BALTIMORE — Mets infield coach Gary DiSarcina watched a grounder bounce through the second-base hole against his over-shifted defense for two runs last week and his impulse was to question the strategy.
The shift has become the Mets’ weapon of choice this season, deployed at a 55.6 percentage rate, which ranks second in MLB behind only the Dodgers. And when it doesn’t work — as was the case on this grounder by Arizona’s Ildemaro Vargas that hurt left-hander David Peterson — the cost can appear to outweigh the benefit.
It’s in those frustrating moments that DiSarcina, charged with the infield alignment for each opposing batter, remembers the message preached by acting general manager Zack Scott and coordinator of major league strategy Jared Faust.
“In the grand plan and at the end of the year, those plays are going to be few and far between,” DiSarcina said. “Be more concerned with the lane where the guys hit the ball.”
Through a combination of increased emphasis on analytics — resulting in shifts — better communication and improved players, the Mets have been a success story defensively this season. In each of the previous four seasons, the Mets were negative in defensive runs saved, never ranking better than 24th in MLB, as computed by The Fielding Bible. They entered Monday with 35 runs saved, which was tied for second in MLB, behind only the Rays.
Asked over the weekend about the team’s defense, manager Luis Rojas credited the players for 60-70 percent of the improvement, with the rest based on the Mets’ analytical approach.
“I think overall there has been a lot of improvement in individuals,” said Scott, who arrived last offseason from the Red Sox, where he was heavily involved in building the analytical team. “That’s part of getting your defense better is getting the guys you have being better and identifying where they need work and then having creative coaches like Tony Tarasco being able to work with a Brandon Nimmo and figuring out ways to kind of tap into that upside.”
The defensive improvement started with the blockbuster trade with Cleveland last winter that brought Gold Glove shortstop Francisco Lindor to the Mets. Along the way, the Mets have received improvement at first base from Pete Alonso. Also, backups Jonathan Villar and Jose Peraza have assumed much of the infield playing time and thrived in recent weeks with the injuries to J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil.
The outfield has been a revolving door, with players such as Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Albert Almora Jr. on the injured list. At catcher, Scott says the Mets have improved dramatically with the arrival of James McCann to pair with Tomas Nido.
In his first three seasons with the organization, DiSarcina said he was given analytical information on a daily basis and whether he used it or not was his choice. That philosophy has changed under Scott, Faust and head of research and development Ben Zauzmer, with information presented to the coaches now expected to be applied. Under new owner Steve Cohen, the Mets have roughly tripled their analytics staff.
“At the end of each year, I always asked for help,” DiSarcina said. “I asked for help more with the manpower, because I found myself on a computer too much. I found myself just constantly looking at numbers and constantly trying to get to the video. I have less time invested in that side of things because what they are providing me now with the [recommendations] and the specifics of it, it has taken so much off my plate.”
Faust, who arrived to the Mets before the 2019 season, travels with the team and provides much of the information to the coaches and the players.
Scott, in one of his early conversations with DiSarcina, realized the message had to be ingrained in players that the Mets were changing, and the use of analytics was paramount.
“It’s tough, because starting pitchers, they get so pissed when a ball beats the shift and if you don’t have organizational support for what this is, what we’re going to be about, then it’s really hard to stick with it,” Scott said.
“That was really good feedback to me, to know we’re going to make sure there’s organizational support and if people don’t support it because they don’t agree with it, let’s talk through that and let’s understand why, because there could be some valid reasons and there could be some reasons that are just misunderstandings that can be cleared up with some communication. So I think we’re in a better spot than maybe they were previously with that, where Gary maybe doesn’t feel like he’s on an island and has five starting pitchers that want to kill him.”
Lindor is among the players who hasn’t exactly embraced the shift. Upon arriving to the team, the All-Star shortstop publicly denounced analytics, and in recent days reaffirmed that position.
“I don’t like shifts,” Lindor said last week. “I think it doesn’t help the offense, but I do like taking hits away, so I am both sides. Analytics, I’m not huge on it. … I have a lot of respect for the people who do all those numbers and give us the places to play and stuff, but I just don’t like the shift.”
He added: “I won Gold Gloves before with less shifting. I’m a really good defensive player.”
But as much as Lindor might not like the shift, he’s been a willing pupil from team brass’ perspective.
“He’s been the best at it of all the infielders.” Scott said. “Early on in spring training, I could see he was uncomfortable with going on the second-base side of the bag. That wasn’t something he really wanted to do. Now it has totally changed.”
Last season the Mets shifted only 21.4 percent of the time, which ranked 27th in MLB. Now, it’s clearly a new day for the organization.
“My first three years here we’re playing teams and they are moving around and I am wondering, what information do they have that we don’t have?” DiSarcina said. “What happened here is we started hiring good people that could do great things and they gathered information and coded and put it into a program that has really been beneficial to us and I think that comes with emphasis on that side of the game. You are dealing in probabilities, but let’s try to be in the right place more than not.”