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Just How Important is Defense in Today's Game?

Mike SteffanosMonday, November 21, 2005
By Mike Steffanos

In my earlier posting regarding Marty Noble's Mailbag on Mets.com, the last question struck a chord with me. A reader from Alaska asked why the Mets couldn't concentrate more on improving their defense. The reader pointed out that defense was much cheaper than offense, and the money saved could be put into upgrading the pitching staff.

Noble's answer was to quote Davey Johnson: "You can't hold your opponent to less than no runs. So you have to score." Noble points out that how many runs you give up matters only as far as it compares to how many you score. Even though his personal preference is for pitching, defense and speed, he (rightly) feels this Mets team needs to upgrade offense and power over last year's team. He also points out that offense sells more tickets in today's game.

Noble's thoughtful response stayed with me after I read the column. It's a subject I care about, and I thought about it in my spare moments. For those of us on the wrong side of forty, we grew up in an era where offense occupied a much lesser place in the baseball hierarchy. A player that hit 20 home runs used to be a legitimate slugger -- now he's your shortstop. Games were 2-1, 3-2. Every run was at a premium, defense was so important because you couldn't afford to give runs away.

It is a fact that in today's game where there is so much more offense, a good offensive club can easily recover from giving away a run or two through sloppy play. The Red Sox team that won 2 years ago wasn't great defensively. It's also a fact that teams that are fundamentally sound on defense but are unable to score runs are going to lose a lot of games. You put too much pressure on your pitching staff when they know you're not going to score for them.

This Mets team definitely needs another big bat to compete; two actually, since Piazza won't be back. They lost a lot of games last year when they just couldn't muster the offense to back up a good pitching performance. For as much grief as Looper and the bullpen took -- and they were awful at times, no doubt about it -- I thought it was the 2005 Mets' inability to hit and score consistently that was their downfall. We all agree that upgrading the offense is a must.

I question, however, the notion that defense is just an afterthought in today's game. With the strength of the offenses that you face in the course of the season, the last thing that you want to do is give the other team extra outs. Even the Red Sox had to make concessions to the need to field the ball better before they broke through and won their World Series. The teams that survive deep into October are still the teams that are fundamentally sound and don't beat themselves. In the post-season when great pitching can shut down an offense and every run is at a premium it is defense that often makes the difference.

I found it interesting that Noble quoted Davey Johnson in his answer. Johnson was indeed the manager during some of the most successful years in Mets history. Davey always emphasized offense over defense. Funny though, looking back on those years the Mets more often than not finished behind the Cardinals, a team that epitomized speed, pitching and defense. The Mets always had a little more talent; the Cardinals would just find a way to win. They never beat themselves.

I know that Omar Minaya will find a way to improve this club offensively during this off-season. My hope is that he will be able to do this without sacrificing defense. We all have hopes for this team that go beyond scoring a few more runs.

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