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Mets season preview: 2015 outfield defense

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The 2015 Mets outfield will feature newcomer Michael Cuddyer along with Juan Lagares and Curtis Granderson. Matt den Dekker, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and John Mayberry Jr. will provide the team some outfield depth.

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Defensive metrics are often criticized because defense is less quantifiable than offensive outcomes like hits, walks, or runs produced. However, thanks to sabermetrics, we have now access to a handful of statistics that are pretty effective at measuring a player's production in the field. Using tools such as DRS, OOZ, range factor, UZR/150, or FanGraphs's own "Def" value, we can have an idea of what to expect from the Mets' outfield defense in 2015.

State of the outfield

When you refer to the Mets' outfield, surely Juan Lagares's name will be the first to pop into your mind. The 25-year-old won a Gold Glove last year after an extraordinary season in center field, and will enter 2015 as arguably the third-best center fielder in the game behind Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. The Mets rounded out their outfield last year with Curtis Granderson in right, and a combination of Chris Young, Eric Young Jr., and Matt Den Dekker in left.

Name Inn Fld% RF/G
Curtis Granderson 1328.1 0.994 2.07
Juan Lagares 945 0.984 2.67
Eric Young 580.1 0.993 1.84
Chris Young 580 0.993 1.77
Matt den Dekker 360 0.986 1.62
Kirk Nieuwenhuis 217.1 0.981 1.49
Bobby Abreu 206 0.949 1.19
Eric Campbell 101.1 1 1.13
Andrew Brown 69.2 1 1.17
Lucas Duda 3 1 1
League Average 0.985 1.85
Team Total 4391 0.988 1.94

The table above uses Baseball Reference figures to measure Mets outfielders’ defensive outcomes in 2014. The fielding percentage (Fld%) represents the percentage of times "a defensive player properly handles a batted or thrown ball," and is calculated as (putouts+assists+errors)/total chances. The range factor per game (RF/G) is somewhat different, as it considers the number of putouts and assists, divided by the number of innings played at a position.

Among the four outfielders who got the most playing time last year, Granderson and the two Youngs had above-average fielding percentages; Lagares did not. Range factor tells a different story, as it has Lagares ahead of the other three by a significant margin. The problem with these two statistics is that they do not consider the plays that outfielders should have made but could not get to. They only consider plays that were either directly made or botched. This is where the advanced metrics help us. According to those metrics, here’s how Mets outfielders (with at least 130 innings played) performed last year:

Name Pos Inn DRS OOZ UZR/150 Def
Juan Lagares CF 945 28 92 25.3 20.2
Eric Young LF 577.1 5 34 20.1 5.9
Matt den Dekker CF 136.2 4 6 21.3 2.1
Chris Young LF 346.1 3 20 5.3 -0.1
Matt den Dekker LF 222.2 0 14 -6.8 -2.2
Bobby Abreu RF 169 -7 7 -37.5 -5.6
Chris Young CF 193.1 -4 10 -44.4 -6.1
Curtis Granderson RF 1177.1 0 85 -10.8 -14.2

For reference, DRS, UZR, and Def are all measured in runs saved above or below average. For instance, Juan Lagares was 28 runs above average in terms of DRS, while Chris Young was 6.1 runs below average in terms of Def. I included a number of different metrics in the table so that you can use the one that you prefer. I tend to prefer Def, since it accounts for both fielding runs above average and positional adjustment, meaning that defensive outcomes reflect the difficulty of the player’s position. Here are FanGraphs's rules of thumb for measuring Def:

Defensive Ability/Performance Def
Excellent +20
Great +12
Above Average +4
Average 0
Below Average -4
Poor -12
Awful -20

Whichever defensive metric you prefer, they all confirm what we already knew: that Juan Lagares was a tremendous center fielder in 2014. What also stands out is how mediocre most of the other outfielders were. Granderson, for example, had a Def rating of -14.2 and a -10.8 UZR/150.

