A note about the Mets bullpen and revisionist history

MLB

Erase the Past Words with Pencil

As catastrophic as the Mets bullpen has been, there is a significant amount of second-guessing, “look how smart I am/give me credit,” and agenda-laden statements masking itself as analysis that is secondary to objective assessment.

This is not a statistical gauging of the Mets’ relievers. It’s a look back at the moves the club made to bolster what they already had and what could reasonably have been expected in terms of performance.

In the offseason, the Mets acquired Jeurys Familia, Edwin Diaz, Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan.

Are these bad acquisitions? Could anyone have predicted that all would be disastrous? And what were the alternatives?

When attacking Brodie Van Wagenen and the Wilpons, there are legitimate criticisms to the hire. However, had Van Wagenen come marching in with a blueprint that so radically deviated from established norms and sought not just to reinvent the wheel, but reinvent one that would turn on Neptune, then it’s justifiable to go over the top in issuing blame. He did not do that.

He signed Familia for three years and $30 million. Had the Mets not done it, someone else would have. He is a historically good – even excellent, if not elite – reliever.

He signed Wilson who in his first six full seasons in the majors appeared in a minimum of 58 games and generally appeared in about 70. He was not solely a lefty specialist and was generally effective as a second-tier relief pitcher.

The Diaz trade was a risky gambit. In its favor, Diaz was dominant in 2018 and had the type of stuff that left hitters inert. To get him, they were forced to surrender two prospects including the sixth overall pick from 2018, Jarred Kelenic. The deal was expanded to include Robinson Cano who has looked every bit of his 36 years after a PED suspension and is combining his trademark lackadaisical act with indifference and defiance. The trade for Cano, however, was to clear the dead contacts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak. For those who lament the way Bruce and Swarzak have performed in 2019, if they had been this good in 2018, we’re not discussing any of this; it’s likely that Sandy Alderson would have kept his job.

It was a major roll of the dice that looks atrocious now, but cannot be accurately judged for at least five years when Kelenic’s fate will be determined and Diaz will either have gotten acclimated to New York and performed up to his capabilities or he will not.

Avilan was the identical type of signing that every team makes of a longtime MLB veteran who is seeking work and will sign a minor-league contract to earn a spot.

These arms were joining a bullpen that had Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo.

In a preseason assessment, is the following a bad bullpen: Diaz, Familia, Wilson, Lugo, Gsellman and Avilan plus whichever young arms the Mets needed to recall from the minors?

If you say yes, you’re a liar or suffering from confirmation bias.

When discussing potential options in lieu or in addition to the relievers the Mets acquired, big money names like Craig Kimbrel are frequently mentioned.

Signing Kimbrel is in the same ballpark – not identical, but in the same ballpark – of trading Kelenic and Justin Dunn for Diaz. Kimbrel wanted $100 million and he did not back off from that even as his market collapsed and he sat out, waiting. The Mets were not paying him $100 million and no one else was either based on the fundamental fact that he didn’t get it.

Add in the draft pick that would have been Competitive Balance B which was exactly where Van Wagenen and his staff used a clever sleight of hand to get Matthew Allan who Baseball America ranked 16th overall and scared off many teams because he had committed to the University of Florida.

So, pick one. Do you want to hammer the Mets for trading Kelenic and not signing Kimbrel as well, or do you want to hammer them for gutting the system and ignoring any semblance of future planning? You can have one or the other, but not both.

As for the other available “name” relievers? Who’s been good? One pitcher – Adam Ottavino – has been worth the money and he was going to the Yankees, period. Other teams didn’t even really bother pursuing him with any intensity because this reality was known throughout the industry.

Zack Britton? It’s unlikely he was signing with the Mets and they weren’t overpaying for him. His walks are a major worry.

Andrew Miller? His knee injury was a factor and he’s got a 4.15 ERA, a 5.22 FIP and has surrendered 6 home runs.

Joe Kelly? He’s been effective in June, but started horribly and cannot be trusted in a big spot.

