Most fans are familiar with the concept – if not necessarily when or how to apply it – of a small sample size. A sample with fewer chances shouldn’t be taken as seriously as one with a much greater pool of outcomes. Tomas Nido put up a 150 wRC+ last year, which is essentially what Mike Piazza did in 2000 yet no one is saying he should be the team’s starting catcher. That’s because Nido’s sample last year was 26 PA while Piazza’s in 2000 was 545.
While everyone seems to agree on Nido, we don’t have to look far for examples in 2020 where people are too eager to dismiss sample size. Far too many people want to lock up Michael Conforto to an extension based on 2020 results with a .412 BABIP. Far too many people want to consider Brandon Nimmo a platoon player based on 60 PA last season. Far too many people consider David Peterson a rotation lock based on a 3.44 ERA in 49.2 IP.
And this issue cuts both ways. It’s not only when a player achieves good results that we should be suspicious of the sample size. Which brings us to Jeff McNeil and his ability to play 3B. If given my druthers, McNeil would be the Mets’ starting second baseman in 2021, a position he should have been playing in 2020 and 2019, too. But Sandy Alderson isn’t reaching out to me, so the assumption is that McNeil will be playing elsewhere the majority of the time next season.
Many are repulsed with the idea of seeing McNeil on the left side of the infield ever again. In 75 innings at the hot corner in 2020, McNeil committed five errors, a rate that makes even Wilmer Flores wince. McNeil was bad – really, really bad – at third base. Typically, we consider 1,200 innings in the field to be a full season. Also, there’s a general understanding that it takes two years of defensive chances to give you the same reliability as one year of offensive numbers.
Understanding those two things about defensive samples – isn’t saying McNeil can’t play third based on what he did in 75 innings last season an even worse idea than comparing 2020 Nido to 2000 Piazza?
We know that McNeil has previous experience playing third base. In the minors, he saw 152 games at third base and logged 1,279 innings at the hot corner. We don’t have advanced fielding numbers in the minors, so we’ll use what we have. In the minors, McNeil had a .951 fielding percentage, which isn’t great but is significantly better than the .865 mark he put up in the majors at third last season. McNeil also saw time at 3B in the majors prior to 2020. Most of that came in 2019, when in 154.1 innings, he put up a .977 fielding percentage. That’s a pretty good mark.
Should a bad mark in 75 innings be more important than a good mark in a sample twice as large? Especially given that last year’s results came in the non-standard Covid campaign, with its stops and starts in the leadup to the season?
Let’s take a minute to look at the advanced defensive numbers of McNeil at third base in the majors. It’s important to note that this is a tiny sample, too. But in 245.1 innings at third, McNeil has a +5 DRS and a +2.7 UZR. That translates to a +11.1 UZR/150 – even given his spectacularly bad play at third base in 2020. Finally, Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) has McNeil at 0 for his MLB career at 3B.
For a point of comparison, J.D. Davis has played 770 innings at third base in the majors. He has a lifetime (-19) DRS, a (-3.0) UZR, a (-3.9) UZR/150 and a (-5) OAA.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the influence of Steve Cohen’s financial might will show up in areas besides the team’s expenditure on player salaries. And one way this could work would be to hire an infield coach who can work with McNeil, specifically on the mechanics of his throwing. My opinion is that McNeil’s issue isn’t that he doesn’t have the arm strength to play the hot corner but rather in how he chooses to throw the ball needs to be overhauled.
And perhaps this infield coach could help the team improve its defensive positioning, too. In a recent article, Jake Mailhot said this about the Mets’ infield:
[T]he Mets aren’t very creative when it comes to positioning their infielders. In 2019, they shifted their infield just 14.1% of the time, the third-fewest infield shifts in baseball. They were a little more shifty in 2020, increasing their rate by seven points up to 21.4%. But that still placed them in the bottom tier in baseball. That refusal to reposition their infielders could explain why their defensive efficiency on groundballs didn’t really budge from 2019 to 2020 while their individual defensive ratings improved. Their infielders were able to convert balls hit to them into outs at a higher rate, but their inefficient positioning meant there were just as many balls hit into the holes in their defense.
My opinion is that some more work by McNeil – combined with better coaching and better defensive positioning – along with a more traditional season will result in much better defensive performance from him at the hot corner in 2021. It’s a mistake to think that 75 innings at third base in 2020 defines him as a fielder and that McNeil should never be given the chance to play there again.