New York Mets infielder Brett Baty during a spring training...

New York Mets infielder Brett Baty during a spring training game against the Miami Marlins on March 1. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — At the start of spring training, the story on Brett Baty was straightforward. Nobody doubted his ability to hit. There were plenty of questions about his defense. Mets officials made clear that they would not permanently bring him to the majors, they could not entrust him with the third-base job, unless they knew they could rely on his fielding and throwing. Being a bat wasn’t good enough.

But now here he is, with less than a week of camp remaining, still in the major-league picture, suddenly making all sorts of pretty plays in exhibition games and drawing consistent public praise from manager Buck Showalter.

The Mets selecting him for the Opening Day roster is possible but uncertain. Bench coach Eric Chavez’s assessment was decisive: Baty “absolutely” is good enough defensively to play in the majors right now, he said.

“He’s a big-league third baseman,” said Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove third baseman during his 17-season playing career. “There’s not even a question in my mind. Now it’s just proving it to himself.”

Baty, 23, took a huge step toward proving it to himself last week when he had an “epiphany,” as Chavez called it, that maybe this whole third-base thing didn’t need to be as difficult as it has felt.

During a routine defensive drill one morning, Baty was off to the side, standing in foul territory, watching the proceedings. He looked to his right, home plate. He looked to his left, third base. Suddenly, the swath of grass and dirt between those spots — 90, 105, 120 feet — looked plenty big. A batted ball traveling from the plate to Baty’s place has a ways to go.

For years, Baty rushed himself on medium-speed plays, the kind that were a tad more difficult than routine but not quite the rocketed do-or-die type determined by reflexes and instinct. These were the plays on which Baty needed to improve.

He realized in that random moment inside Clover Park that he had time. He was allowed to breathe and think.

“Being able to see that from the side and just really see that distance, it clicked for me. I was able to slow everything down, just because I realized that I actually had that much distance,” said Baty, who has hit .342 with a .915 OPS in 20 Grapefruit League games. “I’ve always felt like I could get to all the balls. But then I would rush myself because I wouldn’t understand, OK, I have a little bit more time to read the ball than I’m thinking.

“The ones that are medium-speed hit right at me, I was like, oh, let me go get this or oh, let me back up. I wasn’t really seeing it. And so now I think, all right, let me see this ball before I make a decision on the way to go. And that’s really helped me out a lot.”

He is trying to behave the way all the best third basemen do: calmly. Chavez recently showed him

video of Hall of Famer Scott Rolen, another big-bodied third baseman.

“All the elite fielders know exactly how much time they have, so they’re never rushing,” Baty said. “They take their time, make a good throw and it looks like bang-bang play but they knew they had that time.”

Chavez, initially unaware of Baty’s realization, noticed the better results. He was more comfortable and sure-handed than before.

“All of a sudden, his hands got softer, his eyes got softer,” Chavez said. “I was like, whatever it is that you got, you got it. It’s there. And he’s made every play since. Obviously, he’s going to make errors. It’s going to happen. But it’s the way you go about it.

“You want to be fast and quick but you want to do it very calmly, almost like a burglar. You’re tiptoeing around, but you’re moving very fast. People watching the game go, man, he doesn’t look like he’s exerting that much energy. But you really are.”

Since reporting to Mets camp nearly two months ago, Baty has been a frequent participant in early/extra infield work, alongside fellow third baseman Mark Vientos, with infield coach Joey Cora and Chavez. They both played a ton when incumbent third baseman Eduardo Escobar was playing for Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic.

“They were probably playing more here in spring training than the workload management might allow them in wherever they’re playing this year,” Showalter said. “It’s been good for them. They’ve gotten into a good groove. Whoever gets them to start the season are going to get some guys ready to play.”

With more time to spend with infielders since he is no longer the hitting coach, Chavez has shared with Baty and Vientos his experiences, including an occasional lack of confidence early in his career. 

“[Baty] just needs to prove it to himself. That comes with games, that comes with experience and that comes with making plays. I told him and Vientos, it took me three years,” said Chavez, who won his first Gold Glove in his fourth season. “There were times where I didn’t want the ball hit to me at third — at the major-league level. So there were insecurities all the way into four years. It’s going to take time.”

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months