New York Mets


Picture yourself being a very casual or new baseball fan, eager to learn more. You attend a baseball game and are instantly impressed by the high-end talent on one of the clubs you are watching. There goes a first baseman, Pete Alonso, who can hit the ball to the moon. There's a really impressive looking young hitter in outfielder Michael Conforto. That 23-year-old shortstop, Amed Rosario, seems to have everything you'd want in a young shortstop. And boy, look at those starting pitchers, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler - must be really nice to have a top three like that. This just has to be a really good baseball team.
Well, it's not. The New York Mets are tooling along under .500, only a few games out of first place in an NL East chock full of underachieving clubs. Baseball, you see, isn't that simple of a game. There's a whole lot more to run-scoring than hitting the ball hard, and a whole lot more to run prevention than pitching well.
If you read my article in this space last week, I discussed my batted ball-based metric for evaluating pitchers, "Tru" ERA-. The key to evaluating pitching is to separate what the pitcher is contributing from the effects of contextual factors, like the ballpark or team defense. "Tru" ERA- measures the level of production a pitcher "should have" allowed based on the exit speed/launch angle mix of the batted balls hit against him.

As of May 23 (the data included in last week's article), the "Tru" ERA- figures posted by the Mets' top three starters, their only ERA qualifiers, were on the whole much better than their ERA- and FIP- marks. Dramatically better. Syndergaard had a 122 ERA- and 88 FIP- through May 23 - his "Tru" ERA- was 68. Wheeler had a 114 ERA-, 77 FIP- and 82 "Tru" ERA-, and deGrom posted a 92 ERA-, 84 FIP- and 65 "Tru" ERA-. Of all of the qualifying starters in the NL as of that date, only the Marlins' Pedro Lopez (132 ERA-, 97 FIP-, 82 "Tru" ERA-), the Braves' Kevin Gausman (99 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 77 "Tru" ERA-) and the Padres' Joey Lucchesi (102 ERA-, 82 FIP-, 79 "Tru" ERA-) were in anywhere near the same ballpark as the Mets' Big Three.
The reason for that disparity? Defense, defense, defense.
I measure defense differently than most publicly available metrics.  My method, as usual, is batted ball-based, but it also focuses on defensive performance head-to-head versus one's opponents. That weeds out the noise of park factors, for one. Also, I choose to look at it from a team, rather than an individual, perspective.
For each club and its opponents, I compare actual hitter performance on all balls in play (excluding homers) versus what hitters "should have" done based on the exit speed/launch angle mix. Then I compare the team and its opponents' respective performances to one another, with the club earning a Defensive Multiplier above or below 100 (the lower the better) based on the results.
The best defensive club in any given season tends to have a Multiplier in the 90 range, the worst in the 110 range. Last season, the Rays (88.7) and Cubs (89.7) led the AL and NL, respectively, with the Blue Jays (110.6) posting by far the worst Multiplier. There seems to be some seasonal continuity with this metric, as the Jays' 109.5 mark was the worst in MLB in 2017, and the Cubs are going for their fourth straight season atop the NL (94.5 in 2017, 85.0 in 2016). Their chief NL competition tends to be the Rockies, who tied for first at 94.5 in 2017 and nosed out the Cubs by 91.6 to 94.5 in 2015.
We can break the metric down further by evaluating how each club defends each batted ball type, i.e., fly balls, line drives and grounders. Both the Rays and Cubs defended all BIP types well in 2018, posting Multipliers over one full standard deviation better than league average on each. Both clubs excelled on fly balls (Rays at 86.3, Cubs at 85.4), while the Rays also posted a stellar MLB-best 83.7 mark on grounders.
This brings us back to the 2019 Mets. Where does one begin? On in-play fly balls the Mets are hitting .214 AVG-.336 SLG, just better than their projected (based on exit speed/launch angle) .210 AVG-.322 SLG mark. Their opponents, however, are batting .240 AVG-.351 SLG, much higher than their projected .202 AVG-.309 SLG level. After converting to run values, the Mets' fly ball Defensive Multiplier is a poor 111.6. (The MLB average production on in-play fly balls thus far in 2019 is .207 AVG-.325 SLG.)
It gets worse. On grounders, the Mets are batting .206 AVG-.220 SLG, a bit shy of their projection of .214 AVG-.235 SLG. Their opponents are batting a whopping .262 AVG-.294 SLG on the ground, versus a .208 AVG-.228 SLG projection. The Mets' Defensive Multiplier on ground balls is 132.2. The worst I've seen in the years I've been using this method is 123.9, by the Jays in 2018. (The MLB average production on grounders thus far in 2019 is 210 AVG-.231 SLG.)
The Mets' Line Drive Multiplier of 99.6 is nearly league average. Put it all together and the overall Defensive Multiplier of 112.1 thus far is historically bad. If they can keep it up, it will be the worst club mark recorded in the seven years I've been using this exact method.
One of the many interesting things about the Mets' defensive performance to date is that it's been a true team endeavor. There's no singular butcher in the field that is the catalyst of the effort. Just as importantly, however, there is no go-to defensive standout that is making positive things happen. Rosario is a work in process at shortstop; his Fangraphs defensive runs (-3.1) and UZR/150 (-15.5) are team worsts. The tools are there, but the skills certainly need sharpening.
Among players who have played over 100 innings at a particular position, only 3B Todd Frazier (0.4 Fangraphs defensive runs) and 2B Adeiny Hechavarria (0.3) grade out positively. The former is not a good defender at this stage of his career, and the latter can't hit a lick. If he's your second baseman, you have bigger problems. The guys who can field (like CFs Juan Lagares and (the departed) Keon Broxton, can't hit, and even an injured guy like Jed Lowrie, while versatile, is not a difference-maker with the glove.
Here's another way to look at the situation. On batted balls alone, in a sport with no Ks or BBs, the the Mets are a 93-69 team, the Cubs a 83-79 one. Add back the Ks and BBs, the Mets are 89-73, the Cubs still 83-79. Add in team defense, and the Mets drop to 80-82, the Cubs rise to 86-76. And that's with the Cubs posting just a 96.7 Defensive Multiplier to date, short of their recent excellence.
So the next time you're wondering why Syndergaard or Wheeler's ERAs are pushing 5.00, remember this layer or two that we've peeled back. There are plenty of issues of concern surrounding the Mets. Their bullpen (seemingly like everyone else's) has been a sore spot. Their farm system was depleted to make a short-term run. Manager Mickey Callaway may well be a dead man walking. Their biggest concern, however, is a simple inability to turn batted balls into outs.


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