PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Before last year’s World Series, Mets manager Terry Collins said his biggest concern was that the Royals’ skill at putting balls in play would expose the Mets’ weaker defenders.
Sure enough, it happened — to Yoenis Cespedes in center, to Daniel Murphy at second base, to Lucas Duda at first. And if you want to nitpick the Mets, who again are one of the favorites in the National League, their up-the-middle defense is the place to start.
The Mets are better equipped to mask their defensive shortcomings over 162 games than they were in a short series against the Royals — their pitching and hitting might be even better than they were at the end of last season.
Still, defense is perhaps the biggest question with this team, even at a time when major-league hitters continue to strike out at record levels — once every 4.9 plate appearances last season, according to STATS LLC.
The record has fallen eight straight years, yet hitters still put the ball in play about eight times out of 10. And while defensive metrics often do not present a complete picture, new Mets second baseman Neil Walker ranked 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at his position last season, and new shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera ranked 30th.
Poor as those rankings are, they actually represent improvements over those of Murphy and Wilmer Flores, the Mets’ most frequently-used second baseman and shortstop in 2015 (Murphy left as a free agent for the Nationals; Flores returns as a utility player).
“We’re always looking to upgrade both offensively and defensively,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said Saturday. “But I’d say generally speaking, we have a bias toward offense. I think you see that reflected up the middle for us – (Travis) D’Arnaud, Cabrera, Walker, Cespedes.”
“I think it’s fairly apparent,” the GM continued, chuckling, “that we’ve got a bias toward offense.”
Alderson, however, said that the new double-play combination should offer more sure-handedness and consistency, that Cespedes should improve after a full spring training playing center and that D’Arnaud is an excellent pitch framer with more offensive potential than most catchers, even if he needs to improve his throwing.
No team is constructed perfectly; the goal of outscoring opponents can be accomplished in any number of ways. The Mets’ pitching staff should again rank in the top five in the NL in strikeout rate, if not at the top. And the offense, with the return of Cespedes, is essentially the same as it was in the final two months of last season, when the Mets led the NL in runs.
Yes, right fielder Curtis Granderson could regress, but the Mets also could benefit if D’Arnaud and third baseman David Wright are healthier and if left fielder Michael Conforto builds on his strong rookie showing. Hitting coach Kevin Long said that D’Arnaud could hit 25 home runs if he plays 120 games and that Duda could hit 35 if he continues progressing.
Improved depth also should help the Mets. Cabrera made every play at short for the Rays in the first half of last season, but team officials say he was less reliable in the second. Alderson said the Mets are aware that Cabrera might have worn down, but they can spell him with Ruben Tejada or even Flores on occasion. Flores also offers insurance against injury to Wright, and Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza are more than capable as backups in the outfield, though De Aza could be traded before Opening Day.
Dave Cameron, in a recent Fangraphs article entitled, “Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets’ Big Bet Against Fielding” cited the 2005 and ’06 Yankees as the two worst defensive teams since the inception of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, but noted that both of those teams won division titles, in part because they also had powerhouse offenses.
As Cameron said, the Mets might not be as strong offensively as those Yankees teams were, but their pitching might be better. Besides, some in the game believe that in the information age, the value of strong defenders actually is diminishing.
Analytics helps teams determine how to shift. Advance scouting helps them determine pitch selection. The Astros, lacking a pitching star outside of Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, led the AL in ERA last season despite playing in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park.
One rival executive this offseason even questioned the Angels’ acquisition of all-world defensive shortstop Andrelton Simmons, saying, “There are so many ways to keep runs off the board. In the information age, most of the advantage is to pitchers.”
Mets assistant GM John Ricco disagreed with that premise, saying that in an ideal world, a team would place above-average defenders all over the diamond.
Alderson, too, still values such fielders.
“Range is always going to be range,” Alderson said. “If you start from Square A and your range is plus-plus, and then you start from Square C, it’s still plus-plus. It’s hard to diminish the value of range regardless of where a player has started.”
Teams use positioning to overcome lack of range, and Mets third base coach Tim Teufel does terrific work in that regard, Collins said. The Mets’ pitchers had the second-lowest walk rate in the NL last season, helping keep runners off base. Alderson would like to see the staff lower its home-run rate, which ranked seventh.
Again, it’s not a perfect equation. But the Mets are built to overcome their fielding deficiencies, at least in the regular season. The playoffs could be different, but remember, the Mets beat the Dodgers and Cubs to reach the World Series last season. Only against the Royals, the contact-crazed Royals, did their defense finally crumble.