Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets’ Big Bet Against Fielding

When the Mets and Royals met in the World Series a few months ago, it was billed as an extreme clash of styles. The Royals were the best defensive team in baseball; the Mets were, well, not. They weren’t as bad in the field as their reputation may have suggested, but with Daniel Murphy, Wilmer Flores, and Yoenis Cespedes playing up the middle in the postseason, the Mets weren’t exactly the rangiest club around. And then, during fall classic, the Mets lived down to their reputation.

The Royals didn’t win the World Series solely because of the Mets defensive miscues — KC made a few of their own, in fact, and those were forgotten about because they won — but it’s hard not to remember the fielding lapses, and heading into the winter, the assumption was that the team would spend the off-season upgrading that weakness. Instead, however, the Mets have made an even bigger bet against the value of defense this winter.

They let Daniel Murphy leave, but instead of going for a better defender, they instead traded for Neil Walker, another bat-first second baseman whose range at second base leaves a good bit to be desired. And rather than pursue a pure shortstop to serve as an upgrade over Wilmer Flores, the team signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a two year deal, despite the fact that he ranks dead last in UZR among qualified shortstops over the last three years. It’s actually possible that the 2016 Mets middle infield will have less range than the 2015 Mets, which is kind of hard to believe.

And now, with the re-signing of Cespedes, the Mets are looking at an outfield defense that will almost certainly be quite a bit worse than the one they ran out there a year ago. With Juan Lagares getting 1,000 innings in center field and the team giving some playing time to glove-first guys like Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Darrell Ceciliani, the Mets actually ranked 5th in outfield UZR a year ago, and 4th in defensive runs saved from their OFs. The Mets outfield was the main reason why the narrative about the team’s weak fielding wasn’t entirely true.

This year, though? Don’t expect a repeat performance. Cespedes is likely going to get the bulk of the innings in center field, barring an injury to either Curtis Granderson or Michael Conforto, who will flank him on most days. Granderson is still a good enough right fielder and the metrics loved Conforto during his insanely small sample rookie year — though the scouting reports that suggested he’d be an average defender in left should still carry more weight than a fraction of a year’s worth of data — but neither of those guys are going to be covering extra ground and getting to balls that Lagares got to a year ago. Cespedes’ arm will help make up for some of his range issues in center, but it seems pretty clear that this alignment will result in the team running down fewer balls than they did a year ago.

Around the diamond, the Mets defenders rank somewhere between average and lousy relative to their positional peers; this is going to be a bad defensive team. But history has shown that, with a good enough offense and pitching staff, a lousy defense definitely can be overcome.

The worst team defense we have recorded since we have UZR and DRS? The 2005 Yankees, who ran a staggering -142 UZR, mostly thanks to their Hideki MatsuiBernie WilliamsGary Sheffield outfield; they even put Matsui in center for 220 innings, just for the heck of it. That team won 95 games and the American League East. The next worst defensive team we’ve recorded? The 2006 Yankees, who brought back most of the same unit, but improved to “only” a -75 UZR; they won 97 games and their division again. When you run best-in-baseball offenses and combine it with good enough pitching, even a terrible defense won’t sink you.

And it’s worth noting that part of the reason the Yankees defensive numbers were so terrible is that they had a contact-oriented pitching staff at a time when the league’s move towards strikeouts wasn’t yet so pronounced. Their pitching staff — the ones that featured guys like Chien-Ming Wang and Jaret Wright — struck out just 16% of the 12,397 batters they faced over the 2005-2006 seasons, leading to a lot of plays available for their defenders. For comparison, the 2015 Mets struck out 22% of the batters they faced, and that was with Jon Niese in the rotation; more innings from Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard could push that total even higher in 2016.

Even if the Mets were putting out that horrendous mid-2000s Yankee defense next year, their expected fielding numbers would be significantly improved, simply because there aren’t as many chances for bad defenders to get exposed anymore. And with the dramatic uptick in shifting, it’s certainly possible that range is not as important a component in defensive performance as it used to be, especially on the infield. That isn’t to say that Cabrera and Walker won’t be weaknesses when the team takes the field, but a high-strikeout pitching staff and aggressive shifting could mitigate the damage to some degree.

