Will the New York Mets’ Defense Really Be That Bad? Probably not: Fun With Numbers

Author’s Note: This piece is part five in a 6-part series reviewing the Mets’ 2012 season and previewing the 2013 season. For part one, on the outfield, click here. For part two, on the rotation, click here. Part three on the Mets’ offensive strength – the infield – can be read here. Part four, detailing the [less-than] Amazin’ bullpen and their potential improvements, can be read here
 
Part 6 will wrap together the first five pieces, making adjustments or updates as necessary (to reflect trades or signings and anything learned in spring break) will likely be posted between late February and early March.

 

The New York Mets defense wasn’t exactly a positive last year. Using a metric called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR for short), we can see that the Mets ranked 26th in team defense last year, with the defense being worth approximately -25.1 runs. There were, of course, some positives (like David Wright‘s position leading +15.4 runs) and some negatives (Lucas Duda‘s -21.1). Between players getting additional experience at their position, and an entirely different outfield arrangement, is there a chance that the defense will improve in 2013? Let’s jump right in:

 

Catcher

C INNINGS UZR
Shoppach 196 0
Thole 798.1 0.8
Johnson 134.2 -1.1
Nickeas 305 -2
TOTAL -2.3

February 14, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets catcher John Buck (15) during spring training workouts at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

There are two things that faictor into the Mets’ catching corps defensively: (1) all four players who caught for the Mets in 2012 are gone, and (2) no one has to catch a knuckleball this year. Last year, catcher was more or less a wash defensively, as the collective -2.3 runs can be considered largely neutral.

John Buck doesn’t exactly come with a reputation as a defensive catcher, but is by no means a liability. His career -17.8 runs (in 948 games) would mark him as slightly worse than the Mets’ collective backstops. His defense has been improving steadily over the last several years culminating in his being worth +1.8 runs in 106 games for the Marlins in 2012. Behind him are Anthony Recker and Landon Powell, both of whom have graded positively in small samples (Recker +1.0 in 22 games, Powell +4.8 in 123). Travis d’Arnaud has yet to crack a major league roster, but scouting reports have largely pegged his defense as somewhere between “good enough” and “good”. In all, I wouldn’t be surprised if the group is positive defensively, but it likely won’t be by much.

 

First Base

1B INNINGS UZR
Rottino 40 1.2
Lutz 8 0.2
Duda 32 -0.3
Murphy 60.2 -0.5
Turner 71 -0.5
Davis 1222.1 -1.8
TOTAL -1.7

Here, it’s all about Ike Davis. Ike had a down year in 2012, being worth -1.8 runs defensively while playing a tick over 85% of the defensive innings here. Prior to last year, Davis impressed by flashing Gold Glove-caliber defense when not landing fastballs on the LaGuardia tarmac. Davis’ +10.1 rating in 2010 was tops among NL first basemen, and second overall to Oakland’s Daric Barton. 2011 seemed off to a similar start, as he was 1.9 runs above average in the 36 games he played prior to his ankle injury.

Davis has since admitted that a combination of fatigue and the after effects of his ankle injury inhibited his play last season, but that he now feels that his athleticism has returned. Look for Davis’ name to enter the Gold Glove discussion next year as his athleticism and confidence begin to soar.

Behind Davis, officially, is Justin Turner, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see either Daniel Murphy or Lucas Duda man the position when Davis is rested.

 

Second Base

2B INNINGS UZR
Valdespin 64 0.2
Quintanilla 2.2 0.2
Turner 91 0
Cedeno 148.2 -2
Murphy 1127.2 -9
TOTAL -10.6

Oct. 3, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes (7) slides into second as New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy (28) is late on the tag during the sixth inning at Marlins Park. The Mets won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

When Ike Davis established himself as the first baseman of the future, he immediately displaced former first baseman of the future Daniel Murphy. Murph, a player without a position, was offered the opportunity to play second base. The front office decided that the upside of his bat would offset his likely-poor defense. In 2010, Murphy suffered a season-ending knee injury turning a double play. In 2011, Murphy suffered a season-ending knee injury turning a double play. In 2012, Daniel was the opening day second baseman for the Mets, and at first it was ugly. He had 5 errors in the first month, and his future at the position seemed bleak. As time went on, he began to improve and by season’s end was, to the eye, a capable defensive second baseman.

Murphy looks to man second base in 2013 and will hopefully remain healthy, as his bat is one of the better ones at his position. His defense looks to improve somewhat significantly as well. I don’t expect him to have a positive value defensively, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he halved his -9 UZR rating.

