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Did the 1999 Mets really have “the best infield ever?”

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We use defensive metrics to find out.

Best Infield Ever

In 1999, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story provocatively titled, “The best infield ever?” The article, written by Tom Verducci, suggested that the ’99 Mets’ infield of John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, and Rey Ordonez could be the greatest defensively of all time. The defensive metrics indicate that Verducci was right.

Total Zone (TZ) is the most reliable defensive metric that measures player performance throughout baseball history. Of the 2,835 infields ever assembled, the 1999 Mets’ ranks second with 81 TZ. Only the 1975 Orioles’ infield saved more runs by that metric.

Year Team Primary Infield TZ
Year Team Primary Infield TZ
1975 Orioles Lee May, Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger 83
1999 Mets John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez 81
1940 Reds Frank McCormick, Lonny Frey, Billy Werber, Billy Myers 76

Note that these TZ totals include the contributions of all of the teams’ infielders, including backups. There are two reasons for this. First, many teams employed utility infielders who got significant playing time as fifth men off the bench and whose contributions should be reflected. The second is a practical one: Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs provide each team’s TZ totals by position, but neither is able to filter out the contributions of backups.

It’s worth pointing out that the 1999 Mets’ four primary infielders actually produced more TZ than did the 1975 Orioles’. Olerud (12 TZ), Alfonzo (9), Ventura (27), and Ordonez (33) combined for 81 TZ, while May (1), Grich (17), Robinson (19), and Belanger (35) combined for 72.

The ’99 Mets also differentiated themselves from the ’75 Orioles in that the Mets got outstanding defensive production from all four of their primary infielders. This is due to Olerud’s tremendous defense at first base, where May was basically league-average. In fact, the 1999 Mets are one of just 23 teams in major league history to get at least 9 TZ from all four infield positions. Of the nearly 3,000 teams in baseball history, less than 1% achieved that type of defensive consistency across the diamond.

The 1999 Mets’ infield also fared well by the more traditional defensive metrics. For example, the group’s 33 errors are the second fewest of any team’s since 1900 (excluding teams that played during strike-shortened seasons). Only the 2010 Yankees’ infield committed fewer errors.

Year Team Primary Infield E
Year Team Primary Infield E
2010 Yankees Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter 27
1999 Mets John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez 33
2000 Indians Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Omar Vizquel 34

Mets infielders’ defensive efficiency in 1999 resulted in a .991 fielding percentage, also the second-best mark of all time.

Year Team Primary Infield PO A E FP
Year Team Primary Infield PO A E FP
2010 Yankees Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter 2023 1255 27 .992
1999 Mets John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez 2092 1352 33 .991
2004 Rockies Todd Helton, Aaron Miles, Vinny Castilla, Royce Clayton 2255 1483 37 .990

Finally, the 1999 Mets set a record for which their infield is largely responsible: The team allowed just 20 unearned runs. This is by far the fewest of any team that played in a non-strike-shortened season since 1900.

Year Team Primary Infield UER
Year Team Primary Infield UER
1999 Mets John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez 20
2015 Giants Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy, Brandon Crawford 28
2012 White Sox Paul Konerko, Gordon Beckham, Kevin Youkilis, Alexei Ramirez 30

The Mets’ 20 unearned runs accounted for just 2.8% of the 711 total runs the team allowed. That unearned-run percentage is also the best of all time.

Year Team Primary Infield UER R UER%
Year Team Primary Infield UER R UER%
1999 Mets John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez 20 711 2.8%
1998 Orioles Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Bordick 31 785 3.9%
2004 Rockies Todd Helton, Aaron Miles, Vinny Castilla, Royce Clayton 40 923 4.3%

Again, what made the 1999 Mets’ infield so special is the exceptional defense that all four starters provided. Olerud, Alfonzo, Ventura, and Ordonez all ranked in the top three in TZ in Major League Baseball at their respective positions. Ventura and Ordonez both ranked first, and both won Gold Glove Awards for their outstanding play.

1B 2B 3B SS
1B 2B 3B SS
Kevin Young (17 TZ) Pokey Reese (27 TZ) Robin Ventura (27 TZ) Rey Ordonez (33 TZ)
John Olerud (12 TZ) Randy Velarde (17 TZ) Scott Rolen (17 TZ) Rey Sanchez (22 TZ)
Eric Karros (11 TZ) Edgardo Alfonzo (9 TZ) Adrian Beltre (13 TZ) Mike Bordick (20 TZ)

Ordonez’s performance in 1999 was particularly noteworthy. Among all shortstops in major league history, only Adam Everett (40 TZ in 2006), Mark Belanger (35 TZ in 1975), and Terry Turner (34 TZ in 1906) produced higher single-season TZ totals than Ordonez’s 33 in 1999. The Mets’ shortstop also finished that season with 100 consecutive errorless games, a streak that carried into the next season until it ended at 101, which was then a record for a shortstop. During those 101 games, Ordonez converted 418 chances without making an error.

Ordonez was not the only Mets infielder to set a record in 1999. Alfonzo made just five errors that year: three on wild throws, one on a dropped relay, and one on a misplayed fly ball. He did not commit a single error on a ground ball, making him the first full-time infielder in baseball history to go an entire season without doing so. You can check out the nifty glovework of Alfonzo, Ordonez, and the rest of the ’99 Mets’ infield in the highlight reel below, which is narrated by Tom Seaver:

The 1999 season was one of the most memorable in franchise history. The Mets won 97 games that year, closed out the Division Series with a thrilling walk-off home run by Todd Pratt, and experienced one of the most famous postseason moments in Robin Ventura’s grand-slam single in Game Five of the NLCS.

That year, Mets fans also got to watch one of the best defensive infields in the history of Major League Baseball. The 1999 Mets’ infield ranks in the top two in virtually every relevant defensive metric, with different teams occupying the other spot. It seems, therefore, that Sports Illustrated wasn’t just committing hyperbole to sell magazines. The ’99 Mets might actually have had “the best infield ever.”