Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets: How important is center-field defense?

Mets center fielder Cespedes is a below-average defender, per Defensive Runs Saved metric. But if he hits like he did in 2015, Cespedes will make up for it at the plate. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Yoenis Cespedes will return to the New York Mets on a three-year, $75 million deal that includes $27.5 million in 2016 and the ability for Cespedes to opt out after one year. For the Mets, it's a pretty sweet deal: Yes, they had to give a higher annual average value than projected, but it's for a shorter period than the five or six years Cespedes was reportedly asking for, so there is less long-term risk involved; he didn't cost the Mets a draft pick; and if he does opt out, the Mets will give him a qualifying offer and thus get a draft pick in return if he leaves.

Since Cespedes will likely be spending most of his time in center field, the main risk involved for the Mets is adding another below-average defender to a group that already includes Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores at shortstop, both with below-average range; Neil Walker at second base, who is average at best; David Wright, whose metrics at third base were terrible last season; and Lucas Duda at first base, although he's actually graded a few runs above average the past two seasons via defensive runs saved (just don't ask him to make a big play with his arm). The Mets' best defenders last season were Curtis Granderson, who will be 35 years old, and Michael Conforto, who graded out well in left field despite some circuitous routes at times and a subpar defensive reputation coming up through the minors.

Cespedes has been a plus defender in left field during his career, thanks in large part to his strong arm, but is 17 runs below average in 912 career innings in center. Some of that came during his first season with the A's in 2012; with the Mets, he rated as -4 DRS in 312 innings, or -15 over 1,200 innings. Considering Juan Lagares is a plus defender, the Mets will end up losing runs in center field the more Cespedes plays out there.

What I'm wondering: How important is defense in center field? I mean, of course it's important to a degree; you're not going to play David Ortiz out there. I did a quick look at the past five seasons, using team defensive runs saved totals in center field:


Range: +42 (Rays) to -25 (Mariners)

+10 or more DRS: 3 of 7 teams made playoffs

-10 or worse DRS: 1 of 8 teams made playoffs

Average of playoff teams: +4 DRS

The Royals, with Lorenzo Cain, rated second in DRS in center field, behind only the Rays, who benefited from Kevin Kiermaier's historic season. The Blue Jays, Astros and Cardinals all scored at +9 or better. One reason the Cubs didn't mind losing Dexter Fowler and replacing him with Jason Heyward? Fowler had -12 DRS.


Range: +28 (Mets) to -22 (Phillies)

+10 or more DRS: 2 of 7 teams made playoffs

-10 or worse DRS: 4 of 8 teams made playoffs

Average of playoff teams: -3 DRS

The Angels and Pirates were more than happy to live with Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen in center field. The Giants primarily used Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan out there and overcame a team total of -15 DRS to win the World Series. The same plan didn't work as well in 2015, however, when the Giants were at -23 DRS and missed the postseason. The Dodgers graded out as the second-worst defensive team in center field, as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier combined for -17 DRS in just over 800 innings of work.


Range: +41 (Brewers) to -34 (Mariners)

+10 or more DRS: 0 of 6 teams made playoffs

-10 or worse DRS: 2 of 7 made playoffs

Average of playoff teams: -2 DRS

The Red Sox rated as the best playoff team with +9 DRS, tied for seventh in the majors, and Jacoby Ellsbury was +13 when he played center. The Dodgers again made the playoffs despite the poor combined efforts of Kemp and Ethier, and the Reds won the wild card even with Shin-Soo Choo's -17 DRS.


Range: +30 (Angels) to -20 (Mariners)

+10 or more DRS: 1 of 6 teams made playoffs

-10 or worse DRS: 3 of 7 teams made playoffs

Average of playoff teams: -4 DRS

The Yankees with Granderson, the A's with Coco Crisp and Cespedes, and the Orioles with Adam Jones all made the playoffs despite DRS totals of 10 runs or worse. In Oakland's case, Crisp rated at 0 DRS in 840 innings, Cespedes rated at -8 in 432 innings and Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill also rated below average in limited action out there.


Range: +23 (Tigers) to -16 (Marlins)

+10 or more DRS: 3 of 5 teams made playoffs

-10 or worse DRS: 0 of 4 teams made playoffs

Average of playoff teams: +6 DRS

The Tigers (Austin Jackson), Diamondbacks (Chris Young) and Brewers (Carlos Gomez/Nyjer Morgan) rated 1-2-3 in DRS and all made the playoffs.

What did we learn in our little study? Of 31 teams that were at least 10 runs above average on defense in center field, nine made the playoffs -- or 29 percent. Of 34 teams that were at least 10 runs below average on defense, 10 made the playoffs -- or 29 percent. Of course, the odds of making the playoffs in this period were 32 percent (48 of 150 team seasons), so this would suggest the quality of defense in center field has little correlation to making or missing the playoffs.

This makes sense, in part because center-field defense is just one small aspect of a team's overall defense, and defense is just part of the whole pitching and hitting equation. Plus, if you think about it, MLB teams -- unless, apparently, you were the Mariners under former GM Jack Zduriencik -- require a certain basic competency to play center field on a regular basis. If you don't meet that requirement but can hit, you're moved to a corner position. And those who are below average are usually good hitters, which is what the Mets hope to get from Cespedes.

The worst DRS total in center field for a playoff team belonged to the 2014 Dodgers at -18 runs. It's worth noting that the new management didn't stick with Kemp in 2015, instead trading him and installing rookie Joc Pederson in center. The Dodgers improved to -2 DRS. The seven teams that had worse center-field defense were all under .500 except for the 2015 Giants and they missed the playoffs by eight wins, so you can't argue terrible center-field defense cost a team a playoff berth (at least in the past five seasons).

Cespedes might end up straddling that Kemp line of basic competency, but if he hits like he did in 2015, he'll make up for it at the plate.