Mets Look Good This Year, as Long as the Defense Holds Up

Written By: Nick Wilson

The Mets will emerge from the 2020 offseason as not only the most improved club in baseball, but also as a team with a formidable offense and a deep rotation. 

   Projection systems, which use algorithms to predict outcomes, unanimously support this assessment. PECOTA, one of the most notable publicly available systems, ranks the Mets as the 3rd best team in the National League, as well as project them to win their division.

   ZiPS, another notable projection system, gives the Mets an 81.2% chance of making the playoffs in some capacity, and a 54.9% chance to win their division. The MLB ranked the team as the 5th best in the game via its Instagram page.

   Still, being a very good team does not automatically equate to being good enough to win it all. Standing in the way of hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy are some of the greatest teams ever assembled, including the Dodgers who won the World Series last year, and the Yankees who are heavily favored to win the American League this year. 

   Both teams also arguably got even better this past winter, and the same can be said for a handful of other teams who, as presently constructed, are just as good or better than the ‘Amazin’s, at least on paper. 

   Standing in the way too, are the Mets own shortcomings. They may have emerged this offseason as baseball’s biggest glow-up, but they’re not without their flaws. Most notable for this, is the team’s outfield. An area of weakness is the team’s defense which ranked poorly in 2020, and may have gotten even worse in 2021. 

   According to fangraphs, the Mets outfield ranked as the 22nd worst in baseball in 2020 when looking at UZR, an all encompassing defensive statistic that attempts to measure how well fielders cover ground. As presently constructed, the Mets outfield will feature two thirds of the same group that ranked so low in 2020, but will now add Dominic Smith into the outfield mix for 2021. 

   At least on paper, this does not bode well for the Mets. While it is entirely possible for Smith to work on his game in spring training and make some degree of improvement, he is a first baseman by trade, and a slow one at that. Baseball Savant’s “Sprint Speed” tool measures how fast players are relative to the rest of the league. In 2020, Smth ranked in just the 29th percentile, which would make him one of the slowest full time outfielders in the game. 

   Citi Field is one of the 5 largest outfields in the game, meaning that the speed of outfielders may get exposed even more than in most parks. Defense is particularly important in the outfield, because an error can hurt you more than in the infield. 

   Working in the Mets favor is their pitching staff, which features a number of pitchers who are adept (or at least better than average) at suppressing fly balls, and therefore keeping balls away from Mets outfielders. 

   Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom, and Carlos Carrasco, who are slated to share the brunt of the starting for the Mets in 2021, collectively have a 28.6% fly ball rate for their careers, nearly 10 percentage points lower than the league average fly ball rate, which was 35.7% in 2020. 

   Another fact working in the Mets favor is that many teams in recent memory have made it to, or even won the World Series, with a poor or subpar outfield defense. 

In 2019, the Nationals ranked 25th in Defensive Runs Saved, (a stat that attempts to measure how many runs a team prevented or allowed due to the quality of their defense) and just squeaked by to win the World Series. 

   Looking at outfield defense data using the stat RTOT (a stat that attempts to measure how above or below average defenders are at their position), from 2017-2019, 13 out of 30 below average defensive teams made it to the postseason. This means that teams were almost equally likely to make the postseason with a bad outfield defense, as opposed to a good outfield defense.

   Having a bad outfield defense is clearly a disadvantage, but based on the data, it’s not a deal breaker for teams hoping to play baseball in October. The Yankees, for example, won five World Series titles with Derek Jeter as their starting shortstop, arguably a below-average defender at one of the most important defensive positions. 

   The defense in the outfield should end up somewhere near the bottom of the league for the Mets in 2021, but their superb offense and starting rotation could be enough to compensate for where they fall short, and lead them to the playoffs.

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