Since the Mets acquired Jay Bruce, the team's potentially-dreadful outfield defense has been a major topic of discussion. In Bruce, the Mets now have one of the game’s worst defensive players manning right field. Bruce’s acquisition pushed Curtis Granderson—no longer a reliable major league center fielder—into center.
Yoenis Cespedes’s various lower-body injuries have limited his range and resulted in his worst defensive season in the majors. And after placing Cespedes on the disabled list, the Mets replaced the Gold Glove left fielder with Michael Conforto, who is an average defender at best. While the Mets’ struggling offense is their biggest issue at the moment, their outfield defense isn’t doing them any favors.
Given the state of the Mets’ outfield, now is as good a time as ever to remember the 1996 Mets. According to one reliable defensive metric, that team actually had one of the best defensive outfields in the history of the game.
The ’96 Mets were an otherwise unremarkable group. In the final year before Steve Phillips's tenure as GM, the Mets finished 20 games under .500 and fourth in the NL East. This makes it all the more striking that the team had three players—catcher Todd Hundley (.259/.356/.550, 134 wRC+, 41 home runs, 112 RBIs, 4.7 fWAR), left fielder Bernard Gilkey (.317/.393/.562, 152 wRC+, 30 home runs, 117 RBIs, 108 runs scored, 44 doubles, 7.6 fWAR), and center fielder Lance Johnson (.333/.362/.479, 122 wRC+, 227 hits, 21 triples, 117 runs scored, 50 stolen bases, 6.4 fWAR)—contribute some of the best single-season performances in franchise history.
Gilkey and Johnson not only had tremendous offensive seasons; they were also among the best defensive players in the game. Gilkey’s 23 total zone runs (TZ) were the fourth most among outfielders, while Johnson ranked sixth with 17 TZ. Rookie Alex Ochoa rounded out the outfield and, despite playing just 82 games that year, posted an impressive 12 TZ, good for 11th most among outfielders.
In Gilkey, Johnson, and Ochoa, the Mets had three of the game’s 11 best defensive outfielders—and three of the game’s 21 best defensive players. Combined, they saved 52 more runs than a trio of average defensive players would have.
Unsurprisingly, the Mets’ 60 outfield TZ led the majors that year. (That figure includes the contributions of all Mets outfielders, including backups.) What’s remarkable is that, of the 1,558 teams that played from 1954 to 2015—the full seasons for which Baseball-Reference lists TZ data—only 13 recorded higher outfield TZ totals than did the 1996 Mets. Those teams are listed below.
Interestingly, the traditional defensive metrics were not kind to the ’96 Mets' outfield: The group’s .968 fielding percentage was the second-lowest in all of baseball, and its 37 errors were the second most.
TZ attempts to overcome the limitations of fielding percentage and errors. Their main limitation is that they only account for balls that a fielder reaches. If a fielder doesn't reach a playable ball, the traditional stats don’t penalize him for it. By measuring how frequently fielders convert balls within their assigned "zones" into outs, TZ attempts to quantify range. In 1996, Mets outfielders were tied for first with 59 runs saved using that methodology, and Gilkey’s 20 were far and away the most among left fielders.
TZ also measures the value that a fielder adds with his arm, both by throwing runners out and by holding them to their original base. The ’96 Mets were not dominant in that category, finishing tied for ninth with just one run saved with their arms. Once again, Gilkey’s three runs saved led all left fielders. While Johnson’s -3 runs saved with his arm was one of the lowest marks among center fielders, he more than made up for it with his 20 runs saved on fielding plays, which was the second-highest total.
Of course, TZ has its limitations, too. Modern defensive metrics like DRS and UZR rely on more precise in-game observations, and therefore provide better data. However, TZ covers a much longer period of baseball history, and it is the only catchall defensive stat that allows you to compare teams like the 2016 Mets and the 1996 Mets. In making that comparison, we find that, while the 2016 Mets are better in most categories, their defensive outfield of Conforto, Granderson, and Bruce does not match up to that of Gilkey, Johnson, and Ochoa.