Who did you want instead of what the Mets got? Who was better and was moved? Who was available?

Facts hurt, but they’re still facts. No one with any objectivity could have foreseen the bullpen being this rancid.

Some critics, like Buster Olney of ESPN, torched the hire of Van Wagenen from the start. Most others either took a wait and see attitude, lauded many of the moves Van Wagenen made, then sat quietly to see how they turned out before parachuting in with the “I knew it” template. Repeatedly screaming “rebuild” is not a strategy. Yet the moles are popping out of their holes with criticisms and no solutions. And that is not how anything is fixed. Acknowledging the truth is the first step. Then comes fixing it. The factions are incapable – or unwilling – to do that as they wallow in their own egomania and delusions of grandeur.

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A lesson for the Mets on the manager from none other than Billy Beane

MLB

Manager definition

As the Mets are resistant to do the obvious and relieve manager Mickey Callaway of his duties, it is difficult to know the justification of retaining him.

His salary is minuscule compared to name managers.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is under siege himself for roster deficiencies and did not hire Callaway.

The pitching coach and bullpen coach have already been fired with the relievers pitching at least as badly as they did before, if not worse.

Jeff Wilpon is a target of ridicule for his perceived role in this burgeoning debacle.

And even if they do make a change, there’s no guarantee that they will make the obvious and right move in hiring Joe Girardi.

It’s a trendy shield for teams to assert that managers are largely irrelevant to the overall results of a team and most subscribe to it. This protects them from firing people, paying them not to work and avoids caving to public pressure to hire the decreasing number of “proven” managers who are going to demand a big salary and expect autonomy on the field.

With front offices becoming so immersed in every aspect of how a team is run from top to bottom, the line that general managers never crossed no longer exists. Owners regularly crossed that line with calls to the manager’s office with various orders, but they were the owners. Today’s GMs are younger, hungry for attention, convinced that they know better than the emotional and reactive field staff, and do not want anything to sabotage their algorithms of optimal moves.

The days of Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver, Davey Johnson, Dick Williams and Joe Torre – managers in the truest sense of the word with their own belief systems, preferred style of play and personalities – are gone. The preference is to have a disposable, replaceable and faceless automaton who will carry out the orders of the front office, be the public face of the franchise, not deviate from the plan and play the part of manager rather than be the manager. None of those mentioned would even get a managing job today, except in cases where the owner ordered the hiring over protestations of the front office. They would have problems relating to players who expect to be coddled and know they have the power and could not stand the dissection of every single decision they made with public criticisms from an exponential number of outlets who would never be forced to face them in person.

The altered landscape is aptly described at the end of Casino when Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein laments how times changed with the corporations taking over Las Vegas:

In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it’s all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number.

There’s a clear parallel between this perspective and how baseball teams are run.

Billy Beane is cast as the first GM who was publicly portrayed as running the team from the front office. It was Beane who wanted a manager to follow orders. It was Beane who allowed this desire to be out there for all to see. And it was Beane who repeatedly downplayed the importance of managers by discarding them to be replaced by “another guy.” It didn’t matter who.

When he elevated his close friend Bob Geren to the manager’s chair, the Athletics were embarking on another retooling. Geren was the epitome of mediocrity. A vanilla personality who maintained the same blank look on his face regardless of what was happening around him, he certainly fit the role of “some guy” standing at the corner of the dugout and epitomizing the factotum. The results on the field were just as bland as Geren. Never better than .500; never worse than 12 games below .500. They were blah. He was blah.

Eventually, with players complaining about Geren’s communication failures, the team floundering and – perhaps most importantly – Beane’s image reaching fluke status, Geren was dismissed.

Beane steadfastly refused “name” managers in his previous hires with Ken Macha and Geren. This time, however, he did bring in a known entity in Bob Melvin. This was a tacit admission that the model from which he had been working was not a good one. Still, he clung to the tenets when explaining why he dismissed Geren by ignoring player complaints as though they were irrelevant and blaming the media and the speculation infecting the franchise.

