When the Mets set out to upgrade the middle of their infield this past winter, their priorities were clear. They sought offensive production and steady defense, a combination that for years had proved elusive.
But in shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and second baseman Neil Walker, the Mets finally may have found a fitting tandem.
“Those guys have been pretty much as advertised,” general manager Sandy Alderson said.
Under Alderson, the Mets have consistently favored offense over defense, even at critical positions in the field. Shortstop and second base have been no exception. But with Walker and Cabrera, the Mets have enjoyed offensive production while also receiving steady glovework.
That often wasn’t the case last season. Daniel Murphy’s offensive heroics came with his share of defensive miscues. And the combo of Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada at shortstop produced below-average defense.
Cabrera has a .301/.363/.397 slash line with a .760 OPS that ranks him seventh among big-league shortstops. Walker’s torrid start has him slashing .300/.325/.638 with nine homers. His .963 OPS ranks third among all second basemen.
Said one rival scout: “It comes down to if those guys swing the bat pretty good, you’re OK.”
But in the field, the two have totaled only two errors, a testament to their steadiness even though both are below average when it comes to range. “They are absolutely consistent with our evaluation, which is they’ve got great hands, and what they get to, they catch,” Alderson said. “They’re very consistent.”
Defensive metrics have historically not been favorable for either player when it comes to range, but rival talent evaluators rave about their instincts and experience.
“Neither are plus defenders because of the lack of range,” one American League scout said. “Both are solid players for what the Mets needed, especially with their strikeout pitchers.”
For manager Terry Collins, both have exceeded expectations. “I’ve seen a lot better defense than what I thought,” he said. “They are very, very good, those two guys.”
Experience counts, and third-base coach Tim Teufel said it has shown through in what he called smooth motions, a feel for anticipation and a clear sense of confidence. “They’re really covering ground and making some tough plays,” said Teufel, who works with the Mets’ infielders. “I’ve been real happy with the middle-infield play. It seems like they know each other already because the double-play turns have been good, too.”
Positioning also has played a role. The Mets do not count themselves among the teams that are most likely to employ radical shifts. But they will shade from batter-to-batter in hopes that a step gained here and there will result in more plays made.
Before every game, Teufel prepares a detailed report on every opposing hitter. It dictates where Cabrera and Walker will position themselves, but both players are given plenty of leeway when it comes to making their own adjustments, especially later in games, when they’ve had a chance to read swings.
“If I have something in my mind where I feel that I’ve got to play here and not there, I’m always going to follow my instincts,” Cabrera said. “Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes not. But I’m an instinctual player.”
That ability to adjust has become increasingly important in an age in which teams are increasingly using information to gain an edge. Or in the case of Walker and Cabrera, positioning and experience perhaps have made up somewhat for their range limitations.
“That’s my job, to know how to do other things, knowing the hitter, knowing the pitcher, understanding positioning,” Walker said. “Those types of things that I have to do well to be a successful second baseman, considering my size and the way that I move.”
Top OPS (on-base plus slugging) among MLB second basemen and shortstops:
Daniel Murphy, Wash. 1.099
Jose Altuve, Hou. 1.081
Neil Walker, Mets .963
Aledmys Diaz, St.L. 1.323
Travis Story, Colo. .955
Jean Segura, Mil. .925
Elvis Andrus, Texas .854
Carlos Correa, Hou. .800
Jordy Mercer, Pitt. .785
Asdrubal Cabrera, Mets .760
Yesterday’s games not included.