Kansas City Royals catcher Freddy Fermin slides to home to...

Kansas City Royals catcher Freddy Fermin slides to home to score past Mets catcher Omar Narváez ad he waits for a throw during the sixth inning of an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Saturday, April 13, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

One of David Stearns’ top missions for this transitional Mets season is to build a team full of excellent defensive players.

In theory, that would help a pitching staff full of non-strikeout artists and protect what could be an underwhelming offense.

In spring training, owner Steve Cohen said: “When you talk to the players, they say the defense is going to be so much better. Last year we were giving four outs in an inning.”

So the Mets are hoping their defense will be extra-special. But a lack of extra-special defense is one of the reasons the Mets lost to the Royals, 11-7, on Saturday at Citi Field.

There was only one error in the boxscore, and it was an easy one for the official scorer. Starling Marte dropped a routine fly ball in the rightfield corner in the fourth inning. The three-base error led to a four-run inning for Kansas City, with two of the runs unearned, that turned a 4-4 tie into an 8-4 Mets deficit.

It was a windy day. But Marte, through an interpreter, said: “That’s an easy play to make. There could be a tornado out there.”

There were other plays that were not errors but were not made — some of them very difficult plays, some of them not. Making them would have greatly helped Mets starter Sean Manaea, who didn’t have it for the first time in three outings and who was charged with eight runs (six earned) in 3  2⁄3 innings.

“Stuff happens,” Manaea said of Marte’s blunder. “You get back out there and do your job. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that. So that’s on me.”

Is it?

More than 40 years ago, when I used to religiously read Bill James’ “Baseball Abstract” books, a line of his stuck with me: “Much of what we perceive as pitching is actually defense.”

In the 1980s, the statistics to measure that didn’t exist, so James invented them, and other sabermetric savants followed in his pioneering footsteps. Still, defensive plays made and not made often are overlooked in the final recounting of a game.

How many times do you see a great play made on defense and cheer the fielder (as you should)? Now, how many times did you think about the effect that play had on the pitcher, on his ability to stay in the game and on his final stat line?

Or, conversely, when a routine play or even a difficult play isn’t made, what effect does that have on the pitcher?

Here are a few examples from Saturday’s game:

The Royals took a 1-0 lead in the first on Nelson Velazquez’s two-out line single to left that ticked off the glove of a leaping third baseman Brett Baty.

Baty has been so good on defense this season — a real boon to the Mets — that you half-expected him to make the grab out of thin air.

Then, in the fateful fourth, after Pete Alonso whistled a tying homer to left in the previous half-inning, Marte dropped Bobby Witt Jr.’s one-out can of corn, kernels and all. Witt scored on Nick Loftin’s go-ahead single.

Salvador Perez followed with a two-run home run off the glove of a leaping Mets centerfielder Brandon Nimmo, who almost came down with a miraculous grab in left-center and was lucky he wasn’t injured on his full-out effort.

As umpires ruled after a crew chief review, Nimmo’s glove actually pushed the ball over the fence’s orange line, turning what originally was called a double into a home run.

Nimmo was in center on Saturday because manager Carlos Mendoza used Jeff McNeil in left and Joey Wendle at second against righthander Alec Marsh. That left Gold Glove centerfielder Harrison Bader on the bench.

Would Bader have made what would have been a spectacular catch? It’s impossible to say for sure, but if you’ve seen him play enough, you wouldn’t have been surprised. Bader is that good in center. It’s why Stearns signed him.

There’s more: In the sixth, Velazquez was called out trying to steal third base. Score that one an E-umpire, as Baty never came close to tagging the runner because he had to dive to keep a wide throw from Omar Narvaez from going into leftfield. After review, what would have been an out with a good throw became a stolen base.

On the next pitch, Hunter Renfore hit a two-run double to give the Royals an 11-4 lead.

Alonso, who homered twice, also made a bad throw to second on what should have been an easy caught stealing on Garrett Hampson in the third. Hampson double-deked Francisco Lindor and was able to reach second safely. But Manaea worked out of that one.

Opposing base-stealers are 24-for-24 against the Mets this season. That’s two the Mets gave away on Saturday.

Overall, including Marte’s error, the Mets gave Kansas City three four-out innings, to quote Cohen.

By our count, two plays the Mets failed to make (Marte, Narvaez) and the great plays the Mets came close to making (Baty, Nimmo) were responsible for five of Kansas City’s runs. Only two of them counted as unearned.

But those five runs sure counted where it mattered most: in the final score. One in which the Mets lost by four.

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