I know, it sounds pretty ridiculous. But hang with me, and in 1100 words or so, I think I can make a pretty good argument for it.
Let’s start by looking at the 2012 outfield over again. I’ve made a simple chart* (below) that lists everyone who played outfield for the 2012 Mets. It lists, along with a brief offensive summary, each player’s fWAR (via Fangraphs) and bWAR (via Baseball-Reference). Let’s take a look:
Aggregate OPS = .705
You don’t have to know a whole lot about WAR to know that those numbers are kinda bad. According to Fangraphs, the ENTIRE New York Mets’ outfield was as valuable as Alfonso Soriano (Baseball-Reference has Soriano much more valuable than the Mets’ outfield, at 1.8 WAR). The good news in this is that, by releasing Jason Bay in November, the Mets immediately improved their outfield. The bad news, however, is that the team may be going into next season without their most valuable outfielder, journeyman Scott Hairston.
However, Hairston and Bay are each only one person. The Mets, like the other 29 teams in the majors, have to line up three (3)! outfielders every night. And if we’re looking for the unit to improve, we have to keep in mind that we’ve set ourselves some very low hurdles.
Let’s take a look at the performance of the 2012 Mets outfield. First, we’ll look at how they performed offensively (by analyzing their triple-slash line and home runs) and see how things stack up with the current outfielders. Then we’ll take a look at next year’s projections on Fangraphs and see how they compare to what happened this year.
Note: Charts only include plate appearances at specific position
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
Left Field was kind of a drain for the Mets last year. On one hand, seeing 22 home runs and 26 doubles isn’t bad, but seeing the miserable plate discipline (3.82 K:BB ratio) and a .222 batting average definitely make down for that. The good news in this, is that Lucas Duda in 2012 posted an OPS 57 points higher than the Mets aggregate left fielder in what many considered an offensively poor season for him. Because of that, any improvements by Duda at the plate, however meager, will instantly be an offensive gain. Defense is going to be an adventure, though Duda’s offensive potential could result in a net gain for the Mets.
June 14, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; New York Mets center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis (9) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. New York Mets defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 9-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The .326 composite OBP posted by the Mets’ center fielders in 2012 would rank 12th among qualified center fielders. What’s a little more disconcerting is that the .384 SLG mark ranks only 16th. The position was not one of offensive significance in any regard. Met center fielders didn’t offer much of anything to hang their hat on offensively last year – their OBP was too low for a leadoff bat, they hit for fairly little power, and did even less on the basepaths. They left plenty of room for improvement. That’s somewhat fortunate, because Terry Collins doesn’t have much in the name of proven talent at the position. It’s widely speculated that the team will be relying on a platoon of Kirk Nieuwenhuis and recently-acquired Collin Cowgill which, while anything but sexy, should be at least as effective as what the Mets got last year. Nieuwenhuis posted a .740 OPS against right-handed pitching last year, and Cowgill posted an .844 mark against lefties (both are in small sample, but not out of line with their minor league careers). Both appear to be capable of playing an adequate, if not decent center field as well.
Aug 18, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; New York Mets right fielder Mike Baxter (23) hits a triple against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Right field, in all, looked pretty decent last year. The 20 home runs, .323 OBP, and .714 OPS are all relatively middle-of-the-pack (they would rank 10th, 11th, and 14th respectively among qualified right fielders). The bad news here is that the two best offensive performers, Lucas Duda and Scott Hairston, won’t be playing there next year (assuming Hairston doesn’t re-sign). The good news is that, at the very least, right field will improve defensively with Duda’s shift.
The Mets will probably be employing another platoon in right, with the work being shared by Mike Baxter and either Andrew Brown or Brian Bixler (I’m assuming Brown). At worst, the two should combine to put up a slash line similar to what the aggregate produced in 2012. With marginally-to-significantly improved defense, that alone would be a fair improvement over last year. Should either player exceed expectations, the Mets could have above-average right field play in 2013. Given Baxter’s penchant for getting on base (.364 career AAA, .354 in the majors), and Brown’s decent power potential (he has 44 home runs in 749 AAA at bats), right field could be a position of fair value for the team next year.
Let’s make two quick assumptions that make this a little easier. First, I’m going to be an idealist and say that the five outfielders above (Duda, Nieuwenhuis, Cowgill, Baxter, and Brown) will take every at bat in the Mets outfield next year. This will almost certainly not happen, and the projections on Fangraphs will likely reflect that. Perhaps a better way of phrasing this would be “I’m only going to consider these five outfielders”, but that makes me seem too closed-minded. But I digress…
I’m going to use two separate projection models here. First will be Bill James’ 2013 projections (as given on Fangraphs. Please note that the James model doesn’t project WAR). Second will be the Fans projections (also on Fangraphs. This projection is an aggregate of multiple projections provided by the Fangraphs community).
Aggregate OPS = .781
*Brown and Cowgill do not have Fans projections, so their Bill James projections are reproduced here.
Aggregate OPS = .758
As we can see looking at these two charts, the projections estimate a more-than-modest improvement offensively. The Bill James model projects an increase in OPS of 76 points, or 10.8%. The Fans projection offers a somewhat smaller increase (53 points, or 7.7%), but both models predict similar home run production in the outfield (the Bill James model extrapolates to 71 home runs, and the Fans model to 61 over 2012’s 2301 plate appearance sample size). Of significance is that the Fangraphs community predicts that Duda, Baxter, and Nieuwenhuis will be worth 4.5 fWAR, which alone is half a win more than the outfield was worth last year. If we assume that Brown, Cowgill, and whoever else may line up in the outfield for the Mets this year (the Fans projected total of 1840 plate appearances falls about 500 short of what the outfield accumulated in 2012) can provide anything better than half a win below replacement value, it seems fair to project the outfield, with no further changes, to already be better than it was last year.