Beane’s actions and the aftermath of those actions do not match the rhetoric and that was clearly intentional. He clung to the narrative while deviating from it making it obvious that he knew the other way was not working and was not going to work with a team that did not have the spending power to put a self-sustaining product on the field.

Whereas Geren did not have the resume to protest Beane’s orders and was known to be one of his closest friends, with whom could the players confide if there were issues with the front office? Who had their backs?

Melvin had two previous jobs as manager. In the first, he inherited Lou Piniella’s Mariners as they were just beginning their downward slide. He won 93 games in his first season and the entire club came apart in his second, losing 99 games. He was fired. The next year, he came in second to Wally Backman for the job to manage the Diamondbacks. When Backman was found to have lied on his job application, he was fired and Melvin took over. After four full seasons including one division title and an NLDS win, he was fired 29 games in to the 2009 season as he resisted front office interference and GM Josh Byrnes famously said he wanted someone who provided “organizational advocacy.” Ironically, the person tabbed to replace Melvin and for whom any chance of success was detonated with those two words as he was viewed as a spy, was AJ Hinch – currently considered one of baseball’s best managers with the Astros.

There is no doubt that Hinch’s experience in Arizona is a reason he is now successful in Houston.

The A’s played better under Melvin after he replaced Geren. Then, the next year, they won the first of back-to-back division titles and made the playoffs in the third year as a Wild Card.

Was it the players? Was it the manager? Was it the front office realizing that maybe it was time to give the manager a bit more freedom and respect than they did before? Was it a combination?

Experience. History. Knowing when to push back against the front office. All are key parts of managing that will never change, especially if the team is not the Yankees or Dodgers and does not have the money and personnel to gloss over a nameless, faceless manager who does what he’s told. For most teams, the season hinges on 15 or 20 games where the manager makes the difference. If he’s losing games due to his ineptitude, then it’s time to make that move to hire a person who has a clue.

It benefits the players to have a manager they respect; one who has a salary large enough that he won’t be dumped just to hire the same guy with a different name and face; one who can speak to the media without sounding as if he’s a hostage reading from a script; and one who will make the decisions he feels are in the team’s best interests in the short and long-term rather than because he was ordered to by guys in suits and polos in the front office suite. Even if the players disagree with the manager, a track record gives a certain amount of leeway. “At least he knows what he’s doing” is as good a reason as any to hire a manager who has done it before.

To continually present the manager’s job as meaningless while maintaining the veneer of an all-powerful and all-knowing front office is cannibalistic and destructive.

So many front offices either don’t understand this or are too paranoid and egomaniacal to admit to any level of weakness. But the players know. It would help if front offices did too. Maybe the Mets will learn this before someone else hires Girardi and they take the first step toward fixing what ails them with the simple act of hiring a manager who knows what the hell he’s doing.

The Mets and ending their definition of mediocrity

MLB

Edwin Diaz

Earlier in the week, New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway elicited eye-rolls when he discussed the Mets’ struggle to reach .500 and get on a roll to get beyond the record that is the objective definition of mediocrity. After Tuesday’s doubleheader split with the injury-riddled crosstown Yankees and Thursday’s rain suspended tie against the equally mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, there are certain fundamental realities that the club and the fans must accept and act upon to maintain a glimmer of hope that this team can make the postseason.

Forget Jarred Kelenic

That means stop mentioning Jarred Kelenic.

Stop obsessively tracking the progress of Jarred Kelenic.

And come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process that the Mets no longer have Jarred Kelenic.

They have Edwin Diaz who, despite his struggles, is still a top-three closer in baseball when he’s performing up to his capabilities. He’s in a slump. His advanced statistics have been relatively consistent with his 2018 numbers with the Seattle Mariners. He’s given up more home runs, but that could be a byproduct of his home games being a park where it’s easier to hit home runs at Citi Field compared to what they were in then-Safeco Field, that the ball is clearly juiced, and hitters are going to the plate trying to hit home runs in every at-bat.

