Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Speaking of "The Franchise": Beltran, Wright and Reyes (Part II- Defense)

by Alan Eliot

I would imagine that part of the reason behind the excitement with respect to this "nucleus" of young Mets players is a historic one. The Mets, who have a penchant for signing ex-superstars, have only on very few occasions had a genuine offensive force on their team, a man in the heart of the lineup that opposing pitchers truly fear (at least for more than a few years). Shea Stadium's large dimensions are partly to blame, biasing management at some level to developing pitching over hitting, and perhaps making the Mets less attractive to said free-agent offensive force. The park is certainly a place where many homeruns go to die- in fact, the Mets, currently in their 45th season, have never had a player hit more than 41 HR in one season.

The last (and arguably only) true offensive superstar the Mets developed was Darryl Strawberry. The last true superstar in his prime who bolstered the lineup for years was Mike Piazza. Other than that, the history of the Mets is riddled with free agents who either underperformed or were already past their prime, or were not in that upper eschelon for long enough. Gary Carter was great. So was Keith Hernandez. Olerud put up some good years. But for the Metropolitans it's been Strawberry and Piazza. That's pretty much it.

Take into account the fact that Strawberry never lived up to his potential, and that Piazza's moonshots came with their own price- two hop throws to second base. On the other hand, Beltran, Reyes and Wright have all been described as having plus-defense (or PD potential) at their respective positions- and if you could choose three positions to have plus-defense in, CF, SS and 3B would be it. It is clear that the idea of having a truly well-rounded superstar on the team, much less three of them, much less three of them in their prime, with two from the Mets' own farm, is an idea Mets fans are so unaccustomed to that excitement is bound to grow beyond what is reasonable or what is probable. But that's forgivable. 41HR. I mean, come on.

Last year, David Wright wowed both teammates and opponents alike with not one, not two, but three amazing plays at third base- including two jumping into the stands and a third that was made on the right-field grass with his bare hand. As stated previously, that last one was a shoe-in for defensive play of the year. People are very excited about his defensive potential. However, the facts and statistics haven't been kind to Mr. Wright.

Caveat: the idea of objective analysis of defense beyond errors and fielding percentage is a relatively new one. That is because defense is much more subjective, and harder to quantify, than offense. Even an "error" is something ruled on by the official scorer- an opinion at its very nature. This column won't delve into the intricacies, pros and cons of the new methods of evaluating defense- you can see a review here.

Today, we'll be evaluating these three players based on three defensive stats- errors, range factor (RF) and Zone Rating (ZR). Once again, ESPN and Complete Baseball Encyclopedia have been instrumental in compiling this information. All statistics are current as of today. We'll also be throwing in a little about injury risk for good measure.

First, two quick definitions:
Range Factor (RF): (Put-outs + Assists)/innings.
This is a good model insofar as good defenders will successfully complete more plays. However, it doesn't take into account plays that should have been made, or even mistakes/errors.
Zone Rating (ZR): % of balls fielded by the player in his typical "defensive zone". It is based on the formula (Put-outs)/(Balls in Zone caught + Balls out of Zone caught). This is a new stat put out by STATS, inc. Very subjective, of course, but one of the firsts to truly tackle the idea of rewarding a player for getting to balls others wouldn't.

Defense:
Note: number in parentheses is number of qualifying players for that position, having played in 2/3 of his teams games, according to ESPN.com
Carlos Beltran, CF
Injury: Beltran's entry into the NY spotlight was marred by a quad injury which didn't limit his time so much as his production in 2005. He aggravated a hamstring injury in 2006 in which he missed a few weeks of play, but has come back strong.

2006 (11): 1 error, 2.85 RF (2nd), .929 ZR (3rd)
2005 (10): 4 errors, 2.67 RF (2nd), .887 ZR (4th)
2003 (7): 5 error, 3.05 RF (3rd), .927 ZR (1st)
Bottom line: though there is often discrepancy between leaders of RF and ZR, Beltran has consistently placed tops in the league in both. He is as good as they say. With an injury-free rest of the season, expect things to stay this way. As stated earlier, Beltran's best chance at superstardom will never lie in his at-the-plate production alone- his SB-threat and his stellar outfield play will all factor if he is to reach that upper-tier of player. Having this history of injury, the specific sort of injury that could affect stop and start running- the kind involved with stolen bases or chasing after balls- doesn't bode well for Beltran. Even if he never aggravates either his quad or hamstrings again, the fear alone of doing so will negatively impact his production both in the field and on the bases- he will most likely always go slightly lighter than his max.

David Wright, 3B
Injury: Wright has been extremely durable throught his minor and major league careers. His bask-spasms which started last week have not seemed to slow him down any at the plate or on the field, but are a concern. The HOF projections every Mets fan gives this kid haven't taken into account possibility of his career being marred by injury. Hope that these spasms don't become a recurring problem.

2006 (14): 7 errors, 2.38 RF (12th), .729 ZR (12th)
2005 (9): 24 errors (last), 2.80 (3rd), .775 ZR (7th)
Bottom line: Wright has flashed some very impressive leather at times, but subjectively seems to misplay a lot of balls- how many balls this year have hit off his glove and gone for a "hit"? Sure, it's called the "hot corner" for a reason, but still. This year included a three-error game which cost the Mets the win. He is on pace to even his 24 error mark from last season. On a positive note, he is only 23, and keep in mind that a 24-year-old Mike Schmidt made 26 errors in his first season of 150+ games. For now, though, he is a below-average 3B.

Jose Reyes, SS
Injury: Reyes went through a 2-year period between 2002-2004 which included four leg injuries. He has since (supposedly) changed his running mechanics, and so far, in 2005 and 2006, has not missed time. One has to question the future durability, however, of such a young kid who has proven so injury prone.

2006 (15): 4 errors, 3.64 RF (last), .860 ZR (6th)
2005 (14): 18 errors (last), 4.28 RF (10th), .821 ZR (12th)
Bottom line: Reyes has a very strong arm, has extraordinarily quick hands, and has shown a penchant for making flashy plays. He is also a 22-years-old, and has made his share of mistakes. He is still learning, but the numbers to this point don't support him even being considered an average SS. There is a large difference between potential and production, and in his case (both offensively and defensively) he has large gaps in both. Reyes easily is the biggest question mark of the three to become a major-league superstar, especially given his penchant for injury.

Edit: You can view Part I (Offense) here.

"Wild-Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

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