22-year-old Mets infielder Wilmer Flores will be in Friday’s starting lineup, batting seventh and playing shortstop.
Toby Hyde, Contributor
The Mets were so sure that Flores could not play shortstop in the big leagues, they moved him off the position in 2012 as he rose from Single- to Triple-A.
And tonight, he might be starting there for them at Citi Field.
Here’s a look back and forward, as the team enters yet another era on the infield…
The Problem at Shortstop
The Mets shortstop position has been one of the least productive in baseball. It has failed in 2014 both offensively and defensively.
Mets shortstops are dead last in WAR (FanGraphs). They are 29th in baseball in OPS, ahead of only the Pirates.
This is not a small sample size issue. This is not a new problem. It has been going on, on both sides of the ball, since Jose Reyes left for the Marlins after 2011, during which they’ve been 29th in baseball in fWAR, 20th in UZR (FanGraphs), and they have collectively cost the team 16 runs in two years (ESPN Stats & Info.).
The Mets are 23rd in runs scored, which probably overstates how effective the team has been offensively. They are 28th in home runs. They are 29th in wOBA (.284), which excludes base running, but also 28th in FanGraphs Offense (with base running added back in).
In other words, the Mets need more offense.
In the field, they’ve been ordinary, though a league-worst at fielding ground balls. Overall, whether doing research on Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs, The Mets defense is more or less average. However, they are dead last in turning ground balls into outs, with opponents batting .278 and slugging .305 on grounders (Baseball Reference).
Is Wilmer Flores the answer?
I’ve seen Flores a lot in his minor league career. His hands at the plate are among the best I’ve seen at Single-A. He had an outstanding ability to put the bat on the ball. He knew that pitchers in the minors could’t throw a fastball by him. He knew he could always attack an early-count fastball to put it in play. But, he was unable to survive in the big leagues with that approach.
In his 101 plate appearances for the Mets last season, the 22-year-old Flores hit just .211 with a .248 OBP and a .295 SLG. His primary problem was controlling the strike zone. Flores walked in just 5% of his plate appearances and struck out 23% of the time. He never struck out like this in the minor leagues, peaking at 17% in Triple-A. MLB averages in 2013 were a 7.9% walk rate and a 19.9% strikeout rate.
In the last four years of his career, he has exhibited a pattern of increasing strike zone control in his second (or third) exposure to a given level. He was not ready to hit Major League pitching last summer. He got off to a slow start in Triple-A this season. However, since April 18, he has beat up the Pacific Coast League. He’s walking at a much better rate and now looks like a hitter ready to contribute at the plate more than he was a year ago. Remember, MLB shortstops are hitting just .246 this season.
In regards to his fielding, I’ve talked with multiple scouts about his work at shortstop. No one liked it, with one scout saying he should only play first base.
Flores has soft hands and a strong arm. However, he is a well below-average runner with slow feet and deliberate actions. He’s going to field ground balls hit to him, but, if he has to go more than three steps, it’s going to be an adventure on the infield. There will be ground balls up the middle or in the hole that he’ll never get to.
Thankfully, in the National League, only the Cardinals and Braves have induced fewer ground balls than Mets pitchers so far in 2014.
Based on the above, if Flores can hit roughly .225, with a .300 OBP and .330 SLG, his at bats should cancel out his struggles in the field.