To say that the Mets during the Sandy Alderson years undervalued defense would be putting it lightly. In fact, and usually to their detriment, there were times that the team deliberately sacrificed defense to get more pop in the lineup. Anyone remember Lucas Duda in left field? Actually, throwing players into the outfield to shoehorn them into the lineup wasn’t all that uncommon under the Alderson-led Mets.
Collectively for the 2011-2018 time-frame, the core years of Alderson’s time as GM, the Mets were almost unbelievably bad from a defensive standpoint. The team was at or near the bottom of baseball in the big three defensive metrics of DRS (27th), UZR (28th), and OAA (30th). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team itself was pretty bad through almost that entire stretch save a surprise World Series run in 2015 and a 2016 Wild Card berth.
Bad defense was by no means the only reason the team was so unsuccessful during the austere years, of course, though it might be best to avoid discussing how that defense manifested in a specific play during one particularly important 2015 series. The quality of a team’s defense doesn’t necessarily predict its overall success, though. Just look at the 2022 Phillies.
Still, for a franchise that continues to find the most success when it sticks to its tradition of building through quality pitching, it makes sense to surround that pitching with the best defense possible. Unsurprisingly, the 2023 Mets are projected to earn most of their wins through elite pitching.
So what can we expect from the 2023 Mets in terms of defense? With the starting lineup effectively unchanged from last year, the answer is essentially “more of the same.” The 2022 Mets were 15th in DRS, 19th in UZR, and (interestingly) 8th in OAA. From a DRS perspective, the worst position for the team was by far third base, with Eduardo Escobar (-11) and Brett Baty (-3) doing the most damage there. From an individual player perspective, Escobar’s third base foibles were followed by Mark Canha (-5 in LF and -4 in RF) and a collection of subpar performances sprinkled throughout the outfield and infield. The 2022 team won 101 games, so it’s hard to be overly pessimistic about them fielding an overall average defense this season.
One major wildcard regarding the overall defensive performance of…well everyone in baseball is the upcoming restrictions on shifting. An important note about DRS and UZR is that they do not take shifting plays into account, which could theoretically skew the numbers we’ve been discussing in terms of team and individual performances. How much could this impact the Mets relative to other teams should there in fact be an impact at all? A lot, potentially. The 2022 Mets had the 9th highest shifting percentage in baseball last season, and it stands to reason that if there will indeed be an impact then the Mets would be one of the teams to feel it most.
The picture below is from Baseball Savant and illustrates the Mets’ fielder positioning during the 2022 season.
What likely immediately jumps out to you is the mess that is the left side of the diamond. It seems to have been a focus area for the Mets (aggressive) shifting strategy. Could this have negatively affected Escobar both in terms of his ability to play defense adequately as well as how that performance is reflected in metrics that don’t take shifts into account? Well, 2022 was by good measure Escobar’s worst defensive performance at third base per DRS, UZR, and OAA for his career. We have to take into account the real possibility of an age-related performance decline, but it seems like an interesting coincidence nonetheless. Of additional note is the fact that 2022 was the first year that Francisco Lindor had a negative DRS (-2), and he also calls the left side of the infield home.
All things being equal, it doesn’t appear that defense will make or break the Mets’ 2023 season. All bets are off in a short series where one mistake could have massive repercussions, though. Still, it will be interesting to see how some of the most popular defense metrics are affected by limits to the shift and, ultimately, the in-game impact the changes have on the field.