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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Numbers show the Mets are weak defensively, especially up the middle

Mets right fielder Michael Conforto (30) cannot make

Mets right fielder Michael Conforto (30) cannot make a catch on a hit by Pittsburgh Pirates Josh Bell during the second inning of a baseball game, Friday, July 26, 2019. Credit: AP/Corey Sipkin

When judging defense, there are the stats and there is what you can see with your own eyes. Consider the second inning of Friday night’s Mets game against the Pirates.

Josh Bell led off against Zack Wheeler with a liner to left-center. Michael Conforto, a corner outfielder playing center, dove for the ball and didn’t get it. Single.

Bryan Reynolds followed with a groundball single to right past a diving Robinson Cano. Bell challenged the arm of Jeff McNeil, a converted infielder playing rightfield, and slid into third just ahead of the throw.

Colin Moran then hit a one-hopper to Amed Rosario, who saw it glance off his glove. Rosario threw to second — too late to get an out — and the ball was generously scored an RBI single.

Three balls that better defensive players could have turned into outs. Three singles and a run on the record of Wheeler. The stats don’t show any errors, but that three-batter span shows why the Mets are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball and how it costs them almost every game.

Every publicly available advanced metric shows the Mets are weak defensively, especially up the middle. Cano, Rosario and catcher Wilson Ramos all rate as woefully deficient on defense. Conforto is below average in center.

The Mets would be much better off if 2014 Gold Glove winner Juan Lagares could hit well enough to claim centerfield and also justify his $9 million salary. But Lagares went into Saturday night batting .191.

The metrics show Lagares has even been a below-average centerfielder. The Mets have suffered numerous outfield injuries — the latest being first baseman turned leftfielder Dominic Smith, who was placed on the 10-day injured list on Saturday with a stress reaction in his left foot — and still Lagares can’t crack the lineup.

With Smith out, manager Mickey Callaway started J.D. Davis in left against the Pirates. Davis, an effective hitter, is well below average at his two defensive positions — third base and leftfield.

For the team, let’s start with the regular defensive stats (all stats are going into Saturday). In their first 103 games, the Mets have made 73 errors, which is the seventh-most in baseball. Their fielding percentage is .981, which is 23rd out of 30 teams.

Digging deeper, the Mets’ defensive efficiency ratio (DER), according to MLB.com, is .677, which is 27th in baseball. DER is a statistic that measures for every ball hit into the field of play, how likely is the defense to convert that into an out. For comparison’s sake, the Astros are first at .726 and the Rockies are last at .673.

Individually, the current regular Mets lineup has one plus defender: first baseman Pete Alonso, who as you may recall was not a September callup last season because the Mets said he needed to work on his defense.

Well, Alonso has, and the metric systems like what he’s done. BaseballProjection.com’s Rtot (which stands for Total Fielding Runs Above Average) rates Alonso as a plus-2, meaning he has been worth two runs on defense.

Doesn’t seem like a lot, right? But Alonso is a Gold Glover on this Mets squad. Here are the other Rtot numbers, from worst to best: Rosario (negative 15), Cano (negative 7), Ramos (negative 6), Conforto as a centerfielder (negative 4), McNeil as a rightfielder (negative 3) and Todd Frazier (negative 1).

Smith was actually rated as a plus-2 defender in leftfield, which seems generous since he had well-publicized misadventures at the position since the Mets started playing him there out of desperation after refusing to even let him take fly balls in spring training.

Davis has an Rtot of negative 4 as a leftfielder. But at least that’s better than his negative 6 as a third baseman.

In case you’re wondering, Tomas Nido, who is considered a defensive specialist at catcher, has an Rtot of zero – exactly league average.

The numbers are similar using another ratings system, Fangraphs’ UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). Again, Alonso is rated positively as 1.0. That actually went down from 1.4 on Friday after he dropped a popup for one of the Mets’ two errors in a 6-3 win over the Pirates.

The other error was on a throw made by Rosario, his 13th of the season. The metrics are not kind to Rosario, who has shown improvement of late. But since the Mets are considering moving him to centerfield, they obviously have seen the numbers, too.

Of the 11 shortstops with at least 800 innings played this season, Rosario is last in three metrics used by BaseballProspectus.com: UZR, Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) and Revised Zone Rating (RZR).

RZR is the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out. Rosario’s is .672. Paul DeJong of the Cardinals is No. 1 at .824.

Rosario’s UZR is negative 6.0. DeJong is first at 6.4. Rosario’s DEF is negative 1.7. DeJong and Oakland’s Marcus Semien are tied for first at 11.

If you’ve watched a lot of Mets game this season, you know Rosario has not yet learned to use his considerable speed to his defensive benefit. It’s one of the many things that has made the 2019 Mets as currently constructed hard to defend.

“I think we’re always striving to get better,” Callaway said. “We’re working on things that you can work on to continue to be a better defending ballclub. We’ve been diligent about that. I think you’ve seen some signs out of Rosie that that’s been happening. I think everybody can always get better, right?”

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