Mets middle-infield defense takes a step forward

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Newest acquisitions Neil Walker and (soon-to-be-signed, pending a physical) Asdrubal Cabrera are both capable offensive players for the New York Mets, though their biggest contributions may come on the defensive side.

The Mets were able to get away with having the poorest middle-infield defense in baseball last season—as their second basemen and shortstops combined for -36 defensive runs saved, and often forced their pitchers to have to get a lot of extra outs.

There was an eventual price to be paid, which came in Game 4 of the World Series when a key error by Daniel Murphy allowed the tying run to score.

This season, the Mets should be better in that regard, though admittedly they’re not necessarily going to be good. They basically went from “oh no!” to just plain “oh.”

It’s a similar upgrade to the one the Mets made when they transitioned from Lucas Duda to Eric Young in left field a few years ago (and Young turned out to be much better than expected).

Walker has played six major-league seasons and his defensive runs saved total has fluctuated from-8 to 9. Each of the last two seasons, he has been a hair below average at -2 runs saved (Murphy was a combined -16 in that span). Walker has historically rated very well at getting to balls hit up the middle and poor at balls hit in the first base-second base hole, though that could be a product of positioning more than skill.

Where you’ll most notice the difference between Murphy and Walker will be in Walker’s ability to make noteworthy plays while avoiding major mistakes.

Baseball Info Solutions, which provides defensive data to teams and media charts “Good Fielding Plays” and “Defensive Misplays & Errors.” Good Plays can be both plays that are Web Gem-caliber and also things like making a turn on a double play despite being barreled into. Misplays and Errors include both plays scored as errors but also things such as slipping and falling, failing to turn a double play, or a hesitation on a play that results in a negative consequence.

Over the last three seasons, Murphy had 106 Good Fielding Plays and 104 Defensive Misplays & Errors in a little more than 2,800 innings at second base, including an 11/18 rate in 2015.

Walker had 145 Good Fielding Plays and 73 Misplays & Errors in just over 3,500 innings, including a 36/24 rate in 2015.

There was a time when Walker’s new double-play mate, Cabrera, wowed on defense, though that time appears to have passed. He graded out at -8 defensive runs saved in 1,141 innings in 2015 (and -7 the year before that). He’s also not effective at turning the double play (which Walker is, so it will be interesting how they mesh).

With all that said, Cabrera is an upgrade. Mets shortstops combined for -26 defensive runs saved last season, the worst total for any team at an infield position (though Phillies pitchers combined for -30). His numbers indicate he should be able to make the play in the shortstop-third base hole a little more often than Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores, both of whom struggled with that.

Though Cabrera may not rate well, he is highly regarded by his teammates. In an end-of-season article in the Tampa Bay Times, second baseman Logan Forsythe, third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Chris Archer all spoke highly of him from a defensive perspective. No one was saying such things about Mets shortstops last season.

What does it all mean? Ideally, Mets pitchers will be making fewer pitches and yielding fewer baserunners with this comination behind them. And that could translate to an extra win or two, just on the defensive end. The bottom line is this: The Mets have a great pitching staff when it comes to keeping the ball out of play. But you shouldn’t shudder as much as you may have in 2014 when the ball is put in play