The primary backup here should also be Turner, who should receive a reasonable amount of playing time should Murphy struggle at any point against left-handed pitching, and has been a more-than-capable defensive second baseman in his career.

 

Third Base

3B INNINGS UZR
Wright 1348.1 15.4
Cedeno 21 0.1
Rottino 7 0
Turner 57.2 -0.3
TOTAL 15.2

David Wright was outright robbed of a Gold Glove last season as he posted an outstanding +15.4 rating, which both blew his National League candidates out of the water (Aramis Ramirez was second at +8.2) and solidified his standing as one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball. Barring injury, I would expect Wright’s defense to improve (especially with improved play from his infield mates) and for him to man the position almost every game.

The primary backup here, again, is Turner. Barring catastrophe, I expect this to largely be a formality as no notable reason exists for Wright to play fewer than 150 games.

 

Shortstop

SS INNINGS UZR
Quintanilla 187 1.7
Tejada 964.2 1.2
Wright 6 -0.4
Turner 66.1 -0.4
Cedeno 191.1 -0.6
Valdespin 18.2 -1.8
TOTAL -0.3

Ruben Tejada played slightly above-average defense (+1.2) at shortstop in 2012, which is a major asset for someone who can also hold his own at the plate. Still only 23, Tejada’s defensive prowess exists not in his athleticism (which, to some, seems underwhelming), but in his exceptional instinct and fundamentals. As he continues to mature, his defense should continue to improve. Though he may never win a Gold Glove here, he has already shown why GM Sandy Alderson was willing to let Reyes walk after the 2011 season: an efficiency that should only improve with age, as well as solid-to-plus offense at a traditionally lacking position.

It’s still undecided who will back up Tejada in 2013, but ’12 backup Omar Quintanilla is once again in camp and should be lauded for his excellent defense (+1.7 in 187 innings).

 

Left Field

LF INNINGS UZR
Hairston 361 1.3
Rottino 26.2 0.8
Nieuwenhuis 170.2 -0.8
Lewis 9.2 -0.9
Duda 175.2 -1.7
Bay 457.1 -1.8
Baxter 99 -2.8
Valdespin 134 -3.2
TOTAL -9.1

Though it sounds outlandish, Lucas Duda’s defense in left field shouldn’t be the liability we expect. So far in his career, he’s been significantly better in left than right. UZR/150, which normalizes UZR to a theoretical 150-game sample, rates him at -17.5 in left and -40.6 in right. In 2012, it should be noted, UZR/150 rated him at -4.2 runs in left field; such a mark would be a significant improvement over the -9.1 that the Mets got in 2012.

I wouldn’t be shocked if Duda’s defense were that good in 2013, given that left-field is a less defensively-significant position. However, for the sake of objectivity, I would say that I realistically expect Duda to be worth about -10 runs over a full season. Though it represents a net decline in left-field defense, shifting Duda grants the potential for a significant improvement in the other corner.

 

Center Field

CF INNINGS UZR
Torres 904.2 3
Nieuwenhuis 372.1 0.7
Lewis 3 0
Valdespin 64.2 -0.8
Baxter 7 -0.9
Hairston 82.1 -2.7
TOTAL -0.7

March 9, 2012; Scottsdale AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics right fielder Collin Cowgill (12) throws to third to attempt to get Colorado Rockies catcher Jordan Pacheco (not pictured) out on a tagup in the eighth inning at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Oakland defeated Colorado 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Andrew B. Fielding-USA TODAY Sports

Andres Torres‘ reputation as a premier defensive center fielder didn’t exactly abandon him in 2012, but his value wasn’t quite what Sandy Alderson expected he was getting after trading Angel Pagan for Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez. After posting UZR/150 ratings of +10.5 and +17.3 in 2010-11, his value dropped to +4.5 in 2012 due to health issues and mental errors. Torres is gone now (back to San Francisco), and his replacements are Kirk Nieuwenhuis and former Athletic Collin Cowgill.

Though the samples on both Niewenhuis and Cowgill are small, scouting reports and rumors suggest that while neither may thrive defensively, they can both hold their own. It was for that reason (as well as the other two outfielders) that the Mets decided to pursue free agent Michael Bourn. Having lost out on Bourn, the Mets will have to make do with Niewengill, but they may not be as unfortunate as the picture some paint would imply. Should the pair maintain at least league-average defense, it could end up as a net improvement over last year’s squad.