None of this is to say that defense doesn’t matter. The Yankees were the exception, not the rule; the 26 teams that have posted a -50 UZR or worse in a season since 2002 combined for a .465 winning percentage, and only four of those 26 teams won 90 or more games. And really, it was really just one team doing it four different times; the 2003 and 2004 Yankees were also terrible defensively, but they won 101 games in each of those years too. That Yankees roster is the blueprint for how you can overcome a lousy defense with great hitting and good enough pitching, but no one else has really been able to copy that model.

The Mets probably won’t either, as this line-up isn’t going to hit like the Yankees teams of a decade ago. But those teams didn’t have this rotation. From 2003-2007, those Yankee teams got a 95 FIP- from their starting pitchers; the 2015 Mets starters put up a 90 FIP-, and they could be better this year with more innings from Matz and Syndergaard.

But as good as the pitching is probably going to be, the Mets season will likely come down to how well they hit. The fielding will drag down the run prevention to a large enough degree that they can’t count on winning every game 2-1, so the offense will have to be above average, given all the sacrifices they’ve made in the field. Cespedes over Lagares is a significant offensive upgrade, but they’ve also got a decent amount of players who probably won’t hit quite as well as they did a year ago, so some of that improvement is going to be needed to just stave off the coming regression from other hitters.

If the line-up mashes and the pitchers stay healthy, this plan can definitely work. You don’t have to have a good defensive team in order to win so long as you’re strong enough at everything else. But that’s going to be the key for the Mets; knowing that they’re not going to field the ball very well, they’re going to have to score at least as many runs as they did a year ago, and probably more, given that the Nationals probably won’t implode again, and they’ll probably face a tougher division race than they had in 2015.

With Walker, Cabrera, and now Cespedes, the Mets have lined up three players who are good hitters relative to the up-the-middle types that other teams are going to put on the field, and with solid production from the corners and behind the plate, the Mets offense could very well be one of the best in the National League next year. And if it is, and the young arms stay healthy, it won’t be the end of the world that this team is lousy defensively. Rather than going for balance, the Mets have built a roster with two strengths and one big weakness; thankfully for them, their weakness is in the part of the game that matters the least.



Print This Post



Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
J Black
Member
J Black
4 months 4 days ago

For one year, with this pitching, this deal makes the Mets a much better team then the De Aza/Lagares combo did. Citi Field will be a lot of fun this year.

Seamaholic
Member
Seamaholic
4 months 3 days ago

Really? How much better? Cespedes is projected at 2.7 fWAR this year, and that’s assuming he plays LF, where he’s quite good, not CF, where he isn’t. Lagares is projected at 1.2 and has done a 4.0 fWAR season as recently as 2014. So you’re talking about a win and a half. And Steamer also thinks the Cabrera addition was a downgrade. So tell me again how much better a team they will be?

isavage
Member
isavage
4 months 3 days ago

Cespedes is projected for 4.4 fWAR by ZiPS. So, using the 2.7 WAR projection as some kind of dogma as far as what he will actually perform is a bit strange. Regardless, 2-3 wins is nothing to sneeze at.

hookworm86
Member
hookworm86
4 months 3 days ago

Dude you’ve been posting this same post on several sites. Find something better to do with your time than this trolling.

boogshine
Member
boogshine
4 months 4 days ago

The “scouting reports” on Conforto are BS. It was well-covered that the eyeball scouting done on Conforto was during the first month or two he had moved from SHORTSTOP to left field. He has since learned the position and continued to show a real instinct for the ball. The Mets announcers were really amazed at his fielding until they unearthed that info. Walker is better in the field than Murphy. This feels like a data free hater article out of Washington. Why did the Nationals implode? Had nothing to do with getting swept by the Mets in two pivotal series, right? Jeez.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 4 days ago

I’ll also add that while Walker and Murphy are somewhat similar defenders by UZR, DRS paints a completely different picture.

Murphy career DRS: -42 (4343 innings)
Walker career DRS: -10 (6890 innings)

Definitely agree regarding Murphy vs Walker; Walker isn’t Andrelton Simmons, but Murph and Walker aren’t in the same stratosphere defensively

Twitchy
Member
Twitchy
4 months 3 days ago

Would that have anything to do with the fact the Pirates shift a lot, so UZR tracks Walker when he’s not shifted, but DRS does?

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

No, I don’t think DRS includes shifts.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

I think it’s just that there’s a ton of variance in these types of metrics. The best thing to do is average them.

Jon C
Member
Jon C
4 months 2 days ago

Noah, the projections are wrong. He’s a 4 win player minimum.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
4 months 3 days ago

Brian Cartwright’s defensive analysis suggests that Walker’s range is limited but that he is extremely good on getting outs when he does field the ball. The eye test agrees.