The mental aspect cannot be ignored. He knows who he was traded for and what the fans and large factions of the media said when the trade was made. He’s hearing the whispers and seeing the laments. Demoting him, trading him in a housecleaning, rebuilding – none of this is going to happen. Rather than repeat the same pattern that achieves nothing but validate an entrenched confirmation bias, live with what the Mets have and ignore what they traded away.

Dom Smith must play

Certainly, no one is expecting Smith to maintain his basic statistical split of .354/.442/.573. Nor can anyone believe that his advanced statistics of wRC+ of 174 is sustainable. His BAbip is an absurd .417. He’s only had 95 plate appearances, so he’s going to fall back to earth. The only question is whether the landing will be soft and he’ll settle into his minor league splits of .295/.360/.425 or it will be a crash landing of his previous non-production in the majors.

The Mets have openly said they’re not writing lineups based on contracts or veteran status. Smith has played left field adequately. Once Brandon Nimmo and Robinson Cano return, that should not impact whether Smith is in the semi-regular lineup. If that means putting into practice the recent suggestion of Jeff McNeil seeing some time in center field, so be it. If Cano and Nimmo are unhappy about it, it’s simple: When you play, hit. If you don’t hit, you don’t play. If that means Cano will sit if he’s not hitting, he’ll need to sit without complaint.

They must buy – within reason – at the trade deadline.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of a gutting and rebuild is a fantasy from those who have:

A) never run a business

B) are harboring dreams – as inexplicable as they are – that losing 100 games for three years automatically results in a dynasty

The Mets either need to be bold at the trade deadline and add or essentially stand pat and wait for the offseason to make radical changes (that will not include a gutting rebuild).

The Atlanta Braves have been playing excellently and were aggressive in signing Dallas Keuchel.

The Philadelphia Phillies are ravaged by injuries and, with a flurry of trades and roster shuffling, are repeating the same failed blueprint from 2018 when they made panicky maneuvers to fix a flat tire by buying a new car.

The entire National League is flawed. With the Mets’ moves in the winter designed to win right now, they can’t do an about face and sell the likes of Zack Wheeler and Todd Frazier to look toward 2020 and beyond unless they completely collapse and fall double-digits out of the division lead and Wild Card spots.

What is buying “within reason?”

It doesn’t mean gutting the farm system for a rental. It does mean looking for upgrades at positions of need with relievers Brad Hand of the Cleveland Indians, Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants and Cam Bedrosian of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They cannot sit on the sidelines and expect different results from similar strategies used in the past of waiting out injured players and expecting them to be comparable to deadline acquisitions as they did with Wheeler in 2016, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie.

The problem Mickey Callaway won’t have time to fix with the Mets

MLB

Van Wagenen Callaway

Even in baseball’s current landscape of data-centric strategies and tightly controlled implementation, there are fundamental job requirements making it difficult for just anyone to do it. While managerial experience and tactical knowhow is no longer deemed as make or break in hiring someone and other aspects – handling the media, steering the clubhouse, adhering to front office edicts – have taken precedence, there are unavoidable factors that make it necessary for certain clubs to have a manager who can blunt interference from the front office and ownership and make in the trenches decisions that might not come out of the new managerial manual.

As the New York Mets tread water in the National League East and hover around .500, it is abundantly clear that manager Mickey Callaway is not equipped to handle the job as it stands. Either the situation must change making it more tenable for this manager or the manager must be changed. There’s no in between.

Fortunate though they are that the division and nearly the entire National League is mired in mediocrity keeping them within striking distance of a playoff spot, at some point they need to win their own games and establish a level of consistency. That means not blowing games they should win. On this road trip through Los Angeles and Arizona alone, bullpen implosions have cost them two games they should easily have won. Contrary to popular sentiment, the Mets’ bullpen is not unusual in being inconsistent to the point of terribleness. However, the Mets do not have the wiggle room to lose these games and think it will eventually even out.

