A five-day quarantine was required before stepping foot into this spring training. Face masks and tracking devices must be worn by personnel at all times at the club facility. Exhibition games can be shortened upon request to, at times, five or seven innings.
This is not Connie Mack’s spring training. Heck, it is not Joe Torre’s spring training.
But it is spring training. And some things are indelible. So there was Luis Rojas on report day this week talking to reporters about his Mets needing to improve their fundamentals Ah, the poetry of February and March — all 30 teams rhapsodizing about their fixation to upgrade the little things followed directly by an April of botched rundown plays.
Rojas drilled down on three areas in which the Mets need to improve: 1) Overall defense. 2) Baserunning. 3) Pitchers holding runners.
This is the Mets’ tic-tac-toe of defeat. I have wondered these last few seasons why the Mets underplay the computer-generated prognostication systems and the eye test for their strong talent level. I asked an NL executive that last season and the reply was that in every more nuanced item that determines a close game, in particular, the Mets were terrible. Cut a ball in the gap. Take an extra base properly. Stop a secondary runner from gaining a base.
The numbers back this up. The Mets are minus-13 the last two years in outs above average on defense (Baseball Savant). They are last (30th among 30 teams) the last two years in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric and they are six runs worse than the next team — and just as a comparison 43 runs worse than the Braves, who have won the NL East in those two years.
No team has a worse caught-stealing percentage than the Mets in 2019-20. Runners have been successful on 85.7 percent of steal attempts — the next worst is 82.5. The Mets have allowed 180 steals in that timeframe. The next worst is 149.
Think of all the bases gifted on defense and self-deprived on offense. Begin to envision how the Mets do not win, for example, a larger percentage of Jacob deGrom’s starts. The Mets may have talent, but even the Big Red Machine would have difficulty overcoming all that the Mets have not done well.
So the Mets are back at trying to address this. Members of the organization have talked about the hiring of Tony Tarasco as an outfield coach as if the Mets actually signed George Springer or Trevor Bauer. Maybe a coach will help. Maybe Rojas will push some right buttons in spring. But the biggest problem here is the Mets still feel like they are more one toe in the water than swimming on these issues.
For two years, Brodie Van Wagenen was essentially playing Sandy Alderson’s players and now Alderson is back running the Mets. And Alderson has a three-decade team-building philosophy of walks and homers — bats over defense, bats over baserunning.
The Rays, for example, don’t talk the talk. They are obsessed with run prevention and their highest-paid player is Kevin Kiermaier, who just might be the best defender in the sport in center, so they live with his sub-.700 OPS.
By acquiring Francisco Lindor, losing Robinson Cano to suspension to be replaced at second by Jeff McNeil and moving out Wilson Ramos in favor of pretty much anyone else (in this case James McCann), the Mets have improved up the middle defensively. But Lindor will be the only truly above-average defender that is part of the Mets’ most regular lineup.
Dom Smith is a first baseman in left, Brandon Nimmo is a left fielder in center and Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis are bats on the infield corners. Michael Conforto is fine in right field.
For the bench, the Mets signed Jonathan Villar, a player whose reputation is as talented, but undisciplined — a run until you are tagged kind of player. Jose Martinez is a DH in a non-DH league. Albert Almora and Kevin Pillar are not the defenders in center of a few years ago, but they are probably an upgrade when needed over Nimmo.
Do the Mets have the stomach to perhaps sacrifice offense by playing Luis Guillorme more regularly at third?
They ultimately did not have the gumption (financially or strategically) to sign Springer or — at least as of yet — Jackie Bradley to improve their defense and baserunning, but have to give up the bat of Smith, Nimmo or Alonso on a daily basis to make it happen.
Instead, they will hope the good skills and habits of Lindor have a domino effect, that Tarasco really is a defense whisperer and that Rojas emphasizing these shortcomings (and not just abandoning the emphasis when the regular season comes) will help the Mets in the most fundamental ways.