 

Right Field

RF INNINGS UZR
Baxter 300.1 5
Valdespin 47 1.1
Lewis 16 -0.3
Hairston 329.1 -1
Nieuwenhuis 70.2 -1.2
Duda 670.2 -19.2
TOTAL -15.6

Though it’s not necessarily a sufficient sample, it’s worth noting that Mike Baxter’s 2012 UZR/150 of 24 in right field was the second best in the National League for all right fielders who played over 300 innings. I’m certain that the number is slightly fluky from Baxter only having 300.1 innings there, but his 68 innings in right field in 2011 also grade out similarly (slightly better if you scale by innings). Because of that, right field appears to be where the Mets will make their biggest improvement defensively in 2012. Assuming that ~10 runs roughly equates to a win, were Baxter to produce his +5 runs over the full season, it would result in a net gain of 2 defensive wins from right field alone.

 

2013 Outlook:

Below is a chart offering a position-by-position summary of 2012′s defensive ratings, as well as the three models available on Fangraphs that project defense, my own estimates, and an average projection for 2013:

2012 2013
Steamer (+/-) Oliver (+/-) Fans (+/-) Me (+/-) Avg (+/-) Proj. Starter
C -2.3 1.4 3.7 1.4 3.7 -1.0 1.3 0.0 2.3 0.5 2.8 Buck
1B -1.8 -0.3 1.5 2.1 3.9 4.0 5.8 5.0 6.8 2.7 4.5 Davis
2B -9.0 -2.9 6.1 -5.1 3.9 -3.0 6.0 -5.0 4.0 -4.0 5.0 Murphy
3B 15.4 3.2 -12.2 -3.4 -18.8 3.0 -12.4 5.0 -10.4 2.0 -13.5 Wright
SS 1.2 2.1 0.9 -3.7 -4.9 2.0 0.8 2.0 0.8 0.6 -0.6 Tejada
LF -1.8 -9.7 -7.9 -13.7 -11.9 -13.0 -11.2 -12.0 -10.2 -12.1 -10.3 Duda
CF 3.0 0.0 -3.0 7.8 4.8 1.0 -2.0 0.0 -3.0 2.2 -0.8 N/C
RF -19.2 1.9 21.1 1.0 20.2 2.0 21.2 2.0 21.2 1.7 20.9 Baxter
Infield 3.5 3.5 0.0 -8.7 -12.2 5.0 1.5 7.0 3.5 1.7 -1.8
Outfield -18.0 -7.8 10.2 -4.9 13.1 -10.0 8.0 -10.0 8.0 -8.2 9.8
Starters* -14.5 -4.3 10.2 -13.6 0.9 -5.0 9.5 -3.0 11.5 -6.5 8.0
Bench** -10.6 -2.6 8.0 0.1 10.7 -4.0 6.6 -8.0 2.6 -3.6 7.0
TOTAL -25.1 -6.9 18.2 -13.5 11.6 -9.0 16.1 -11.0 14.1 -10.1 15.0
* The values for starters includes all catchers with projections, and both Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill in CF
** For the Fangraphs projections, I included all non-starters who figure to collect non-trivial ML service time

Oct. 3, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets right fielder Lucas Duda (21) at bat against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. The Mets won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance the Steamer projections seem fairly optimistic, and the Oliver projections fairly pessimistic. We all more or less agree on the Catchers being largely neutral in 2012. Similarly on right field, which ought to be a positive with Mike Baxter assuming primary duties, and second base where Murphy’s improvement is noted, but still not enough to consider him a positive defender.

The models disagree somewhat regarding Ike Davis, an interesting case as he followed 1+ seasons of excellent defense with poor defense. As the models weigh recent years more heavily, they’re categorically going to run conservative despite the explanations for Davis’ struggles that may suggest otherwise. Similarly for David Wright, who although the trend is in the other direction (poor seasons followed by an excellent 2012), the multiple years of negative value end up influencing the projections. I tried to take these into consideration, as well as some subjective factors (improvement, injury) into mind when I made my projections. Lastly, as few bench players are projected, I made a point to run a bit more negative to account for other players who aren’t likely to play positive defense in short order.

Either way though, what we see is that they all project the defense to be between 10-15 runs better, on average. That spells a positive for a Mets team trying to turn the corner. If players like Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy, who figure to be the two biggest detractors, can have strong offensive seasons in 2013, a potential 15-run negative defense could be more than offset. Though that alone isn’t the goal, it could mark a strong step in the right direction for the Mets going forward.

 

Topics: Daniel Murphy, David Wright, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mets Outfielders, New York Mets

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