UZR seems like it has been particularly low on the Pirates’ infield, and the Pirates don’t in fact give up as many runners as UZR would predict. But this might also mean that Walker thrived (throve?) particularly well in the Pirates’ system; there might be some worry as to whether that will transfer over.

Should be better than Murphy in any case.

FrustratedHypocrite
Member
FrustratedHypocrite
4 months 3 days ago

Pirates fan here. Fwiw, and because defensive metrics are some of the least reliable metrics we have, Walker’s defensive range is abysmal. He has good hands and turns double plays well but, if it’s not hit right at him, it’s leaking in to the outfield.

I’d also mention that he’s a platoon player offensively. His 110 wRC+ against LHP in 2014 is a blatant career outlier (as was his entire year that year) and he’s hovered around 50-70 wRC+ against lefties otherwise (58 in 2015).

There’s some off the field stuff he’s done that’s made him less likable, imo, too. I, for one, am glad the Pittsburgh Kid no longer plays in Pittsburgh.

Richie
Member
Richie
4 months 3 days ago

Thank you for the local info. :-)

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

You sound like a FrustratedPiratesFan

wobatus
Member
wobatus
4 months 3 days ago

So a little bit of an upgrade fielding over Murph, and whatever off the field stuff probably doesn’t matter. Same with Murphy’s off the field stuff. I frankly prefer Murph, but 1 year versus 3 year deal? No question.

evo34
Member
evo34
4 months 3 days ago

What on earth on you talking about? Conforto was a leftfielder at Oregon State and at every stop of his minor league career:

http://www.osubeavers.com/ViewArticle.dbml?ATCLID=207913449
http://www.thebaseballcube.com/players/profile.asp?P=michael-conforto

vonstott
Member
vonstott
4 months 3 days ago

Conforto at SS, huh? When, high school? Jesus – this might be the most misguided post I’ve seen on here. Congrats!

vivalajeter
Member
vivalajeter
4 months 3 days ago

Are you thinking of Lagares? I think he was a SS in the lower minors, and people were surprised when he was an elite defensive CF when he was called up.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 4 days ago

I don’t think the defense will be that bad. Probably below average, but I don’t even see them as a bottom 5 defense. Let’s go position by position:

C: d’Arnaud should be slightly below average based on DRS, but is also an excellent framer. Catching defense is hard to quantify. We’ll conservatively go with 0, but if we fully included framing it would be much higher.

1B: Duda has been an average defender by UZR and a +5 defender by DRS. Split the difference, +2 defender.

2B: Walker has been a -6 UZR/150 defender at 2B, but DRS is much more optimistic, at approximately -2 DRS/150. -4 defender.

SS: Cabrera’s a -10.5 UZR/150 defender, but DRS likes him more, at about -5.5 DRS/150. -8 defender.

3B: Wright’s been roughly average for his career, but was excellent in 12-14 and terrible in small ’15 sample. We’ll go with 0.

RF: Granderson is at 1 UZR/150 and +6 DRS/150. Plus defender: +3.5

CF: Cespedes’ metrics are pretty terrible, but only 900 innings of data. The fact that he has a negative arm rating in CF (yet is at +27.3 in LF) is a bit suspicious. Metrics have him at -20 per 150 in CF; we’ll regress to -10

LF: Conforto was a +30 defender per 150 games in 400 innings last year, obviously unsustainable. Still, minor league FRAA data at Baseball Prospectus shows that he was worth +7 runs in A+ and -0.1 runs in AA, coming out at roughly +15 for the year. We’ll regress to +7.5.

That brings the total defense to -9 runs. And that’s not even accounting for Lagares playing against lefties.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU
4 months 4 days ago

With all the injuries, I don’t think you can expect Wright’s defense to be close to what it has been. You might also have either Flores or Cabrera at 3B instead, which changes things (probably for the better).

Cashman
Member
Cashman
4 months 3 days ago

Never mind improved defense for Cespedes. You better hope he hits better at CITI Field or it could be a long season for Mets fans. A .224 BA, .290 OBP, and .769 OPS is what Cespedes did at CITI Field. That would not instill confidence in me. Maybe the Mets should copy the Marlins and move the fences in considerably. However, that would show the true potential of their pitchers, especially Syndergard.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

You’re going to look at home/road splits for a two month rental? Please.

