In a few weeks when Matt Harvey steps onto the mound for a regular season start for the first time in more than 19 months, he’ll take a long look at the seven New York Mets behind him and the one behind the plate.
Then he’ll probably look towards the luxury suites and flip off general manager Sandy Alderson for giving him a half-workable defense.
As good as the top part of the Mets’ starting rotation will be in the 2015 season, the team’s defense, hardly even average in Major League Baseball, will hold it back—and the discourse that the arms on the mound can neutralize it doesn’t match up with the math.
There’s plenty of evidence that shows that the top part of the Mets’ rotation is great, that’s for sure. They won’t have Zack Wheeler’s torrid strikeout rate this year, but Harvey and Jacob deGrom look like they can be one of the deadliest 1-2 punches in the game. In his rookie campaign in 2014, deGrom posted an ERA+ of 130, allowed only seven homeruns in 140.1 innings pitched, and had a 1.14 WHIP. And when he last pitched in 2013, Harvey was filthy to another level with a 0.931 WHIP, a 157 ERA+, and walked 31 batters compared to 191 strikeouts in 178.1 innings pitched.
But as good as any pitcher is, a bad defense can negatively impact his season. Sure, they can control the mostly independent aspects of walks, strikeouts, and homeruns, but anything else— the fly balls, line drives, pop ups, and ground balls—rely on the defense behind the pitcher. Bad ranges, bad throwing arms, and bad jumps on fly balls can add up to curtail a pitcher’s success to a degree, and can cost a team wins overall.
Maybe this won’t affect Harvey and deGrom too much because they are so dominant, but the rest of the Mets’ pitchers—the other three starters and the relievers—may see themselves on the losing end more often because of the defense. Firstly, the Mets’ infield defense isn’t too good. It’s actually only about half-good. Sure, Mets pitchers likely won’t have to worry about the left side because David Wright brings Gold Glove-caliber defense to third base every year, and Wilmer Flores actually might be a good defensive shortstop for the Mets, as in 443.1 innings at shortstop last year he posted am Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 4.
But the right side of the infield is where many runs can be lost in 2015. As good as Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy are offensively, each posting OPS over .730 last year, at first and second base, respectively, they hurt their hurlers. Murphy has made strides defensively, but that’s because he was tremendously awful earlier in his career. Last season, his UZR was -5.6, well below average for a second baseman. His arm makes little difference in the position, but his range and ability to cleanly field is still limited. Duda doesn’t look terrible at first base, but first basemen are on the receiving end of so many simple outs that they can look better than they actually are. Duda’s defensive metrics might just be a representation of that, as he had a 0.4 UZR in 2014.
So what do you say about your defense, then? Claim that they will be able to limit the effect of the infield defense because their pitchers are strikeout and fly ball pitchers, apparently. That’s not a horrible pr move, as many Mets fans likely breathed a sigh of relief when the team said this, but the reality is different; not only is the Mets’ pitching staff not a strikeout one overall—1264 punchouts, eighth in the NL last season—but almost half of the pitchers induce groundballs at rates that are above league average.
Even if it were true that the Mets’ pitchers induced plenty of fly balls, the team still wouldn’t have a favorable defense for its pitchers. The Mets’ outfield overall may be its weakest defensive ingredient. Centerfielder Juan Lagares is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, but he can’t cover every single inch of the outfield.
Instead, he has to rely on a right and left fielder who both would have to multiple themselves to be decent defenders. Even in left field now instead of right or center field, the easier defensive spot and where a bad defender isn’t as severe of a pain for a team, Curtis Granderson hurts Mets pitchers; in the outfield in general in his career, his UZR has been -2. Michael Cuddyer is even more of a liability in right field. In his last full season in right field—2013 with the Colorado Rockies—he posted a -13.4 UZR. Coors Field may not be a kind outfield given how easily baseballs travel, but even in Minnesota Cuddyer was a bad defensive right fielder.
It is worth noting that the defense for deGrom last year and Harvey two years ago was almost as bad as it projects to be this year; deGrom had to contend with Granderson in right field, who posted a horrendous -8.1 UZR, as well as essentially the same infield defense that had defensive liabilities at first and second base. And while Granderson came to New York after Harvey went down with Tommy John surgery, the Mets’ ace also did not have a strong infield defense, as both Ruben Tejada and Omar Quintanilla posted UZRs under 1 and Ike Davis (-1.8) was almost as bad as Duda defensively at first base during his time there. Yet deGrom and Harvey still thrived in those seasons. The possible explanation is that their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)—2.01 for Harvey and 2.67 for deGrom—accounted for the bad defenses.
But how might that hold up in an even larger sample size in 2015? If it was just a one-season fluke for both pitchers, then the way the defense projects for the Mets doesn’t bode well for their postseason hopes. How can the Mets expect to make the playoffs this year when their greatest asset, their pitching, wasn’t given the proper tools to play their best?
If the Mets had good hitters to counteract that bad defense, then it may not matter for this season; as crucial as defense is, hitting is even more important. But Alderson didn’t address that in the offseason. Anyone is willing to completely accept that Lagares’ hitting is a work in progress, because his defense makes him more valuable than most hitters, but that accommodation doesn’t apply for most of the other players.
Wright is coming off his worst offensive season in his career, hitting just eight home runs and getting on-base at a paltry .324 clip, but even if he bounces back this year because his shoulder is healthy, he doesn’t have great protection in the lineup. Duda is a great hitter behind Wright if he can replicate his 2014 season, but Murphy (.332 OBP, 111 OPS+) isn’t much of a threat in the lineup; Travis d’Arnaud (.718 OPS) doesn’t have the offense to make up for his weak defensive skills as catcher; Granderson, despite 20 homeruns last year, still had a low OBP (.326) and slugging percentage (.388), which indicates we saw an aberration in terms of his power; and Cuddyer, heading into his age-36 season, missed most of last season and is a concern to stay healthy enough to utilize his good on-base skills. Overall last year, the Mets’ offense didn’t even crack the top eight of the NL in batting average, OBP, slugging, and homeruns.
The Mets, even after losing Wheeler for the year and sporting a bad defense, will still compete for the postseason. Their 516 walks in 2014, much-improved bullpen, and strong top part of their rotation will keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot into September for the first time since 2008. That’s how much parity there is in MLB.
But a bad defense instead of a good defense supporting a promising pitching staff could be the difference between competing for the postseason and actually making it.
So Harvey, like his fellow pitchers in blue and orange, will step out onto the mound often this season and peer out on the defense. He will likely see himself pitching in meaningful games for the Mets late in the year for the first time. But even there on the mound with all the talent he and his staff has, it’ll seem awfully lonely without much help behind him.
Cue Harvey’s bird for the Mets’ front office.