MLB: San Francisco Giants at New York Mets

Party like it’s 1999: Will Mets Infielders Be This Year’s MVPs?

Few Mets rosters have been lauded more than the current rotation-heavy group, and with good reason: at 23, Noah Syndergaard leads the Mets with 44 strikeouts, fires a sinker at upwards of 97 MPH, and has thrown more 100 MPH balls than any other pitcher this season. 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom rejoined the team post-family emergency with a strong April finish—a win in Atlanta and then at home against the Giants, during which none of the three runs against him were earned.

Logan Verrett and Steven Matz are holding steady, with Matt Harvey off to a shakier 2-3 start. Meanwhile, from the bullpen, Addison Reed is keeping the peace with six holds and a save, Jim Henderson with five holds, Hansel Robles with four, Jerry Blevins with a win and four holds, and Jeurys Familia the team leader in saves with eight.

And where would be without Bartolo Colón? The oldest active player in baseball pitched eight shutout innings against the Braves Monday night, surpassing Pedro Martinez in career wins by a Dominican pitcher (now second only to Juan Marichal, who holds the overall record at 243). And since it’s hard not to gush about Colón, it should be noted that though Familia took over in the ninth on Monday, Colón is tied with Clayton Kershaw for the active player with most career shutouts, with 13 under his belt.

No doubt about it—Mets pitchers have earned their high praise. But this year, the key to the Mets’ success may not lie in the hands of the cannon-armed starters. 2016 may just be the year of the infield.

It’s no secret that the 2015 Mets’ infield was the team’s Achilles heel—inefficient fielding combined with an overall shortage of batting power couldn’t provide support for even the most star-studded rotation. And while errors hardly paint the full picture, the 2015 combined team did make 88 of them: from the infield, shortstop Wilmer Flores had 14 in 140 games, (his counterpart Ruben Tejada fared better, with half those errors in 113 games). Daniel Murphy came in a close second with 13 errors in 129 games, followed by the third baseman Eric Campbell with eight errors in 57.

On the face of it, the basic numbers are close to those of the Royals, who also had 88 errors in 2015—Alcides Escobar errored 13 times in 148 games and third baseman Mike Moustakas had 12 in 146 games. But an important distinction between the two infields is revealed by the players’ Range Factors. Escobar’s RF was 4.28 to Flores’s 3.85; the Royals’ second baseman Omar Infante also had a higher RF than Murphy: Infante clocking at 4.14, Murphy at 3.89. This highlights the root of the problem for last year’s infield—their errors more frequently cost them a putout, or in Mets fan lingo: when the pressure was on, they choked. Exhibit A, if you can stomach it: Murphy’s World Series Game 4 error in the eighth that gave Kansas City the tying run. Simultaneously, Murphy, whose hitting streak helped propel the Mets through the postseason, had cooled off considerably by the time they arrived at the World Series.

With Wright performing above expectations but only in 38 games, Lucas Duda was often a lone bright spot in the Mets’ infield, with only three errors in 127 games and an RF of 8.65 (better, even, than the monolith Eric Hosmer’s). Duda also led the team in home runs for 2015, and was second only to Granderson for overall runs scored.

While most cast their eyes to the outfield for the big bats, the hope for the 2016 infield remains both clean defensively and loaded with actual hitting ability. While it’s a bit too early in the season to know how the defense will stack up, particularly in moments of high pressure, the current infield is certainly making a strong showing at the plate. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is tied with Juan Lagares for the second highest batting average on the team at .306, with second baseman Neil Walker on their heels at .305. Walker is also third on the team, behind Cespedes and Conforto, with slugging and OPS at .600 and .940. Most impressively, Walker leads the team with 29 hits and nine home runs.

In the history of the franchise, 1999 was a golden age for the Mets infield. ESPN’s Buster Onley ranked them the third-best infield of all time behind the 1976 Reds and 2009 Yankees. Their strength was in their balancing act—John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, and Robin Ventura exhibited both fielding efficiency and hitting efficacy. These four players combined had only 27 errors that year, and the Mets as a team had 68.

But the 1999 Mets’ infield also scored consistently: Alfonzo and Olerud led the team that year in runs scored with 123 and 107. Ventura, Alfonzo and Olerud also came second, third, and fourth behind Piazza with 32, 27, and 19 home runs. Alfonzo and Ventura both averaged above .300, with Olreud close behind at .298, and Ordonez at .258, the highest in his major league career at the time.

I’ll admit after the Series loss last year I didn’t feel so hot about our prospects. The most hope I could really muster was that the Mets would find someone in their price range who wouldn’t drop the ball quite so much. But the acquisition of Neil Walker surpassed expectations of what a good fit for the team might be, even on paper—his .989 fielding percentage puts him at number five for second basemen in the National League; he offers flexibility as a switch-hitter; he cost much less than Ben Zorbist; he was traded for Niese, for whom the team can easily cover. Cabrera, also a switch-hitter, is more added value, currently on course to post the best batting average and OBP of his career.

How will the 2016 Mets stack up? It’s safe to say that the current infield is certainly on track to be the best to reside at Citi Field, but only time will tell if Walker and Cabrera can really lead the infield back to partying like it’s 1999.

Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

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