Last night, the New York Mets let Lucas Duda, Nick Evans, and Chris Carter patrol the outfield . . . at the same time. The Dude, the Evans, and the Animal, left to right in the expanses of Citi Field in the top of the ninth inning.
Now, these sorts of things will happen in meaningless September games — though really, doesn’t calling something a game inherently imply meaninglessness? — but this was also a close contest the Mets were trying to win. So in the ninth, they had Elmer Dessens, maybe the most contact-reliant pitcher in baseball on the mound, they were down by just one run . . . and the outfield they chose to embrace included Nick Evans playing center field, supported on either side by Duda and Carter. This was a bad idea. The Mets effectively put on a Lady Gaga meat dress and went off to try to cuddle with bears in the woods. Those sorts of plans tend to not work out.
But last night, it did work out. Evans recorded a putout on his only chance as a center fielder, and the Mets defeated the villainously mustachioed John Axford and the Brewers on a Ruben Tejada walk-off double. It was about as much fun as September baseball between two teams well out of the pennant race can be.
Still, the Duda-Evans-Carter doomsday defense had to be the worst outfield I’ve ever seen outside of a split-squad spring training game. It was three left fielders spread out across the entire massive Citi Field outfield.
So it got me wondering about Mets outfields — as in: What’s the worst defensive outfield the Mets have ever used regularly? The best defensive outfield the Mets have ever used?
Here’s what I found using Baseball-Reference:
The Total Zone system says the worst defensive outfield the Mets regularly used was, oddly enough, the 1999 one that accompanied their greatest defensive infield:
LF Rickey Henderson: -15 runs
CF Brian McRae: -22 runs
RF Roger Cedeno: -11 runs
A 40-year-old Henderson, a last-legs McRae, and the always awful Cedeno did most of the damage for a Mets outfield that finished minus-56 runs in 1999. Benny Agbayani and Darryl Hamilton also contributed negatively, but far less so than the above three.
Most of the damage came in the left-center gap. McRae, mercifully dumped by the Mets at the deadline, recorded 43 fewer putouts than expected in his half-season patrolling center. Henderson recorded 19 fewer putouts than expected during his time. Mets left fielders recorded just two assists for the entire season, and their center fielders had a whopping five. I suppose a case could be made that Cedeno wasn’t as bad that season as Total Zone indicates, but it’s hard to argue in favor of Henderson and McRae, one of whom was forty and not particularly interested in playing defense, the other out of baseball after that season. It just sounds like an awful outfield, and the numbers agree.
Thankfully, the 1999 Mets offset their awful defensive outfield with a spectacular defensive infield. John Olerud (+12 runs saved), Edgardo Alfonzo (+7), Rey Ordonez (+33), and Robin Ventura (+27) combined to save 79 runs. Is there any team with a bigger gap between their infield and outfield defense? I would be impressed if there was.
Dishonorable mentions go to 1992‘s alignment, which registered a minus-44 runs with a pair of miscast third basemen in the outfield, Bobby Bonilla in right and Howard Johnson in center — really? — and 1974‘s minus-41 run, 28 error unit of Cleon Jones, Tom Don Hahn, and Rusty Staub.
As for the best defensive outfield . . . well, it’s a weird one. I’m not sure how I feel about this. According to Total Zone, the best defensive outfield in Mets history belongs to the 1996 team:
LF Bernard Gilkey: +23 runs
CF Lance Johnson: +17 runs
RF Alex Ochoa: +12 runs
Anyone ever notice how Lance Johnson is the answer to every Mets trivia question? If you’re ever unsure, just guess Lance Johnson. . .
Paleontology enthusiast Carl Everett saved another 7 runs, for a team total of 60 runs saved by the outfield. Yeah, I don’t know about this one. Total Zone can be flukey from season to season, this Mets pitching staff allowed a high number of fly balls, and the outfield made 37 errors. Something smells funny here, but it is what the numbers say. Who knows, maybe this disproves the whole of sabermetrics. Everyone go back to using batting average.
In Total Zone’s, er, defense, Gilkey did lead the National League in outfield assists despite being a left fielder, and both Gilkey and Johnson led the league in putouts at their respective positions. So it could also be a fluke, in that both happened to have their best defensive seasons in the same year. I don’t know what to think. You can make up your own mind.
Honorable mentions go to the 1989 outfield of Kevin McReynolds in left, Darryl Strawberry in right, and one of Juan Samuel, Mookie Wilson, or Lenny Dykstra in center that saved 45 runs, the Carlos Beltran-Endy Chavez clinic of 2008 that saved 36 runs, and the 1969 outfield of Cleon Jones, Tommy Agee, and Ron Swoboda that saved 26 runs during the regular season and many more during the World Series. I’ll also mention the 2007 outfield alignment of Carlos Gomez in left, Carlos Beltran in center, and Endy Chavez in right, which may have been the antithesis of Duda-Evans-Carter, though that alignment was only for a handful of games.
So there you go: The 1999 Henderson-McRae-Cedeno outfield was rated by Total Zone as the worst Mets outfield ever, and the Gilkey-Johnson-Ochoa outfield of 1996 was rated the best. Not what I would have guessed . . . but hey, I also never would have guessed I’d see Nick Evans play center field.
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The best defensive seasons in Mets history by outfield position:
LF Bernard Gilkey: +23 runs in 1999
CF Angel Pagan: +20 runs in 2010
RF Darryl Strawberry: +18 runs in 1990
LF Lee Mazzilli: -15 runs in 1981
CF Howard Johnson: -25 runs in 1992
RF Rusty Staub: -18 runs in 1974