When the new Mets leadership took over in November and the Wilpons out of the equation, one of the hopes was that the Mets would finally be able to modernize their front office to the current game—something the Wilpons were never capable of or willing to do. One of the reasons the Mets seemed to consistently underperform their true talent level was that the team’s braintrust never grasped the quickly evolving modern trends in the game, failing to put players in better positions to succeed.
The new Mets leadership, headed by Sandy Alderson and GM Zack Scott, has expanded the analytics side of things tremendously. It’s tough to know so early on just how much more advanced they are now than they were just a year ago, but an early indication of progress has been the team’s infield positioning through the first 11 games. Mets fans with a keen eye probably noticed some changes in the team’s infield positioning so far, and the numbers would back that up. Thanks to Baseball Savant, we can see just how dramatic the change is this year from previous years.
Last year, the Mets deployed what Baseball Savant recognizes as a shift (three infielders on one side) just 21.4% of the time, which was the 27th-most in baseball. That had actually signaled progress for the previous regime, which had shifted just 14.1% of the time in 2019, which was 28th-most. Here’s a look at how they stacked up those two years:
In fact, since they started tracking shifts in 2016, the Mets had never been out of the bottom 10 in the league Shift%, and 2018 was the only time they were outside of the bottom five (they were 21st). As you can tell by the teams on the top and bottoms of those charts, shifting isn’t always necessarily correlated with winning, because having good players still trumps all. But there is a reason why the Dodgers, Rays, Yankees and Astros tend to be at or near the top of these charts most years. Playing the percentages is typically a good idea, and it’s something the Mets were never too interested in trying.
This year, however, represents a completely different story:
The Mets have deployed a shift for nearly half the batters they’ve faced, which is third-most among all teams in baseball this year, ranking just below the Dodgers and Athletics and just above the Astros.
Looking closer, the Mets have shifted on right-handed hitters about 29% of the time so far, an increase from the middling 13.2% they shifted on righties in 2020, and a stark increase from 2016-2019, when they never cracked 6% against righties. The left-handed shifts, however, represent an an even more drastic change. The Mets went from shifting on just 33.5% of left-handed hitters in 2020 to a staggering 74.6% of the time this year.
The fruits of better positioning this year have already paid dividends for the Mets, too. Marcus Stroman, a ground ball pitcher, is off to a phenomenal start this year, largely because the ground balls he induces have all been seemingly hit directly at Mets infielders. The same is true for the other pitchers, too; Mets starters have allowed a BABIP of just .257 through the first 11 games, which is the fourth-lowest in baseball.
You don’t always notice when better positioning leads to outs, but one moment where the Mets positioning noticeably came through huge was on Wednesday night against the Phillies. In a 2-1 game in the seventh inning, Aaron Loup came in to face the lefty Didi Gregorius with two runners on. Gregorius has only been fully shifted on about 35% of the time over the last two years, but the Mets shifted on him throughout the series, and in a double play situation employed a modified shift with Francisco Lindor playing up the middle, basically right at the bag. Gregorius hit a ball right at Lindor, who started an inning-ending double play. It would’ve been a game-tying base hit with Lindor playing with in the more traditional shortstop hole.
Of course, this is all still small sample size so early in the year. There are still thousands of at-bats to log information for this year. The Mets’ numbers here could easily be skewed by having the fewest amount of PAs on that entire chart to go off of. They’ve also played most of their games against the Phillies, who have a few strong pull hitters in their lineup, which could also mess with the numbers. That said, this is the first real data we have that shows a significant change in philosophy from this new Mets front office, and a sign of modernization they were never even close to under the Wilpons. If it sticks, the results could have a dramatic impact.