No Matter What You Think of his Defense, Flores was the Right Move

By: Brian Mangan

It is June 19th, 2015, and we are more than 1/3 of the way through the 2015 season. On this date, the New York Mets are in first place. No matter what happens today, the Mets will be in first place tomorrow. It is a nice place to be.

One issue which has lingered from the outset, however, is uncertainty about whether the Mets made the right decision to go with Wilmer Flores at shortstop instead of signing or trading for another player. It’s an issue I discussed here often, as well as over at MetsBlog, where I wrote several columns on the topic. The most recent of these, “Sandy Alderson was right to stand pat at shortstop,” was not well received by frustrated fans.

I understood the frustration, but still, I felt strongly that the Mets made the right move in giving the job to Flores. Many times last year I stated my belief that Flores would play good enough defense to justify sticking his bat into the lineup, especially on a team starved for offense. I had a three-part series on it last July, which you can read here: #FreeWilmer.

So now that we are almost 70 games into the season, I figured that I would take a look and review Flores compared to some of the alternatives. Despite some fans’ frustrations this year — the Wilmer Flores Experiment has been, at best, a smashing success, and at worst, a tie.

Flores’s Performance This Season: Good

Wilmer Flores is batting .246/.278/.420, which is good for a 96 RC+. That figure might actually understate his offensive contributions so far, as he’s had two walk-off game-winners and has driven in a team leading 32 runs. In addition to his team leading 32 RBI, he’s tied for the team lead in home runs with 10 and his on-base percentage will hopefully soon creep northward. His +.49 Win Probability Added is 5th among MLB shortstops. His +.17 Clutch is 2nd.

On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive metrics think he’s doing at least okay, if not better.  With -3 Defensive Runs Saved and 0.3 UZR, he’s having the kind of middling to tolerably below-average defensive season many of us expected. For his career at shortstop, which now spans 978.2 innings (2/3 of a season) he has -6 DRS, 4.4 UZR, and 14 errors, while making 96.4% of routine plays as rated by Inside Edge.

Overall, Wilmer is at 1.0 fWAR and 0.5 bWAR. He is making $513K and cost nothing to acquire.

The Alternatives to Flores Have Struggled Mightily

The list of players that people advocated to acquire ahead of Flores was long and varied. There were free agents and trade candidates. Veterans and rookies. Superstars and defense-first regulars. However, with the exception of the always-excellent Troy Tulowitzki, they all have something in common this season: they stink.

  • Jung-ho Kang: .284/.364/.419, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 1.4 WAR
  • Troy Tulowitzki: .306/.336/.482, 7 HR, 33 RBI, 0.7 WAR
  • Asdrubal Cabrera: .204/.263/.311, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 0.5 WAR
  • Jean Segura: .270/.300/.373, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 0.3 WAR
  • Erick Aybar: .246/.291/.290, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 0.2 WAR
  • Didi Gregorious: .231/.283/.303, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 0.2 WAR
  • ————– Replacement Level ————–
  • Jimmy Rollins: .200/.262/.332, 7 HR, 18 RBI, -0.1 WAR
  • Ian Desmond: .224/.269/.346, 5 HR, 18 RBI, -0.2 WAR
  • Elvis Andrus: .238/.296/.317, 3 HR, 24 RBI, -0.4 WAR
  • Stephen Drew: .169/.238/.353, 9 HR, 22 RBI, -0.4 WAR
  • Everth Cabrera: .208/.250/.229, 0 HR, 4 RBI, -0.4 WAR
  • Starlin Castro: .265/.301/.350, 5 HR, 32 RBI, -0.5 WAR
  • Alexei Ramirez: .226/.246/.301, 2 HR, 24 RBI, -0.8 WAR

This is an utterly horrifying list. Can you imagine if the Mets traded anything of value for any of these players in the offseason? Some of these players might have come cheap — for instance, Gregorious only cost the Yankees Shane Greene — but most of these players had a price tag somewhere between “substantial” and “ludicrous.”

Now, it’s true that Kang has been excellent in the early going. However Kang has played more third base than shortstop (where he grades out at -1.4 UZR so far) and has benefited from a .342 BABIP. He has also batted only .273/.366/.386 over the last 30 days, so we will see what happens with him as major league pitchers adjust.

As for the rest of them, they all would have been costly to acquire and have all been objectively bad. I wrote in November 2014 that Alexei Ramirez wasn’t likely to be much better than Wilmer Flores in an article for MetsBlog. What I wanted to say was that Ramirez was A) a 33 year old with B) a .302 OBP over the last three years in a hitter’s park C) scheduled to make $10 million in 2015 and D) that we’d be nuts to trade for him. I toned it down, and here we are.

Could you imagine Jimmy Rollins hitting .200 for this team? Could you imagine trading Noah Syndergaard for impending free agent Ian Desmond? Could you imagine Wilmer Flores languishing on the bench while Alexei Ramirez trots out there with a .246 on-base percentage and no power?

Comparing Flores (Good) to the Alternatives (Bad)

Despite the above, there are people who will still be unsatisfied. There are always people who will be unsatisfied, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. The way I see it, there are three scenarios where you can, in your mind, compare Flores to the players we could have acquired instead:

  • Situation #1: You think that Fangraphs is accurate and Flores has been worth 1.0 WAR. Great.
  • Situation #2: You think that Wilmer Flores is worse than Fangraphs says he is, and the -3 Defensive Runs Saved is more accurate figure. In that case, the Baseball-Reference figure of 0.5 WAR is more accurate. Acceptable.
  • Situation #3: You don’t believe any of the newfangled stats and you think Wilmer Flores is one of the worst defenders on the planet.

Even in that third scenario, Flores would not only have to be bad, he’d have to be horrendous at shortstop in order to be near replacement level there. We are talking Starlin Castro (-6.2 UZR) or Marcus Semien (-8.2 UZR) by Ultimate Zone Rating or Danny Santana (-9 DRS) or Alexei Ramirez (-7 DRS) to even get into the neighborhood of replacement level. If Flores was, in reality, tied with the very worst defenders at shortstop in MLB this season, he would still be slightly above replacement level. Semien has 22 errors this season compared to Flores’s 10. Give Flores a dozen more errors, and we’re in that neighborhood.

Therefore, there is no scenario where going with Flores has been the wrong decision. It is just not possible. Even if he were close to replacement level, the players that we would have had to pay to acquire to replace him have been worse. Flores is making the league minimum salary and is already under team control.

By sticking with Flores, even if he was horrible defensively (he’s not), the Mets have been saved from doing something foolish like trading Syndergaard or spending a ton of money. Would the team be better off at shortstop if we had Troy Tulowitzki? Of course. But would the team health be better overall if we had to trade four top prospects for Tulowitzki, and face 2015 and beyond with no Syndergaard, or Matz, or Conforto, or Herrera? I doubt it.

The Mets made the right move giving Flores a shot.