During the offseason, the Mets made an early splash by signing Michael Cuddyer to a two-year contract, despite his advanced age and his three trips to the DL in 2014. Therefore, the 2015 Opening Day outfield should feature Granderson in left, Lagares in center, and Cuddyer in right, with Matt den Dekker, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, John Mayberry Jr., and maybe Alex Castellanos providing outfield depth. So, what's the defensive outlook for the 2015 Mets outfield?

The 2015 Outfield: The Gold Glove and the old bats

Michael Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson

Michael Cuddyer isn't known for his defensive abilities. Since 2004,  as an outfielder, Cuddyer has posted a positive DRS just once, and a positive UZR just three times. His defense regressed to a career low in 2013, when Cuddyer posted -16 DRS and a -13.4 UZR with the Rockies. The Mets are hoping that Cuddyer can provide something close to his recent offensive output—.331/.385/.543, 142 wRC+ in 179 games from 2013 to 2014—to compensate for his diminishing defensive skills.

With Cuddyer in right field, Curtis Granderson will get most of the playing time in left field. Before joining the Mets, Granderson recorded only 85 innings the right field, which he did as a Yankee in 2013. Granderson has more experience in left field, where he has 222 innings under his belt with the Tigers, Yankees, and Mets. Despite the relatively small sample size, his career UZR/150 at the position compares favorably to his numbers as a right fielder.

Pos Inn DRS UZR/150
LF 222 1 -2
RF 1262.1 1 -5.4

While we shouldn't expect above-average defense from Granderson, he should improve defensively as he transitions to the somewhat easier outfield position.

Juan Lagares

Juan Lagares is a different story altogether. His defensive performance in 2014 was good enough to earn Lagares his first Gold Glove Award. He also improved his offense and finished with 3.8 fWAR, making him the best Mets position player last year. Here's how Lagares compared to the other top outfielders in the game, with at least 800 innings played since 2013:

Name PA Def WAR
Juan Lagares 873 45.6 6.7
Lorenzo Cain 944 37.1 7.5
Carlos Gomez 1234 34.3 13.4
Jason Heyward 1089 26.6 8.5
Ben Zobrist 1352 25.4 11.1
Leonys Martin 1091 23.5 6.2
Gerardo Parra 1237 20.6 4.6
Alex Gordon 1343 19.5 10.1
Chris Denorfia 878 15.3 4.4
Jacoby Ellsbury 1271 14.1 9.4

By Def, Lagares leads the pack by a mile. You may also recall that Lagares made the most out of zone plays among Mets outfielders in 2014. This is where he gets a lot of his defensive value. As you can see on the charts below, Lagares missed only a few playable balls last year, while covering a very large center field in his home park.

Juan Lagares Spray Chart

In 2015, Steamer projects Lagares to compile a 16.4 Def—a regression from his 2013 and 2014 numbers, but still well above average. Clearly, Lagares is the least of the Mets' problems, defensively.

Outfield depth

The Mets lost two of their better defensive outfielders in Chris Young and Eric Young Jr. In 2015, Terry Collins will have some combination of den Dekker, Nieuwenhuis, Mayberry, and maybe Castellanos on his bench. Defensively, none of them really stands out. While den Dekker probably has the highest ceiling of those four, he was just an average center fielder and a below-average left fielder in 2014, by Def. As for the others, their career defensive stats aren't too promising:

Player Pos Inn DRS OOZ UZR/150 Def
den Dekker OF 497.1 5 35 1.8 0.2
Nieuwenhuis OF 1029.2 2 64 1.6 0.2
Castellanos OF 89.2 -4 0 -56 -4.3
Mayberry OF 2477 -19 147 -6.7 -22.1

The Mets' outfield defense does not project to improve much from last season's. Aside from Lagares, the Mets don't seem to have outfield options that are far above average—although Granderson should perform better in left field than he did in right. The Mets probably have their biggest potential for growth in den Dekker and Nieuwenhuis, who profile as strong defenders, even though their metrics haven't borne out those reputations quite yet.