Shaky defense returns to forefront in defeat

April 25th, 2021

NEW YORK -- During his two-hitter Friday night at Citi Field, Jacob deGrom faced 29 batters and struck out more than half of them, keeping his fielders out of the equation about as much as any pitcher can. As the theory goes, Mets defenders -- the subject of near-constant criticism over the past week (and, more rightly, the past decade or so) -- can’t be an issue if they aren’t touching the baseball.

Less than 24 hours later, the Mets demonstrated the dangers of what happens when they do. By the third inning, New York fielders had already committed three notable blunders behind Marcus Stroman, who could not limit the resulting damage in a 7-1 loss to the Nationals on Saturday.

“I don’t think we’re in a defensive slump,” manager Luis Rojas said. “[Friday] we played a pretty good game defensively, and I think overall today, we were on our toes to make the plays as well. … I think the guys are feeling pretty good about themselves on how prepared they are to play defense behind the pitchers.”

The most overt misplay occurred on the second pitch of the game, when Josh Harrison lined a single to right. Caught in between trying to catch the ball on the fly or play it on a hop, Michael Conforto pulled up short, stabbed at the ball, then watched it scoot several dozen yards behind him to the wall. As Conforto sprinted after the baseball, Harrison raced around to third base, allowing him to score easily on a Yadiel Hernandez sacrifice fly.

“I think I got a little aggressive going to try to maybe catch it,” Conforto said. “He really got inside it and it was kind of tailing away from me. Had I stayed back on it, I probably keep that ball in front of me, but I just got a little too close to it.”

More defensive problems would follow. With two men on base in the second inning, pitcher Joe Ross hit a single to right, where Conforto corralled it and fired home. His throw was not only offline, but needed two hops to reach home plate, which allowed Starlin Castro to score with relative ease. Then, in the third, Hernandez hit a line drive to left field, where Dominic Smith put himself in position to catch the ball, only to have it glance off his glove and fall to the turf.

These were echoes of a difficult defensive week for the Mets, who committed six errors during a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs in Chicago. Most of that criticism fell to third baseman J.D. Davis, who earned a night on the bench after making three of the six errors himself. But to focus solely on Davis would be to ignore that the Mets have endured defensive issues at nearly every position, and particularly in the outfield.

“We know that’s not our identity as a team,” Conforto said. “We’re solid all around. The conversation has been just to be us, not put too much pressure on ourselves.”

This is nothing new for the Mets, whose outfielders have collectively ranked 24th in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved since the start of the 2018 season. The front office considered addressing the problem directly in the offseason, reportedly making George Springer a six-year offer worth around $125 million to play center field for them. That would have allowed the Mets to move Brandon Nimmo from center to left field, where he is a stronger defender, though it also would have left Smith -- one of the Mets’ best offensive players -- without a place to play.

When Springer opted instead for the Blue Jays’ $150 million offer, the Mets were left with a regular outfield of Smith, Nimmo and Conforto from left to right -- one of the game’s most potent offensive outfields, but a well below-average defensive unit.

As if to highlight that discrepancy, Conforto gave the Mets their only run against Ross with a homer off the right-field foul pole in the fourth. But he also made the team’s two most jarring defensive misplays, resulting in two extra runs -- one earned, the other unearned -- on Stroman’s line. All told, Stroman allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits, ballooning his ERA from 0.90 to 2.25.

“I’m someone who -- I trust my defense, always,” Stroman said. “I love my defense. I’m a pitcher who wants the ball to be put into play weakly. So I have a lot of trust in my defense to make every play. 

“Conforto’s made unbelievable plays for me since I’ve been here. I know he’s going to continue to make unbelievable plays for me in my next start, the next start after that. So I’m not even slightly worried about him misplaying a ball in the first inning, you know what I mean? I have to be better in the game. That’s just what it comes down to. I have to make pitches and I have to limit the runs. And I wasn’t able to do that today.”