Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets’ Big Bet Against Fielding

When the Mets and Royals met in the World Series a few months ago, it was billed as an extreme clash of styles. The Royals were the best defensive team in baseball; the Mets were, well, not. They weren’t as bad in the field as their reputation may have suggested, but with Daniel Murphy, Wilmer Flores, and Yoenis Cespedes playing up the middle in the postseason, the Mets weren’t exactly the rangiest club around. And then, during fall classic, the Mets lived down to their reputation.

The Royals didn’t win the World Series solely because of the Mets defensive miscues — KC made a few of their own, in fact, and those were forgotten about because they won — but it’s hard not to remember the fielding lapses, and heading into the winter, the assumption was that the team would spend the off-season upgrading that weakness. Instead, however, the Mets have made an even bigger bet against the value of defense this winter.

They let Daniel Murphy leave, but instead of going for a better defender, they instead traded for Neil Walker, another bat-first second baseman whose range at second base leaves a good bit to be desired. And rather than pursue a pure shortstop to serve as an upgrade over Wilmer Flores, the team signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a two year deal, despite the fact that he ranks dead last in UZR among qualified shortstops over the last three years. It’s actually possible that the 2016 Mets middle infield will have less range than the 2015 Mets, which is kind of hard to believe.

And now, with the re-signing of Cespedes, the Mets are looking at an outfield defense that will almost certainly be quite a bit worse than the one they ran out there a year ago. With Juan Lagares getting 1,000 innings in center field and the team giving some playing time to glove-first guys like Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Darrell Ceciliani, the Mets actually ranked 5th in outfield UZR a year ago, and 4th in defensive runs saved from their OFs. The Mets outfield was the main reason why the narrative about the team’s weak fielding wasn’t entirely true.

This year, though? Don’t expect a repeat performance. Cespedes is likely going to get the bulk of the innings in center field, barring an injury to either Curtis Granderson or Michael Conforto, who will flank him on most days. Granderson is still a good enough right fielder and the metrics loved Conforto during his insanely small sample rookie year — though the scouting reports that suggested he’d be an average defender in left should still carry more weight than a fraction of a year’s worth of data — but neither of those guys are going to be covering extra ground and getting to balls that Lagares got to a year ago. Cespedes’ arm will help make up for some of his range issues in center, but it seems pretty clear that this alignment will result in the team running down fewer balls than they did a year ago.

Around the diamond, the Mets defenders rank somewhere between average and lousy relative to their positional peers; this is going to be a bad defensive team. But history has shown that, with a good enough offense and pitching staff, a lousy defense definitely can be overcome.

The worst team defense we have recorded since we have UZR and DRS? The 2005 Yankees, who ran a staggering -142 UZR, mostly thanks to their Hideki MatsuiBernie WilliamsGary Sheffield outfield; they even put Matsui in center for 220 innings, just for the heck of it. That team won 95 games and the American League East. The next worst defensive team we’ve recorded? The 2006 Yankees, who brought back most of the same unit, but improved to “only” a -75 UZR; they won 97 games and their division again. When you run best-in-baseball offenses and combine it with good enough pitching, even a terrible defense won’t sink you.

And it’s worth noting that part of the reason the Yankees defensive numbers were so terrible is that they had a contact-oriented pitching staff at a time when the league’s move towards strikeouts wasn’t yet so pronounced. Their pitching staff — the ones that featured guys like Chien-Ming Wang and Jaret Wright — struck out just 16% of the 12,397 batters they faced over the 2005-2006 seasons, leading to a lot of plays available for their defenders. For comparison, the 2015 Mets struck out 22% of the batters they faced, and that was with Jon Niese in the rotation; more innings from Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard could push that total even higher in 2016.

Even if the Mets were putting out that horrendous mid-2000s Yankee defense next year, their expected fielding numbers would be significantly improved, simply because there aren’t as many chances for bad defenders to get exposed anymore. And with the dramatic uptick in shifting, it’s certainly possible that range is not as important a component in defensive performance as it used to be, especially on the infield. That isn’t to say that Cabrera and Walker won’t be weaknesses when the team takes the field, but a high-strikeout pitching staff and aggressive shifting could mitigate the damage to some degree.

None of this is to say that defense doesn’t matter. The Yankees were the exception, not the rule; the 26 teams that have posted a -50 UZR or worse in a season since 2002 combined for a .465 winning percentage, and only four of those 26 teams won 90 or more games. And really, it was really just one team doing it four different times; the 2003 and 2004 Yankees were also terrible defensively, but they won 101 games in each of those years too. That Yankees roster is the blueprint for how you can overcome a lousy defense with great hitting and good enough pitching, but no one else has really been able to copy that model.

The Mets probably won’t either, as this line-up isn’t going to hit like the Yankees teams of a decade ago. But those teams didn’t have this rotation. From 2003-2007, those Yankee teams got a 95 FIP- from their starting pitchers; the 2015 Mets starters put up a 90 FIP-, and they could be better this year with more innings from Matz and Syndergaard.

But as good as the pitching is probably going to be, the Mets season will likely come down to how well they hit. The fielding will drag down the run prevention to a large enough degree that they can’t count on winning every game 2-1, so the offense will have to be above average, given all the sacrifices they’ve made in the field. Cespedes over Lagares is a significant offensive upgrade, but they’ve also got a decent amount of players who probably won’t hit quite as well as they did a year ago, so some of that improvement is going to be needed to just stave off the coming regression from other hitters.

If the line-up mashes and the pitchers stay healthy, this plan can definitely work. You don’t have to have a good defensive team in order to win so long as you’re strong enough at everything else. But that’s going to be the key for the Mets; knowing that they’re not going to field the ball very well, they’re going to have to score at least as many runs as they did a year ago, and probably more, given that the Nationals probably won’t implode again, and they’ll probably face a tougher division race than they had in 2015.

With Walker, Cabrera, and now Cespedes, the Mets have lined up three players who are good hitters relative to the up-the-middle types that other teams are going to put on the field, and with solid production from the corners and behind the plate, the Mets offense could very well be one of the best in the National League next year. And if it is, and the young arms stay healthy, it won’t be the end of the world that this team is lousy defensively. Rather than going for balance, the Mets have built a roster with two strengths and one big weakness; thankfully for them, their weakness is in the part of the game that matters the least.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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J Black
8 years ago

For one year, with this pitching, this deal makes the Mets a much better team then the De Aza/Lagares combo did. Citi Field will be a lot of fun this year.

8 years ago
Reply to  J Black

Really? How much better? Cespedes is projected at 2.7 fWAR this year, and that’s assuming he plays LF, where he’s quite good, not CF, where he isn’t. Lagares is projected at 1.2 and has done a 4.0 fWAR season as recently as 2014. So you’re talking about a win and a half. And Steamer also thinks the Cabrera addition was a downgrade. So tell me again how much better a team they will be?

8 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

Cespedes is projected for 4.4 fWAR by ZiPS. So, using the 2.7 WAR projection as some kind of dogma as far as what he will actually perform is a bit strange. Regardless, 2-3 wins is nothing to sneeze at.

8 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

Dude you’ve been posting this same post on several sites. Find something better to do with your time than this trolling.