I’d be more than happy with that production at Citi Field if he hits .333/.367/.697 on the road.

Seamaholic
Member
Seamaholic
4 months 3 days ago

He’ll do neither. He’ll probably do what he usually does, which is a good-not-great 120 wRC+ with slightly negative defense, for a little less than 3 fWAR (at least that’s what Steamer says), and some attitude thrown in for fun. So the Mets are paying about $9m per WAR.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

Oh, I wasn’t saying he’d put up those numbers, I was just pointing out the ridiculousness of the poster’s argument.

I think he’ll be in the 3-4 WAR range. It might not be the biggest $/WAR bargain, but the wins are so important on the marginal win curve (especially with the Nationals being his other bidder) that it was a smart signing.

Plus they get a qualifying offer when he opts out, which is worth roughly $5-10 M or so.

hookworm86
Member
hookworm86
4 months 3 days ago

Seamaholic, $9 millions per WAR is not the extreme overpay you’re making it out to be. And none of his Mets teammates had any issues with this “attitude” of his.

dte421
Member
dte421
4 months 2 days ago

Did you see the way Wright was forced to throw the ball after coming back from his back injury this year? If he’s going to have to go through that next year, you can very much throw that 12-14 sample out the window.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 4 days ago

I think the main reason the projections hate the Mets defense is that UZR is way less bullish than DRS on a lot of Mets players.

Duda, Walker, Cabrera, and Granderson are all viewed as much better defenders using DRS.

spels999
Member
spels999
4 months 3 days ago

They will be able to mitigate some of the defensive short comings with Lageras talking over in the Late innings as well as Tejada talking over for Cabrera and Flores talking over for Walker. And the OF is actually a positive against LHs where Lageras plays CF and Cespedes plays a corner (where he ranks as well as anyone not named Heyward).

It is a concern, but as the post said, high K pitchers and the boost to the offense is significant. Not an easy out in that lineup.

gbaked
Member
4 months 3 days ago

Ces was also thrown into cf after not playing it much at all. A full spring training and season there may help him cut down on mental errors.

baycommuter
Member
baycommuter
4 months 3 days ago

Cespedes was a CF in Cuba and told the A’s he wanted to play there, so they shifted Coco Crisp to left. After a month, they saw Cespedes wasn’t a CF and switched them back again, and now he’s four years older.

Richie
Member
Richie
4 months 3 days ago

Thank you for the Oakland info, bay. This is the stuff that makes this comment section helpful. Well, that and when I mouth off.

Blastings! Thrilledge
Member
Member
4 months 3 days ago

The Mets should sit Granderson, and/or sometimes Conforto, vs LHP and play Lagares in center on those days. That would mitigate the bad defense a lot. Hopefully that’s the plan.

Cashman
Member
Cashman
4 months 3 days ago

Cespedes’ batting Average against lhp is .224 and De Aza’s is .159. I would sit those guys before Granderson and De Aza.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

de Aza won’t be playing against lefties, first of all. And that’s a ridiculously small sample size.

For his career, Cespedes has a 116 wRC+ vs lefties, pretty similar to his 123 wRC+ vs righties. Not to mention Lagares should play against lefties, who he has a 116 wRC+ against as well.

I hear that David Wright guy is good against lefties too (he’s actually one of the best hitters against lefties of all time).

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

I think this will probably be the plan.

Also I imagine de Aza will (occasionally) play center field against righties to give Cespedes a day off.

Seamaholic
Member
Seamaholic
4 months 3 days ago

Granderson’s the best position player they have (or was in 2015, and it wasn’t close). He ain’t sitting.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

Check out his numbers vs lefties though. They sat him last year against lefties after they acquired Cespedes (and Cuddyer got healthy), btw.

OrthoStice
Member
OrthoStice
4 months 3 days ago

Well, the Mets will also be replacing 750 innings of statue-esque Michael Cuddyer defense in LF with a blend of Conforto and Cespedes, so they did at least improve a little there. The Mets’ defense will not be great, and will probably be below average, but overall the team has one other big strength that nobody here has really mentioned: depth.

The Mets’ bench will probably look something like this: Kevin Plawecki, Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada, Juan Lagares, Alejandro De Aza. Dilson Herrera will presumably start the season at AAA and will be the first callup if one of the middle infielders gets hurt or is traded. That is a deep and versatile bench, as just about all of those guys are fringe starters. That is exactly what you want out of a bench player– a guy who will not represent a massive dropoff if you have to put him in the starting lineup for a while.

