March 9, 2014

Good Defense, Good Offense: Pick One and Go With It

One of the more infuriating aspects of the current roster configuration for the Mets is the front office's inconsistent emphasis on the offensive/defensive capabilities of the players on the field.  This inconsistency will, in the long term, cost the Mets games and until an organizational philosophy is identified and implemented, the franchise will continue to wallow in mediocrity.

When the Mets signed Chris Young in the offseason, a significant selling point was that in the spacious outfield that is Citi-Field, the ability to cover a lot of real estate was vital to his acquisition. His recent offensive struggles were downplayed.  Little mention of his .200 BA found its way into management press statements. There was the stated "hope" that he could recapture earlier career glory in the power/run production department, but the major reason for his signing was that he could "go get it" in the outfield.  Young's signing was followed quickly by Curtis Granderson, another great glove in the outfield, so that the young pitching staff could look out into the cavernous outfield confident that with Granderson, Lagares and Young, fly balls would go to die.

Then Spring Training started and Lagares, the best defender of the three, seems to be the odd man out in favor of Eric Young, Jr., whose glove is far below the standard Lagares set last year.  EY brings spark to the lineup, but he is a significant downgrade defensively.  Outfield isn't even his natural position.

The opposite appears to be the case in the infield. If Reuben Tejada is the everyday shortstop, a significant reason is the "hope" that he performs to the level he displayed earlier in his career, i.e., .284 BA and solid .360 OBP, rather than his range and arm strength at shortstop - which are pedestrian at best.  But if the team wants offense and is willing to sacrifice defense to get it, why not give the job to Wilmer Flores, who everyone knows will hit major league pitching?  Daniel Murphy has improved dramatically at his current defensive position, 2B, but the real reason he's in the lineup is that he is close to a .300 hitter.  Terry Collins seems wedded to Lucas Duda at 1B, based on his offense, but the man can barely catch a thrown ball - let alone a hot smash down the first base line.

In the first World Series win for the Mets, it was clear that the organizational philosophy was pitching and defense first.  Hold the opposition to two runs or fewer and try to scratch out wins with timely hitting.  Watch the highlights of that World Series and you will see that most of them are with the Mets in the field.  (Agee made two plays in Game 3 - saving 5 runs - that if you haven't seen lately, you should look at again.  Swoboda's Game 4 layout catch was the best play he ever made.)  In 1986, it was just the opposite. They had great strikeout pitching, but the players in the field were there to hit the ball.  Anyone who remembers Kevin Mitchell playing shortstop knows he was in the game because he drove the ball with a bat in his hands. Strawberry was average at best in the outfield.  Backman could barely make the throw from second to first on double plays. Mookie Wilson could run like the wind, but he couldn't make a strong throw on a bet. Ray Knight was a butcher at 3B.  They committed errors that cost the team runs, but they could all hit.

In the late nineties and 2000, the Mets were known as a team that did not beat itself.  In 1999 they set a record that still stands: the team gave up only 20 unearned runs all season long. Granted, they could hit, but what set them apart was incredible defense (only 27 errors) and they won games because of it.

Neither philosophy was right or wrong. Both ways can achieve winning baseball.  It's wonderful if your team has players that can be great offensively and with the glove (David Wright), but those are rare players. What the current Mets have to decide is whether they are going to be a team that plays tight defense and sound fundamental baseball to try and score enough runs to win or if they will sacrifice in the field and rely on strikeouts and home runs to put games in the win column.  Right now, they lack any identity and all appearances are that we are in for another long season.

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