Moneyballing the Mets

In a column in the new issue of ESPN The Magazine, Buster Olney talks about the continuing effect of Moneyball and the statistics-based way of thinking that many Major League clubs follow. High in the column, he cites the Mariners’ signing of Chone Figgins who, by their evaluation, was the Angels’ best defender in 2009 and Seattle’s acquisition of Franklin Gutierrez, who is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, in one of GM Jack Zduriencik’s first moves last winter.

It’s hard to argue with the evidence when you realize that with their increased emphasis on defense in 2009, the Mariners scored 31 fewer runs but won 24 more games than they did in 2008. But here’s what really struck — and bothered — me in the column:

After Moneyball’s release, some MLB teams — inspired by the early-decade success of trailblazers like the A’s and Red Sox — began to add statistical analysts to their payrolls, even if they weren’t quite ready to acknowledge those moves publicly. To do so would have been akin to being among the first to announce the earth was round. But now the teams that don’t rely heavily on stats are the exception. (Rival GMs say the Giants and Mets are the two slowest adapters.)

Again: The Giants and Mets are the two slowest adapters. Wonderful. We already knew the Mets had one of the worst farm systems in baseball, the result of focusing too much on the quick fix (top-tier free agents and blockbuster trades) and not on the big picture (building a foundation of home-grown players). But now they may not be adapting their way of thinking to keep up with the times, which will only further retard their recovery. Even if they don’t believe in (or understand) the benefit of such analysis, you’d think they’d consider it if for no other reason to have a little insight into how their rivals are evaluating players.
A look at the Mets’ 2009 stats might be an indicator of this reluctance to consider the new paradigm in baseball. The Mets led the NL (along with the Dodgers) in batting average at .270 and were also first in fewest strikeouts. Knowing those two facts might lead someone to believe the Mets were one of the NL’s four playoff teams, yet they weren’t even close. In the American League, the top four teams in batting average reached the postseason, the Yankees and Twins were Nos. 2 and 3 in fewest strikeouts and the Angels were in the top half of the league.
But the Mets’ problem was getting those runners who got hits home (only the Giants, Astros, Padres and Pirates scored fewer times), because they hit the fewest homers in the Majors and were 13th out of 16 in the NL in slugging percentage and were 11th in OPS. New York was 13th in walks, which brought its on-base percentage down to seventh in the league. And with Jose Reyes out nearly all year and Carlos Beltran hobbled for the second half, they lost their two top stolen base threats, meaning the bases were clogged and contributing to the NL’s second-easiest team to double up. Go back and look at those NL rankings again, and you’ll see the Giants sitting right there with the Mets on just about every list. But San Francisco contended for the Wild Card deep into September on the strength of the NL’s second-best pitching staff, anchored by Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.
If the Mets fall short of contention again in 2010, changes will certainly be made. Jerry Manuel’s contract only goes through this season, but Omar Minaya’s lasts through 2012. Yet neither will be back if the Mets find themselves in fourth place and out of contention by the trade deadline. I hope that they use that opportunity for a wholesale overhaul of the front office, bringing in a regime that will rebuild the farm system and look at what the recent winners have done to get to the top. Jimmy Rollins was right in 2008: One player won’t get them over the top, especially if he’s not skilled in the areas they’re lacking the most.
Jason Bay does help. I’m not sure his defense is as bad as it’s been made out to be (he’s no Carl Crawford, which I’ll touch on in a moment, but he’s no Barry Bonds in the later years or Gary Sheffield, either) and his .384 OBP would’ve ranked right behind David Wright and Luis Castillo among Mets who played 100 games. And though the ballparks must be considered, Bay did hit three times as many home runs (36) as the Mets’ team leader (Daniel Murphy, with 12). And Bengie Molina — a solid defensive catcher — will be a good pickup, on the Mets’ terms. They can’t cave in to give him his desired three years. (The big problem with the Bay signing is that it blocks the Mets from going after Crawford, a free agent after this season. Crawford is a superb left fielder who doesn’t really fit in either of the other outfield positions, and with Bay on board, there’s no place to put Crawford, so no reason to make a pitch to sign him.)
The Mets can’t let Citi Field scare away potential sluggers. It’s only one year, but six NL parks rated as better pitchers’ parks in 2009. And look at the home run factor in those rankings — Citi Field wasn’t that rough on sluggers, just on the Mets’ sluggers, of which they didn’t have a full complement all season.
In this new year, the Mets need to consider a new way of thinking if they want to keep up with the winners in baseball.

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