#18 – John Olerud: Best Defensive Infield 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, #18, John Olerud:

In 1999, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story about John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, and Robin Ventura, asking if they constituted “The Best Infield Ever.” About a decade ago, Bill James took a look at that particular question in the greatest bathroom book of all time, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. He came to the conclusion that, no, they were not the greatest infield ever:

What they lacked was a legitimate MVP candidate, a player with 35 Win Shares. If Rey Ordonez was Derek Jeter, it would be the greatest infield of all time. And the Mets would have won the pennant.

James is considering the best all around infields of baseball history, which might be missing the point. I believe the SI article was suggesting that the Mets’ infield was the best defensive group ever, which is something entirely different. I suppose “Best Defensive Infield Ever?” isn’t as catchy, but Rey Ordonez is obviously preferable to Derek Jeter if it’s the case. Take that, Jeter!

If you look at it that way, just infield defense, then the 1999 Mets have a great claim as the best infield ever. According to Baseball-Reference’s defensive metric, Total Zone, the group combined to save 81 runs: Olerud saved 12, Alfonzo saved 9, Ordonez saved 33, and Ventura saved 27. That’s excellent. If you put Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Ozzie Smith, the vacuum cleaner Brooks Robinson, and an actual vacuum cleaner on the same infield, they wouldn’t save much more than 100 runs. The 1999 Mets got four-fifths of the way to the best imaginable infield defense.

There are just five other teams in baseball history to have all four of its starting infielders save at least 9 runs each. Those teams are, in order of runs saved (infielders are listed 1B, 2B, SS, 3B):

  • 1907 Chicago Cubs (Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Harry Steinfeldt)
  • 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Fred McGriff, Miguel Cairo, Kevin Stoker, Bob Smith)
  • 1905 Chicago White Sox (Jiggs Donahue, Gus Dundon, George Davis, Lee Tannehill)
  • 1934 New York Giants (Bill Terry, Hughie Critz, Travis Jackson, Johnny Vergez)
  • 1963 New York Yankees (Joe Pepitone, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Clete Boyer)

The Cubs’ Tinkers-Evers-Chance infield is the second best group here, but they saved just 68 runs, or 13 fewer than the 1999 Mets. The other four teams listed saved between 51-56 runs with their gloves, which is great, but nowhere near the Mets. I have no idea what the hell the 1998 Devil Rays are doing here, but that team did finish 4th in ERA, so it’s not like they were defensive zeroes. Another note: Not only did White Sox first baseman Jiggs Donahue go by “Jiggs,” but he also owned bowling alleys and died of syphilis.

The Mets’ infield dominates these other teams because they had two good fielders (Alfonzo and Olerud) and then two great fielders (Ventura and Ordonez, who combine for 60 runs saved). The other teams on the list have maybe one great fielder accompanying three good defenders, or just four good fielders having good defensive seasons. The other teams would need another great fielder to close the gap.

If you dig a deeper, a few teams come closer to the 1999 Mets’ infield, though none surpass it. The 1973 Baltimore Orioles (Boog Powell, Bobby Grinch, Mark Belanger, and Brooks Robinson) had two great defenders on the left side, Belanger and Robinson, but are held back by Powell at first, who was merely average. They saved 71 runs as a group — Belanger and Robinson saved 60 of them — but that’s still 10 fewer than the Mets. The 1956 Dodgers’ infield saved 74 runs as a group, which would make them the second best infield, but you need to count five players to come up with that total (Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, and Randy Jackson . . . and 37 year old Jackie Robinson). The 1989 St. Louis Cardinals saw Jose Oquendo at second, Ozzie Smith at short, and Terry Pendleton at third combine to save 71 runs, but they were held back by Pedro Guerrero at first, who negates Pendleton’s 19 run contribution all by himself.

So no one beats the 1999 Mets, at least by Total Zone.  TZ can be iffy at times, but there is good evidence to suggest that, yes, the 1999 Mets infield might really have been the best (defensive) infield ever.

Highest Career OPS as a Met:

Rk Player OPS
1 John Olerud .926
2 Mike Piazza .915
3 David Wright .899
4 Darryl Strawberry .878
5 Carlos Beltran .864
6 Carlos Delgado .857
7 Bobby Bonilla .851
8 Keith Hernandez .816
9 Edgardo Alfonzo .812
10 Howard Johnson .801
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/23/2011.

3 Comments

Filed under Mets, Words

3 responses to “#18 – John Olerud: Best Defensive Infield Ever?

  1. I’m sure that some smart guy out there can prove me wrong. But the 1907 Cubs played in a time when runs were not so easy to come by…

    The Cubs IF save 68 runs and gave up a total of 390. The Mets IF save 81 runs and gave up a total of 771. The aforementioned Cubs infield played 104 fewer games during the season than the Mets IF (who hardly missed any games all season). 68 runs saved in 531 total games mean more than 81 games saved 635 games played in an era when runs were tougher to come by….

    Raul

    • Patrick Flood

      Raul, you’re definitely onto something here. If I can throw in my two cents:

      - A run in 1907, when teams were scoring 3.4 runs per game is roughly 47% more valuable than a run in 1999, when teams scored 5.0 runs per game.

      - On the other hand, there were almost twice as many strikeouts per nine innings in 1999 than in 1907. More strikeouts means fewer chances for fielder, so the 1907 Cubs had about 16% more chances per nine innings than the Mets.

      - But the 1999 Mets also played more games, meaning more chances.

      - The 1907 Cubs played in a hitters’ park, while the 1999 Mets played in a pitchers’ park, which again messes with how much a run is worth.

      If you just go by Baseball-Reference’s defensive wins above replacement, the Mets’ infield defense was 8 wins above replacement, while the Cubs’ defense was 6.4 wins above replacement.

      But, as you pointed out, there probably is a lot more to look at.

      • Thanks, Patrick.

        Was that a cue for someone to factor in undersized fielding gloves, uneven playing surfaces, and fielders having to play lopsided ground balls loaded with spit, talcum, and foreign substances? Gawd, I hope not….

        I use to think that the best way to enjoy baseball was with an uncluttered mind.
        Of course that was way before a 24oz Heineken cost $12.50 at the ballpark.

        Numbers sometimes have a way of spoiling things.

        Raul

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