Flores, Rivera, Walker: Solving the Mets’ second base wild card

Flores, Rivera, Walker: Solving the Mets’ second base wild card

By now word has gotten around about Wilmer Flores’s position preference. The utility infielder recently spoke about how he prefers to play second base but is willing to go where the team needs him. At least for 2017, his path is blocked on the infield by Neil Walker, who accepted the team’s qualifying offer this offseason.

But if the Mets and Walker part ways after 2017, is Flores really the next in line to start at second base?

As a result of injuries and platoons, Flores has been bounced around the infield for much of his career starting at least one game at first, second, third and shortstop. A big reason the Mets have made him into such a project is that they like his offense, especially against left-handed pitching. Flores’s numbers increase by every metric against left handed pitchers. For his career his average is 15 points higher against lefties and he hits a home run every 16 at bats compared to a home run every 41 at bats against righties. His career weighted runs created is 60 points higher against lefties (139 vs. 79), his OPS increases by over 200 points and his walk rate more than doubles. Against righties his weighted runs above average dips harshly into negative numbers (-18.4) where zero is league average. Given that right-handed pitchers are more common than lefties, it calls into question whether or not Flores can be a consistent everyday player.

Another question that many have on Flores is his defense. The project that involved moving him to shortstop in 2015 got a lot of heat because of his lack of range and an average rate of roughly one error per week (one error per 60 innings). But at second base he seems much more sure-handed. In his career at second base he averages one error in 192 innings, meaning he makes the play 3x more often than he does at shortstop. Even despite that, Fangraphs credited Flores with nearly -6 dWAR for 2016 indicating that even though he played more of his preferred position, his defense is still a significant liability. Steamer projects a slight improvement in that category for 2017, (-2.7) but still leaves much to be desired.

So what other options do the Mets have?

Last season the team saw the emergence of T.J. Rivera down the stretch. Rivera played 33 games for the Mets and hit .333 while also bouncing around the infield. His line drive percentage was 2 points higher than Flores’s career average and his soft hit rate was lower. Rivera also has reverse offensive splits, albeit in a small sample size. In 70 at bats he hit .386 against righties compared to .229 in 35 at bats against lefties. This works towards his advantage as he’d face more right-handed pitchers than lefties as a starter. However,¬†there’s a chance that some of his success may have come from luck or defensive positioning. His BABIP was .360, 60 points above the league average.

Defensively Rivera was better than Flores but still below league average, as he posted a -1.2 dWAR. However, his overall WAR was higher than Flores (0.6 vs. 0.5) despite playing in 70 fewer games, likely a result of a surprising 3.0 oWAR.

Defensively edge may well go to Rivera but perhaps by not as much as people think. In 58 more innings at second base, Rivera is worth two more runs saved, but still falls to -1 DRS, indicating that both players cost their teams runs. In terms of range stats, Rivera’s .787 RZR is not much higher than Flores’s career .775 at second base and Flores actually made more “out of zone” plays in less innings.

Given the Mets’ depth it’s likely that Rivera starts the season in the minor leagues as there isn’t much need for a third backup infielder on the major league roster. For this reason, his projections for the 2017 season are minimal.

The biggest edge that Flores has is his experience. However that also works him in that Terry Collins and Co. know that this is all they can ever get from Flores whereas Rivera has room to grow. If Flores hasn’t consistently hit right-handed pitching 1200+ at bats in the major leagues, will that development ever come?