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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The Objective Truth About Luhnow

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Simultaneously searching for a greater understanding through objective analysis, the stat people have taken to using subjectivity to bolster the resumes of the like-minded whether it’s accurate or not.

In this NY Times article by Tyler Kepner, the new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has his work glossed over in such a way to bypass how he got into the game; the issues that surrounded him with the Cardinals; and that he’s doled credit without full details nor the assignation of blame.

Luhnow was hired by the Cardinals in the heady days following the publication of Moneyball—before the story was proven to be a skillfully written fabrication. The specific purpose of the book was to prop up the supposed “genius” of Billy Beane and designed to document the antiquated nature of those who hadn’t been educated at an Ivy League school, didn’t use numbers as the end-all of existence and trusted their in-the-trenches experience and their eyes to assess players.

Immediately Luhnow became seen as a threat to veteran GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony LaRussa. He had the ear of owner Bill DeWitt and the organization set about altering the draft strategy. In addition to that, the organizational pitching philosophy, which had been designed by pitching coach Dave Duncan, was scrapped much to the chagrin of Duncan, LaRussa and Jocketty.

The front office had broken into factions with the old-schoolers battling the new age thinkers who, like Luhnow, were imported from other industries and whose presence was viewed as interloping on what they’d always done; what had been successful.

Kepner is sort of accurate (albeit with the count slightly off) when, in describing Luhnow’s first three drafts, he writes:

In those same years, St. Louis drafted 24 future major leaguers, the most of any team.

But is it spiritually accurate?

The list of big league players that Luhnow drafted from 2005-2007 are as follows:

2005: Colby Rasmus; Tyler Greene; Bryan Anderson; Mitchell Boggs; Nick Stavinoha; Daniel McCutchen; Ryan Rohlinger (did not sign); and Jaime Garcia.

2006: Adam Ottavino; Chris Perez; Jon Jay; Mark Hamilton; Shane Robinson; Allen Craig; P.J. Walters; David Carpenter; and Luke Gregerson.

2007: Pete Kozma; Clayton Mortensen; Jess Todd; Daniel Descalso; Michael Stutes (didn’t sign); Steven Hill; Andrew Brown; Brian Broderick; Tony Cruz; and Adron Chambers.

Apart from Garcia, is there one player that jumps out so you can say, “Wow, what a great pick that was!”?

The drafts were pedestrian. Because 24 of the players drafted in those three years made it to the majors, it doesn’t imply “success”.

A player simply making it to the big leagues is contingent on a myriad of factors—some of those for Luhnow are that the players were traded away for veteran help; such veteran help generally only comes from a team that is in need of young talent because they don’t have the money to keep the veteran players they’re dealing away, so they’ll be more open to giving prospects a chance in the big leagues.

Just as wins and losses have become a borderline irrelevant barometer in determining how well or poorly a pitcher has pitched in a given season, the number of big leaguers produced in a draft is rendered meaningless as well.

There’s little-to-no correlation between a draft being judged as “good” and the players making it to the majors for a token appearance.

Succeeding Jocketty, Mozeliak was placed in a position where he had to assuage his cantankerous veteran manager LaRussa (sometimes “yes-ing” him to death to keep him quiet) while fulfilling the mandate of ownership that became clear when they hired Luhnow in the first place.

This was a subtle and underappreciated accomplishment by Mozeliak.

Were the late round players who made it to the big leagues—some of which became star-caliber like Garcia—the result of change in philosophy spurred by Luhnow’s presence? Or was it typical luck that has to be present as it was when Jocketty’s operation picked Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft?

The trades that Kepner brings up came as a result of LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting to get what he wanted due to his stature and accumulated credibility from years of winning his way. They had nothing to do with Luhnow in a concrete sense.

The perception of a star player like Matt Holliday being available via trade is connected to his contract status; he was not re-signing with the Athletics and the 2009 A’s were playing poorly, so they traded him for some players that had been drafted under Luhnow.

One thing doesn’t justify the other.

Luhnow is in a less contentious position with the Astros than he was when he entered baseball as an outsider in 2003. With a new owner; a barren farm system; and essentially an expansion roster, he’s free to do whatever he wants from top-to-bottom and hire people who are of similar mind and will implement what he believes.

But it’s got nothing to do with what he did as a Cardinals executive because his contribution was secondary to having a Hall of Fame manager and a GM who was adept at placating those with differing philosophies that were trying to push him in one direction or another.

If anyone deserves the credit for the Cardinals ability to navigate these issues and still win, it’s Mozeliak.

Will Luhnow be a Paul DePodesta? Someone with the knowledge of numbers and solid resume but was unable to deal with the ancillary aspects of the big job? Or will he be a Jon Daniels? One who overcame a rocky start and muddled ownership/managerial situation, but has become one of the best, if not the best GM in baseball?

We won’t know until we know.

Luhnow’s getting his chance now. He’s the boss of the Astros. For better. Or worse.

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