The performance of the Mets pitching staff thus far has surprised all but the most optimistic fans. While it's baseball dogma that everything is about pitching, the Mets success in limiting runs can be largely attributed to its defense, which ranks as the best in baseball by a considerable margin in numerous key statistics.
Opponents are hitting .258 against the Mets on balls in play every batted ball that lands in fair territory. The league average every year is right around .300; this year in the NL it's .302. The second best NL team in this stat, the Giants, allow a .279 average on balls in play. The Reds trail the NL rankings at .324. This is clearly a wide variance.
How significant has defensive excellence been to the Mets ability to limit opposing runs? Let's assume the Mets gave up hits on balls in play at a league average rate. Instead of allowing a league low 404 hits (the A's are second best at 450), the Mets then allow a league average number, 504. Those extra hypothetical100 hits, of course, create more runs for opponents. The best estimate, according to our friends at Baseball Info Solutions and The Hardball Times, is about one more run per game. So, instead of the Mets having a sparkling team ERA of 3.37 (second only in the league to the Padres), their ERA, independent of their excellent fielding, would sit at a rather pedestrian 4.32.
But there are other ways to measure defense. The first major one was invented by John Dewan, now owner of Baseball Info Solutions. He called it Zone Rating, which was simply the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone converted into outs.
"It's still a useful stat, just like batting average," Dewan says. "People knock batting average now, but if a guy is hitting .300 we know he's a pretty useful hitter."
Dewan adds that, just as we know there are better ways than batting average to measure offensive performance, Zone Rating has been trumped by his new plus-minus system as the standard for measuring defensive excellence. "But I'm always tinkering and even go back and change historical data when a better way (to measure defense) emerges."
In his book, "The Fielding Bible," Dewan says this plus-minus system tries to answer the question, "How many plays did this player make above or below those an average player at his position would make?"
"Simply put," John says, "our analysis is based not just on the direction of the batted ball its speed (soft, medium and hard) and type (groundball, liner, fly and bunt)."
The Mets rate No. 1 in this more advanced plus-minus fielding analysis, too, entering action on Tuesday at plus-63 plays on batted balls that would have been hits for a team with normal defense. The second best squad in the NL by this measurement is the Giants at plus-38. The A's are second best overall at plus-39.
Looking at the individual Mets defenders, 3B David Wright is the major league's best plus-minus defender at the moment, at plus-16. That's one more play made above average than Astros SS Adam Everett, who is second.
That's a big jump from last year, when Wright was minus-8 largely due to throwing problems. Tied for second-best on the Mets right now at plus-5 are SS Jose Reyes (fourth-best among shortstops) and, surprisingly, 1B Carlos Delgado. Dewan says Baseball Info Solutions is beginning to incorporate scoops and the fielding of other assorted bad throws into their defensive calculus for first baseman, but those stats aren't yet ready for publication.
The Mets second best defensive player thus far is OF Endy Chavez, who is at plus-4 in limited action. In a full-time role, Chavez would at or near the top of the OF plus-minus leader board.
Only one Met is in minus territory for the year (yes, even including Damian Easley, who is plus-one despite complaints about his defense at second). To no one's surprise, that player is RF Shawn Green. But Green is only minus-1.
But aren't the pitchers often responsible for softly hit balls that are often easy plays for defenders?
Yes, says The Hardball Times. Analysts there add to the Baseball Info Solutions data by calculating the extent to which the pitching staff allows "fieldable" batted balls. So, the Mets plus-63 there includes the 17 more "fieldable" balls the Mets staff has allowed versus what would be expected from an average staff. The Dodgers staff is last at minus-18 -- a range of about 35 expected hits.
While the Mets staff has played a significant role thus far in the team lapping the field in defensive performance, the Mets glovemen would still lead the league in plus-fielding plays even if their pitching staff was average in yielding "fieldable" balls.
Sometimes, with ranking defense, the eyes really do have it. Dewan says that the plus-minus system is purely numbers based. "But visual evidence is important to add to it. When we do our Fielding Bible Awards, we can't base it solely on these numbers."
So how do the Baseball Info Solutions video scouts assess the Mets defense aside from their sparkling objective numbers?
Baseball Info Solutions Sven Jenkins has scouted the most Mets games this year and says that Jose Reyes stands out better than his plus-minus rating.
"He's making unbelievable plays and gets a great read off the ball," Jenkins says. "We get to watch games shot from behind home plate so that you can see the fielders react. So you can compare Reyes to a guy like Derek Jeter, who is often the last person in the infield to react to a ball even when it's hit in his direction. The first-baseman will move to cover first before Jeter moves towards the ball, which results in a lot of missed plays."
Jenkins says Chavez would get lots of votes for a Fielding Bible Award as a defensive outfielder if he had enough innings. Wright, he says, wouldn't be nominated despite the plus-minus rating. "Accuracy is still a problem with him, especially on routine throws. But his range has gotten better and is now good."
Without Valentin and with Green, the Mets are "a top-half defensive team for sure and probably top third." But when they use the Oliver Perez outfield alignment of Chavez, Beltran and Carlos Gomez in right, Jenkins says, the Mets can legitimately vie for the ranking of baseball's best defensive team.