard is a strikeout pitcher with stronger ground ball tendencies. Marcus Stroman is a severe ground ball pitcher. Steven Matz is a slight ground ball pitcher in batted ball distribution. When you have these pitchers, putting a solid infield together becomes critical. Having a strong catcher, with top framing skills becomes more valuable.
The current infield of Jeff McNeil at third, Amed Rosario at short, Robinson Cano at second base and Pete Alonso at first gives the Mets a solid fielding infield. Rosario was improving, and Cano is a veteran and they make an adequate/average double play combination.
The pitchers can have confidence the manager is putting them in a position to win.
Then the Mets run into problems. Wilson Ramos has a quite natural aging curve to his defensive stats. He came in the league decent, improved and was above average, and over his 10-year career has seen his defense decline, and he is a not a good fielder. This hurts the Mets in a couple of ways – not just stolen base runs, but also in framing runs and giving the opponents extra chances. With a strikeout staff, framing can really get the Mets out of tough innings.
What the Mets cannot afford to do is put fielders and pitchers in a position where they are not likely to be successful. J.D. Davis is not an outfielder. In limited time in left field, he struggled. Dominic Smith is not an outfielder, either. When manager Luis Rojas writes Davis in left field and Michael Conforto in right field and Brandon Nimmo in center, he is giving up runs. He is not putting the team on the field that is most likely to win, given the starting pitchers.
When Stroman pitches, you can put Davis, Nimmo and Conforto in the outfield. Even in today’s environment of launch angle, Stroman is going to allow only a handful of chances to those outfielders.
Which brings me to Sunday, July 26, 2020’s starting pitcher Rick Porcello. Porcello is the opposite of the rest of the staff. He is an extreme fly ball pitcher – like Fernandez, Lucas Giolito, and Justin Verlander. Porcello might be successful with the Mets, but if they start an outfield of Davis, Nimmo and Conforto, he will probably not be. That is a good time to put Davis at third and give Jake Marisnick a start in the outfield. Instead of a personal catcher, think of it as a personal outfielder.
The lesson is to put the defense on the field that supports your pitchers. Give the ground ball pitchers a tight double play combination. Give the fly ball pitchers good outfielders. Give the strikeout pitchers a good catcher. The roster is big enough to have those variety of players. Put those players in a position to succeed.