Gfuzz
Member
Gfuzz
4 months 3 days ago

Exactly. Their ability to play matchups will be strong. And they’ll weather the inevitable injuries very well. In this respect, what a difference a year makes.

Cashman
Member
Cashman
4 months 3 days ago

Mets will be screwed against left handed pitching.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

Are you a Nats fan? I can’t help but wonder at this point

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

Either way, I think David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud, Yoenis Cespedes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Juan Lagares, and Wilmer Flores think otherwise about the whole “Mets are screwed against lefties” thing.

cornflake5000
Member
cornflake5000
4 months 2 days ago

Could also be a Cubs fan… looks like the Cubs and Mets could be rivals for the next few years.

OrthoStice
Member
OrthoStice
4 months 2 days ago

wRC+ vs LHP, 2015

Juan Lagares 116
Wilmer Flores 162
David Wright 187
Travis d’Arnaud 207
Lucas Duda 144

I think they’ll be a’ight

OrthoStice
Member
OrthoStice
4 months 2 days ago

Also, against LHP they will probably often use the lineup with Lagares in CF and Cespedes in LF, which is a strong defensive outfield.

The Real McNulty
Member
The Real McNulty
4 months 3 days ago

is there any benefit to punting CF if you have good and comfortable LF and RF who lose too much value in CF?

Let’s say a team had Heyward, Soler, and a very strong LF. Let’s say that LF and Heyward could not transition well to CF (but were better than Soler). Would it make sense to have Soler in CF in that case?

Richie
Member
Richie
4 months 3 days ago

Nope

pegent
Member
pegent
4 months 3 days ago

Here’s the bottom line: The Mets won’t win any Golden Glove Awards, but they will be a better fielding team than last year. They won’t have to play Cuddyer, or Muno, or Mayberry Jr in the field or send them to the plate. The Mets did try to get a better fielder at 2B but Zobrist turned down their offer. Cespedes won’t be great in CF, but is there any guarantee that Heyward will be as good in CF as he is in RF. I wish the Mets had Simmons to play SS or Molina in his prime catching or even Keith Hernandez playing 1B, but they don’t. What they do have is the best starting pitching in baseball, who by the way are pretty good fielders. In fact DeGrom and Colon field the position extremely well. (DeGrom was actually a former SS.)

It’s easy to hate on the fielding of Cespedes, Walker, Cabrera and others, but they are not terrible. What was terrible was Murphy trying to play the outfield a couple of years ago. And none of the Mets outfielders are as bad as Schwarber or Soler. Also Joc Peterson might have been the best fielding Dodger CF but by the end of the year he wasn’t hitting a lick and was a liability at the plate for them.

All I know is that the Mets are better with Cespedes, Walker, and Cabrera than they were without them. And you know what…I like their chances to not only repeat but win the World Series with them.

Noah Baron
Member
Noah Baron
4 months 3 days ago

The more I think about it the more I think this post is painting an unnecessarily negative view of the Mets defense.

I mean you said that defense will be a “big” weakness and even compared it to a -142 UZR team.

Meanwhile the Mets have average to above average defenders at 1B, 3B, RF, and LF. 2B and C should only be slightly below average. Even Cespedes might be only slightly below average in CF if he can replicate his LF ARM rating in CF, which intuitively you should expect him to do.

The only big liability defensively is Cabrera. Which is fine, considering how extraordinarily well this team should hit and pitch.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
Member
Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
4 months 2 days ago

So excited to see Namor playing in Metropolis.Thundercats ho!!!

JakeT
Member
JakeT
3 months 26 days ago

What?

dovif
Member
dovif
4 months 1 day ago

I think David is still a bit upset that the mets destroyed his 2015 prediction that the Nationals were the best team in the east and when he insist that the mets had no chance to win the East even when they were 6 up with 30 to play

vicfirth98
Member
Member
vicfirth98
4 months 14 hours ago

Dave Cameron, I think you’re a hell of a baseball writer and I am so grateful for your contributions to Fangraphs and the baseball world in general, but you are such a hater on the Mets it’s crazy. You were staunchly opposed to sentiment that the Mets should sign Cespedes in the first place and now seem entirely reluctant to admit they have a very dangerous team…until the final sentence of your article: “the Mets have built a roster with two strengths and one big weakness; thankfully for them, their weakness is in the part of the game that matters the least.”

wpDiscuz