#46 – Bernard Gilkey: The Best Outfielder Ever?

Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #46, Bernard Gilkey:

In 1996, Bernard Gilkey hit .317, with 30 home runs, 117 RBI, and 108 runs scored. The only other Mets to post .300-30-100-100 seasons? David Wright (2007 and 2008) and Mike Piazza (1999).

By Baseball-Reference’s version of  Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Bernard Gilkey’s 1996 season is tied with John Olerud’s 1998 for the most valuable season in Mets history by a position player, at 8.1 WAR. Because when you think great Mets, you think Bernard Gilkey. A chunk of this value is tied up in Gilkey’s defense in 1996, which is rated very highly by B-R’s Total Zone. This leads me to my next question:

What’s the best fielding team in Mets history?

Let’s start out using a Civil War era method. By fielding percentage, the 1999 Mets are best, led by their “Best Infield Ever?”. Those Mets made just 68 errors in 163 games and fielded .989, both figures top in their league as well as best in the franchise’s history. The top five Mets teams by fielding percentage:

  • 1999 – .989
  • 2010 – .987
  • 2008 – .986
  • 2009 – .984
  • 1998 – .984

So that’s a start. But using fielding percentage to answer this question is like using Roman numerals and a broken abacus when calculating how to launch a rocket to Mars. There are better ways to examine fielding beyond fielding percentage.

A fielder’s main job is not to “not make errors” — it is to turn batted balls into outs. Not making errors is a part of that job, but not the whole job, so one of the best shorthand methods for evaluating a team’s fielding is looking at “defensive efficiency,” or the percentage of balls in play a team turns into outs. To put it another way, defensive efficiency is non-home run hits divided by non-strikeout outs.

By defensive efficiency, the 1969 Mets are the best fielding group in franchise history, turning 73.1% of balls in play into outs, the best rate in the NL that season. That group featured future Gold Glovers Tommie Agee and Bud Harrelson in center and at short, respectively, with Cleon Jones having a good fielding year in left.

The 1999 Mets, on the other hand, look slightly less impressive by defensive efficiency. They turned 70.9% of their balls in play into outs, which was second best in the majors, but significantly lower than the 1969 Mets’ rate of 73.1%. The ’99 team had a great defensive infield, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo, and John Olerud left to right, but was hurt by a poor fielding outfield, most days running some combination of the always adventurous Roger Cedeno, the swiftly declining Brian McRae, the round Benny Agbayani, and a 40 year old Rickey Henderson, who at that point was famously more interested in playing dominoes than playing defense.

Anyway, the top five Mets teams by defensive efficiency:

  • 1969 – .731
  • 1970 – .724
  • 1968 – .721
  • 1971 – .720
  • 1985 – .717

The 1968-71 Mets dominate the list, but there are other things to consider. Some parks and time periods are significantly harder or easier to play defense in: the thin air of Coors Field causes balls to hang in the air for a shorter time than at normal altitudes, giving fielders less time to get under fly balls. The nature of the game also changes over time, with some seasons featuring normally sized batters who hit the ball at normal speeds; in other years, such as 1999, curiously strong and strangely oversized batters make absurdly hard contact, making the ball more difficult to field. Other variables, such as a particularly hot summer, can have a noticeable effect.

To this end, the ever insightful Baseball Prospectus tracks something called “park-adjusted defensive efficiency”, or PADE, which takes a team’s defensive efficiency and adjusts it for the ballparks a team played in. PADE is then listed as a percentage, saying how much better or worse a team was at turning balls in play into outs than an average fielding team from that year.

By PADE, the 1999 Mets are again the best fielding team, turning 3.19% more balls in play into outs than an average defensive team from the same period. The top five Mets defenses by PADE:

  • 1999 – 3.19%
  • 1970 – 2.46%
  • 1969 – 2.37%
  • 2006 – 2.34%
  • 2007 – 1.51%

The 1999 Mets turned a lower percentage of balls in play into outs than the 1969 Mets, but PADE says that they were a better relative to the era in which they played. This makes sense: 1969 was just a year removed from the year of the pitcher, while in 1999, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four’s Thing were turning double plays for the Cleveland Indians.

Defensive efficiency, however, has its own limitations. It ignores double plays, outfield assists, and most of the catcher’s contributions, particularly controlling the running game. These are things that are also important in keeping runs off the board.

So we can introduce another defensive measurement to the fray. The ever useful Baseball-Reference keeps track of the previously mentioned Total Zone, a defensive metric created by internet baseball-person Sean Smith, which attempts to measure how many runs a player or team saved with their gloves, as compared to an average player or team. Total Zone, which has numbers all the way back through baseball history, accounts for the usual stuff plus things like double plays, outfielders arms, and catchers controlling the running game; it also sounds like a vacuum cleaner brand. The top five Mets defenses by Total Zone:

  • 1996 – 80 runs saved
  • 1969 – 53 runs saved
  • 1997 – 44 runs saved
  • 1979 – 44 runs saved
  • 2010 – 32 runs saved

and I should also list

  • 1999 – 22 runs saved

By Total Zone, the 1996 Mets saved the most runs in team history, doing so by a sizable margin. This is, ah . . . this is unexpected. Or, perhaps, totally bonkers. By most other methods of looking at defense, the 1996 Mets were really bad. They made a league high 159 errors and fielded a league low .974; their defensive efficiency was a franchise low .682, a mark worse than even the 1962 Mets; and by PADE they turned 0.71% fewer balls in play into outs than the average team. Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splain to do.

We can take a look at the individual players, to start. The biggest individual contributors to the 1996 Mets Total Zone were our hero Bernard Gilkey, with 23 runs saved in left; Lance Johnson, with 17 runs saved in center; Alex Ochoa, with 12 in right; Rey Ordonez, with 11 at shortstop; and Edgardo Alfonzo, with 8 runs saved all over the infield.

If I have to pick out one group as being measured wonky, it’s the outfielders, where most of the big numbers come from. Gilkey somehow managed to lead all outfielders in assists with 18, and all left fielders in putouts – but 23 runs saved sounds mighty high for a left fielder. Lance Johnson led NL center fielders in putouts, but he also made the 12 errors and did not have a good arm. Alex Ochoa only started 72 games in right field. I wouldn’t say that any of the three had bad seasons, as Gilkey and Johnson have very good defensive numbers for their careers, and if a team is going to have a low defensive efficiency and good Total Zone numbers, they’re going to do it with an outfield that’s gunning down runners and turning triples into outs. So it’s possible. But I’m not sure the 1996 Mets had AS good seasons defensively as Total Zone spits out. There are some iffy things going on with Total Zone in the 1990s — so I think it’s okay to ignore those Mets on top of the list.

This leaves us with the 1969 Mets as being best by Total Zone. The ’69 team is also tops in defensive efficiency, and a close third in park adjusted defensive efficiency, putting them near the top in three different ways of looking at team defense. The 1999 infield is the best Mets infield ever, but even so, I’d take the ’69 Mets outfield over 1999′s, and Jerry Grote’s mitt over Mike Piazza’s. (We haven’t even gotten into adjusted for the periods each team played in, which would tilt things more towards ’69.) Everything as it is, there is strong evidence that the 1969 team was the best defensive group in Mets’ history.

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3 Comments

Filed under Mets, Statistics, Words

3 responses to “#46 – Bernard Gilkey: The Best Outfielder Ever?

  1. If that is not the best pic of Gilkey EVER, I’m not a pseudonymous blogger. +1 for using the MIB screen grab.

  2. I love that scene from Men in Black

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