Analytics Corner: Mets Defense and Shifting

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Note: All stats cited in this article are current during the All-Star break.

Over the past few seasons, the Mets have earned a reputation as a below-average defensive team. Indeed, while defensive metrics are notoriously fickle, the underlying numbers back up that sentiment. For example, from 2017 to 2020, the Mets ranked 29th, 26th, 26th, and 25th respectively in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).

DRA is a measure used to objectively assess a player’s defensive skills. The formula is a bit complex, but in a nutshell, DRS rewards defensive players for turning batted balls into outs and punishes them when they can’t. The reward is greater for harder plays, adjusted to the league average for that defensive position, while the punishment is also greater when a simpler play is not made.

Perhaps in response to their ongoing defensive shortcomings as a team, the Mets have opted to start switching much more frequently in 2021. Starting in 2016, when MLB Statcast began tracking the frequency of changes, until 2020, the Mets have ranked in the bottom third of the league every season. in quarters by board appearance, including 27th in the 2020 season. In 2021, they climbed to second place in the league for their shifting, while dropping to ninth place in the DRS. It could certainly seem possible that there is a relationship between the two, although there are also other explanations for the improvement in the team’s defense, such as the addition of Francois Lindor at shortstop.

An unassailable fact of this change in defensive philosophy is that it comes from the front office. Despite a new manager in 2022, the Mets continue to change aggressively, currently ranking third in all of MLB. So far this campaign, however, the frequent changes haven’t fully compensated for some of New York’s below-average defensive players. After last year’s big leap forward, the Mets have regressed a bit defensively this season and currently rank in the middle of the pack – 14th – in DRS. A significant culprit in the step back was the Mets’ lack of defensive range. When they get to the balls, the Mets are usually average to avoid mistakes, but getting to the balls has been a problem.

There are several ways to measure a player’s defensive range, that is, the number of nearby batted balls a defensive player can play on. Generally, this will correlate with a defensive player’s speed, quickness, and athleticism, which determine how quickly they can react and cover the ground necessary to play on a ball. A popular range-based field metric that is similar to DRS is Outs Above Average (OAA). An OAA of 0 generally correlates with the average, and the Mets as a team are only 2 OAA away, ranking 18th in the league. There is of course variability within the team. In addition to Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo and Luis Guillorme also ratings well above average for the OAA as evidenced on several occasions so far this season.

Where the Mets’ biggest defensive weakness lies is in the inside corners. Pete Alonso at first base and Eduardo Escobar at third base, each is recorded at -5 OAA, despite some good plays from Escobar in a recent series against the Cubs. So moving the infield is an important tool in trying to limit the impact of multiple regulars with below-average range.

Nevertheless, there are countless situations where shifting doesn’t make sense, and therefore a lack of range can be more easily exposed. For example, last May at Citi Field, the Mets and Cardinals were tied for the lead in ninth. With the go-ahead on third and two outs, Adam Ottavino induces a weak ground ball in the third from Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill has one of the best sprint speeds in baseball, so Eduardo Escobar knew he had to hurry, especially given his limited reach. Since it took him a while to reach the ball, Escobar had to quickly line it up and throw through the diamond, but in his haste he briefly popped the ball. In doing so, O’Neill beat the first pitch, and what turned out to be the winning run went through the plate. If Escobar could have recovered the weak ground faster, he might have been able to make the play to end the inning, even with the bobble, but instead he had no room for error.

With the trade deadline approaching, third base is a potential spot for the Mets to look for an upgrade, thanks to the offensive struggles of Eduardo Escobar. His lack of defense, however, was probably more detrimental to the team. New York’s other inside option at third base, JD Davis, has a similar profile, with disappointing offensive numbers in 2022, and a very poor defensive record. So if the Mets want to improve their defense at third base, they’ll have to look outside the organization. Even if they do, the Mets should still be expected to change frequently, but improving their roster in the hot corner should make their defense more effective overall.

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