New York Mets defense will be an issue in 2020

One inning on Saturday showed why the New York Mets may want to be concerned about their defense this year.

I hope there was some kind of post-game, clubhouse, apologetic ritual that was performed for Jeurys Familia after last night’s Summer Camp exhibition between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Not sure what I’m talking about? Didn’t catch the game?

Let’s look at what happened to Familia in the top of the 6th when he came in to replace Rick Porcello.

1st batter: Mike Ford, strikes out swinging on a low splitter in 4 pitches (ball, swinging-strike, foul, swinging-strike). 1 out.
2nd batter: Familia get’s Giancarlo Stanton to swing at a well-placed, 3-1 sinker that should have been an easy 2nd out, but the ball gets overthrown to first base by third baseman Max Moroff, placing Stanton on second and in scoring position with 1 out.
3rd batter: Once again, Familia places a beautiful low sinker to Gio Urshela on a 2-2 count that does exactly what it’s supposed to do, put the ball on the ground for a routine play, but the ball gets overthrown to first base by….Max Moroff. This now places runners on 2nd and 3rd, 1 out.
4th batter: Miguel Andujar grounds out to…guess who?… Max Moroff on a 1-0 sinker scoring Stanton from third, this time without an error but a play could have been made at the plate. Instead, Moroff gets the, uh, easy out at first.
5th batter: Clint Frazier grounds out shortstop Amed Rosario on a 1-0 sinker.

There are a few things to note here. First, this is the reason we have a statistic like Field Independent Pitching (FIP). Basically, it’s a statistic that would show how well Familia pitched without the fielding errors. He should have struck out 1 and gotten 2 and 3 to ground out. Instead, a run was placed on the board before the team headed back to the dugout.

Second, you’ll notice that I listed the pitch type above. Familia placed sinkers and splitters low and low and away in order to get sluggers to hit the ball on the ground. In order for that to work well, you need in-fielders who can make plays. Ok, ok, “Chill out” you may be saying. “This was just what would equate to a spring training game!” I know the B squad was out there on the field and that Max Moroff probably won’t be the everyday third baseman for the Mets in 2020. But, with the 2020 season being so unpredictable, it’s not that far fetched. In addition, the starting infielders are not doing so hot in the fielding department otherwise.

Let’s focus on two questions. First, how did the New York Mets defense stack up against the rest of the league in 2019? Second, what kind of pitching should the Mets expect in 2020. I’ll use Fangraphs defensive team leaderboards to answer the first question looking at two statistics, in particular, UZR and DEF.

According to the FanGraphs glossary, UZR looks to “quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).” Another way to think of this is to say here’s how each individual defensive player did when compared to other players in that same position. In this case, we add all of those individual positional values together to get team numbers.

30th Pirates: -54
29th Mariners: -29.5
28th Orioles: -29.5
27th Tigers: -27.1
26th Blue Jays: -24.9
25th White Sox: -19.2
24th Mets: -12.8

This basically means that the New York Mets defense cost their team 12.8 runs over the season. Not as bad as the 54 run Pirates defense, but still not great.

Likewise, DEF is used to measure defensive value but takes into consideration positional adjustments. So now we are looking at defensive value, regardless of position. Whereas before we might have had a team that had a terrible defense, but a really good shortstop. Now we can just see how the defense does as a whole.

30th Pirates: -51
29th Orioles: -32.5
28th Mariners: -31.5
27th Tigers: -29.1
28th Mets: -26.8

In this case, the Mets are doing worse when we make positional adjustments, costing the team nearly 27 runs in 2019. Finally, if we look at the Met’s projected starting rotation and their ground ball percentages from 2019, we’ll get to the point.

Jacob deGrom: 27th among all qualified pitchers in 2019 at 44.4%.

Marcus Stroman: 4th among all qualified pitchers in 2019 at 53.7%.

Rick Porcello: 38.1%

Steven Matz: 46.9%

Michael Wacha: 47.7%

2019 League Average Ground Ball Rate: 42.9%.

Source: Fangraphs

We’ve arrived. Out of the five projected starters in the Mets’ rotation, four pitchers had ground ball rates above the league average meaning, hitters hit ground balls against them more than average. How about our reliever friend Familia from before? In 2019 he put the ball on the ground 50.9% of the time.

Why is this a problem? If you didn’t make that connection you might want to go back and re-read the part about the New York Mets defense being bad. With lots of ground ball pitchers and poor defense, Mets fans should prepare for frustration in the field. Let’s just hope the post-game in-fielder apologies are good enough to keep the rotation satisfied.