There are teams that can hire a manager with limited or no bona fides for the job and get away with it. With the crosstown Yankees’ stellar play, it’s difficult not to give credit to Aaron Boone, but he is still functioning as a conduit to the front office with general manager Brian Cashman and his staff calling the shots. Dave Roberts has done nothing but win since he became Los Angeles Dodgers manager, but he too benefits from abundant information and little left to his whims. Those clubs also have resources they’re willing to spend. These things cannot be said about the Mets. The Mets do not have the same margin for error that clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees do. They can survive knowing that the template covers for real-time managerial errors that the numbers crunchers didn’t have time to mitigate with a flowchart of “if this-then that” moves.

If Callaway seems overmatched, he’s only partially at fault for that. No, he did not have any managerial experience whatsoever when he took the job, but his history having played for Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter and serving as Terry Francona’s pitching coach should have been sufficient for him to have absorbed enough managerial touch and feel that these snap decisions would not be as worrisome as they are. Worse, he says and does one thing and the players and front office will openly contradict him making him appear not to know what is happening in his own clubhouse. This was evident in Saturday night’s loss and Jacob deGrom’s hip concerns being the latest example.

Deciding on who catches based on “catcher win percentage”; denying that there will be a personal catcher system between deGrom and Tomas Nido, but if there is it will be a problem in the playoffs; saying Edwin Diaz would only pitch one inning and then backing off on it after viral critiques and questions – all appear to have come either from the front office or fear of what the front office will say if he exercises the autonomy the manager must have to maintain credibility.

But he has no autonomy, is losing credibility, and does not have the experience or the contract to resist.

Obviously, a chunk of that is because of front office dictates that seemingly stem from reaction to fan anger and media attacks, not because they have examined the problem and formulated a detailed and information-based solution for it even if it is neither popular nor understandable to the critics.

All too often, he is relegated to the organizational puppet whose job is not to manage the team, but to serve as its punching bag, making statements before and after the game that sound like flimsy excuses because he doesn’t know how to frame his words and is too nice to make generic “because I’m the manager” statements that are tantamount to telling the questioner to shut up and mind his or her business without saying it so combatively.

In the past decade, the Mets have not been an organization that entered the season with a relatively accurate interpretation of what they will be, barring injuries and unforeseen occurrences. They have had a series of ifs and maybes with the best and worst-case scenarios dictating the midseason strategy. If they deemed themselves close enough to warrant buying at midseason and trying to win, that’s what they did. If they were trapped in the middle, they stood pat. If they were hopelessly out of contention, they sold players who were pending free agents. There has not been a deep dive into a single blueprint that they would stick to no matter what. Whether that was due to fear or mitigation or both is irrelevant.

Having hired Brodie Van Wagenen as GM, they made clear they are trying to win now. Still, they have not gone all in with that attempt.

After the sweep by the Miami Marlins two weeks ago, Callaway’s job was clearly in jeopardy, but the Mets tried to go the “let’s be fair” route and understood that the team’s woes are not solely the fault of the manager. They gave him a reprieve, to quote Van Wagenen, “for the foreseeable future.”

Fairness is one thing, but acknowledging reality and the inevitable is another. Callaway is not the problem, but he’s clearly not the solution either.

The Mets have two choices: either change the way the team is run from the top and let Callaway handle the job or hire someone who can do the job in this environment. With the division still winnable and the team staggering, something must be done to save the season even if it means that the front office will need to defer to its new manager and pay him a salary commensurate with his experience.

Hiring Joe Girardi, Showalter, Scioscia or Dusty Baker does not mean the bullpen won’t keep blowing games. It does eliminate the randomness in the usage of the relievers; stops statements from being made and immediately backtracked on because outsiders don’t like it; and the manager will have the contract and the cachet to say why he did what he did and not sound as if he’s clumsily trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.