Is the title a little dramatic? Yes, but sometimes you need to resort to some drama to make an important point.
Using a football analogy, winning teams build their teams from the lines, outward. That means that if your offensive and defensive lines are strong, you control the line of scrimmage and you dictate the pace of play. It is the secret ingredient behind Bill Parcells’ success as a coach, and later as an advisor. Did Parcells have an eye for talent? Yes, but he also knew that the key to winning football games is controlling the pace of play on both sides of the ball.
In baseball circles, the equivalent to having dominant offensive and defensive lines is to have strong starting pitching and a team that can catch and throw the baseball. Strong pitching shuts down opposing offenses and great defense prevents additional runs from scoring by not giving your opponent “extra outs” in the form of errors. The fewer runners an opposing team has on base, the fewer runs the other team scores.
It really is simple concept. But, what often goes overlooked is the positive, dramatic effect that strong defense has on a pitching staff. Plus, fewer overall runs allowed takes pressure off of your offense, since they can win ball games with fewer runs scored. Conversely, if you have a shoddy defensive team, you need to be well above average in other areas to compensate, which puts pressure on that part of your team. From an individual standpoint, think of Mike Piazza's days as our catcher. He defense was considered subpar, but he was such a dynamic offensive force, it didn't matter in the end. However, imagine the impact he would have had, if he was just as good defensively?
The legendary Bill Parcells was also famous for the saying “you are what you are”, meaning that all of the excuses in the world don’t mean anything at the end of the day, it is the final result that matters. In 2011, the Mets had underperforming players, injuries and sometimes, “bad luck”. Yet, “they are what they are”, which was a below average team that pitched poorly and played crappy defense, among other things.
Instead of dwelling on the past, I think it is better to learn from the mistakes and try to get better. So now that the Mets can define “what they are”, how do they get better? The easy (smart ass) answer would be pitch better and play better defense!
Since we are in a transition period with our roster and our payroll, it will be easier to address team defense first since it is still an underrated statistic and to this point, underpaid. Not to mention, improving overall team defense will help produce a quicker turnaround, and it will also be a good foundation for future contending ball clubs.
First, how do you define what “good defense” actually is. There are tons of defensive statistics, some try to isolate individual players, others try to include defensive zones and guesswork, such as whether or not a player “should” have made a play.
While there are many ways to compare team defense, one of the better and simple ways is to look at fielding percentage (total defensive chances compared to total errors) and the number of unearned runs that the team surrendered as a result (extra outs and runs that should not have otherwise scored).
Not surprisingly, the top rated team for 2011, when using team fielding percentage was the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition to enjoying a great pitching staff, they also played great defense. It is a part of the overall reason they won 102 regular season games (but apparently it doesn’t help you in Game 5 of the NLDS......OK, so that was a cheap shot).
But, I think a better comparison is between the 2011 Mets and the 2011 Rays. Here are some basic 2011 statistics to consider;
The Mets scored a total of 718 runs, while the Rays scored a total of 707 runs. The Mets allowed a total of 742 runs and the Rays allowed a total of 614 runs. Overall, the Mets had a negative run differential of 24 runs, while the Rays had a positive run differential of 93 runs, which computes to a difference of 117 total runs between the two ball clubs.
What does this mean? Well, the obvious and most important difference is the Rays won 91 games and made a playoff appearance, while the Mets only won 77 games and are picking 12th in the next draft.
Looking deeper, the Rays had a team fielding percentage of .988, which was good enough for second in all of baseball, just behind the Phillies. The Mets had a team fielding percentage of .981, which was not that far behind, but it was only good enough for twenty fifth in all of baseball. The Rays committed a team total of 73 errors, which led to 37 unearned runs. The Mets committed a team total of 116 errors, which led to a total of 68 unearned runs.
Do you think that allowing 68 unearned runs, or allowing 116 additional chances to the opposition may have had something to do with the Mets record of 21-28 in one run ballgames? The Mets pitching, especially the bullpen, was shaky enough, never mind having get that many extra outs! Plus, that is only “scored errors”, meaning countless other “boneheaded” plays that weren’t official errors, weren’t even considered (I am looking at you Angel Pagan).
The good news is that despite the difference in the two teams’ defensive statistics listed here, there isn’t that dramatic of a difference. With a renewed emphasis on defense, along with some personnel upgrades, a small improvement can lead to a big difference in the standings.
Let’s say the Mets improve their defense in 2012 by aiming to make half as many errors and to improve their overall fielding percentage to the top ten in all of baseball. Reasonable goals, if you ask me and if the proper changes are made. A positive change like that could lead to dramatic improvement in one run games (the games that are usually impacted the most by shoddy defense).
For conversations sake, lets say they improve their record in one run games from 21-28 to something close to 28-21 (I know they will most likely not play exactly 49 one run games again, but we are just talking right now). A seven game swing in their one run games performance would mean an overall improvement in the team record from 77-85 to 84-78. That is halfway between last year’s record and what the wild card teams achieved in 2011.
Is that a playoff team? No, but that, along with better pitching (especially in the bullpen) and a marginally better offense could mean an outside shot at close to ninety wins and a possible wildcard berth (especially if Major League Baseball adds a wild card team to each league for next year). At worst, a fundamentally sound defensive team would be a nice foundation for 2013 when we will hopefully have the firepower to compete again.
Making the Mets a better defensive team will require some player movement and dedication from the coaching staff. It will be a formidable challenge and is deserving of a separate article, which I will cover next week.
Until then, and in an effort to be positive, look at the Rays dramatic change from the early 2000’s until now. The biggest indicator of their success was improved pitching and yes, better defense. If they can do it, so can we.
Right on cue! Did anyone else watch Game Five of the NLCS between Milwaukee and St Louis? Did anyone else notice how poorly Milwaukee played team defense? Three errors that I saw, which led to numerous unearned runs. Milwaukee’s starter (Greinke) deserved a better fate and the Brewers are now in serious trouble in that series.
Do you think Albert Pujols has restored his overall value for this offseason? I think the Cardinals are both happy that he is doing well and sad when they realize how much he is going to cost in about six weeks.
Maybe I am reading into things a bit too much, but what’s with Prince Fielder? He is going in the opposite direction and he appears to be jovial in the dugout! That wouldn’t sit well with me and makes me wonder if he hasn’t already mentally “checked out” of Milwaukee, in preparation for his “huge payday”. Then again, he is one of the new generation of athletes, meaning Prince comes first.
Lastly, for all you craft beer fans (if you are reading this), Bell’s Brewing out of Michigan makes a fantastic IPA called Two Hearted Ale. Not exactly news, but I had my first (OK, I had several) the other day and I highly recommend it with a big plate of wings in front of the TV!