Major league teams clearly value starting pitching. The industry has spent over $1 billion on nine free agent starters this offseason, and with Yovani Gallardo still available that number will only rise.
The New York Mets have what every team in baseball envies: a cost-efficient rotation with power arms galore. You want pure power stuff? Noah Syndergaard is your guy. Coming off an injury? Zack Wheeler is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. How about some flare on the mound? Matt Harvey is here as well. Stuff and command? Jacob deGrom is the perfect combination. What about a southpaw? Steven Matz can be as good as any of these guys.
It will not be easy for the defending National League champions to keep this group together over the long-term. Harvey is under control for three more seasons and is making $4.325 million in his first year through the arbitration process. Wheeler is under team control through 2019 and will be arbitration eligible after the 2016 season. DeGrom is under team control through 2020, while Syndergaard and Matz are under team control through 2021. All of these guys will get expensive as they enter arbitration within the next few years.
With the clock ticking and pitchers getting paid more and more every year, are the Mets utilizing their greatest strength to its full potential?
The way they are constructed right now, the answer to that question is no. But it’s not because of a lack of offense, like most people believe. The problem here is a lack of defense.
The World Series from a season ago pitted a team with an excellent starting rotation against a team that emphasizes the importance of defense more than any other team in baseball. The Kansas City Royals were clearly the better team as they limited their defensive mistakes (they committed two errors in the World Series compared to the Mets’ six) and ultimately won the series in five games. The Mets, on the other hand, have been a below-average defensive team for quite some time.
This offseason, the Mets revamped the middle of their infield. They let Daniel Murphy walk as a free agent and he signed a three-year deal with the division rival Washington Nationals to be their second baseman. Murphy had two critical errors during the World Series that were magnified after the Royals capitalized on each mistake.
The Mets traded Jon Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates and acquired Neil Walker, who is a free agent at the end of the 2016 season, to play second base. The Amazins also “upgraded” at shortstop by coming to terms with Asdrubal Cabrera on a two-year, $18.5 million deal. But did they really upgrade at either position?
According to Fangraphs, Walker had a -4.7 Defensive WAR compared to Murphy’s 1.0. That is a surprisingly seep downgrade as far as defense is concerned. They also essentially are paying Cabrera $18.5 million to be Wilmer Flores at shortstop.
Here are the projections for Flores and Cabrera for 2016 according to Baseball-Reference:
The offensive numbers are basically identical and both are considered to be below average defensively. In 2015, the Royals middle infielders of Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist committed zero errors in the World Series. The Mets defense has gotten worse, and it was suspect to begin with.
They are also going to pay Yoenis Cespedes $27.5 million in 2016, making him the second-highest-paid position player in baseball for the season behind Miguel Cabrera. Cespedes can carry a team when he is on, but he is extremely streaky at the plate. What you can expect from him is a low OBP and a high strikeout rate. The Mets plan to use him in center field and play Michael Conforto in left field, making offense once again the priority over defense.
The Mets have an excellent pitching staff, but they were two totally different teams in 2015 and they got hot at the right time. They need to look at their ballpark and realize that they need to be focused on defense and run prevention to support their greatest strength rather than power, which generally comes with a swing-and-miss approach at the plate.
Look at the Cubs, a team that has a bright of a future as anybody. In 2015, they relied too much on their swing-and-miss offense (1,518 strikeouts, by far the most in baseball) and they ran into a Mets team that overwhelmed them with power pitching in the postseason.
More and more teams around baseball are ignoring the strikeout because they get “rewarded” with the occasional home run. This is why pitching is dominating the game today. If more teams focused on putting the ball in play more often and manufacturing runs like we once saw, this would not be an issue.
Too many teams are accepting that a strikeout is like any other out. This could not be less true. Put the ball in play and you never know what can happen. It sounds simple but for some reason, this is how baseball used to be played and no longer is played.
In 2015, the Mets offense ranked 21st in on base percentage (.312) and 11th in strikeouts (1,290). They also struck out 10 times per game in the postseason. Asdrubal Cabrera struck out 107 times over 551 plate appearances compared to 63 strikeouts over 510 plate appearances for Flores. Walker struck out 110 times over 603 plate appearances. Murphy had 538 plate appearances and only struck out 38 times. Put those numbers together and the Mets are adding 116 strikeouts to their total from last season by only adding 106 plate appearances. Are these players going to repeat their exact strikeout totals from a season ago? No. But the Mets downgraded in this department from what they had a season ago and it proves that teams are ignoring strikeouts on offense.
A dominant starting rotation like the Mets have is extremely rare; so many prospects generally do not pan out for one team like they have. The organization needs to support them with an athletic ball club that can play defense, manufacture runs, and not worry about power in their ballpark.
I hope that I’m wrong because I want to see the Mets be successful on a consistent basis and they’re probably still the favorite to win the National League East in 2016. But when a team has a pitching staff like the Mets have, they need to support their pitchers with a defense that will enable them to throw fewer pitches by making plays that should be made and not giving the opposition extra outs, which they constantly neglect.
The Mets just lost the World Series to the ultimate defensive team. I thought that might make them realize where they are flawed and make the proper upgrades, especially up the middle. But their focus continues to be on offense rather than defense. Until that changes, the Mets will not be using their excellent starting pitching to its full potential.