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Numbers Aren't Everything

Mike SteffanosSaturday, July 22, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

I've mentioned previously that I've become somewhat of a fan of statistical analysis of baseball. I have to qualify it with the word "somewhat" because I can't endorse the "numbers only" approach that so many of these guys insist on taking. For every insightful article that proved to me how the correct use of this tool could lead to a much better understanding of the game I love, I have had to endure another tiresome article by some pimply-faced adolescent genius who assured me that Jose Reyes is a terrible ballplayer and always would be.

Last Christmas Lisa purchased for me a one-year gift membership to Baseball Prospectus' web site. Despite having to endure an annoying anti-Mets bias on the part of a couple of their writers, I've enjoyed the web site for the most part. Since I don't feel the absolute need of the confirmed stat geek to believe absolutely everything I read there (such as Heath Bell is the second best reliever on the team), I've picked up many useful insights into the game. It's a great web site, and worth the price of admission.

I have to say, however, that this article from earlier in the week is a perfect example of why you shouldn't take everything you read there too seriously. Jason Grady drags out all of his best numbers to prove to you that Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner were not cost-effective upgrades at their positions, and that the Mets gave up too much to get them. My favorite overstatement of this article is this one:

In a third, possibly desperate, act to address a perceived problem and satisfy teeth-gnashing fans and media, Omar Minaya scapegoated Braden Looper and brought in free agent Proven Closer Billy Wagner, this time spending a marginal $7 million (and forsaking draft picks #18 and #37) for what could be expected to be only one marginal win, but has actually been no difference.

No doubt Wagner has been bad this year, but I think everyone except Mr. Grady understood the closer situation had to be addressed. Not being a small market team, the Mets were willing to spend a lot of money to address it. If Billy Wagner can find his way back to being Billy Wagner for this year and next, it was a good deal. If Wagner continues in his mediocrity, it was a bad deal. It was a reasonable roll of the dice, however. And as far as the draft picks, the Mets forsook only #18, my friend. Number 37 is the sandwich round pick the Phillies got for the Wagner loss; it's a bonus pick that doesn't come from the team that signs the player.

In an effort to more compensate a team that loses a top free agent, the team that loses the player gets one pick from the signing team and another in the sandwich round that comes at the end of the first round. Sandwich round picks are not forfeited by the signing team, but rather are specially created additional picks that are given to the team that lost the player along with the forfeited pick. I know the draft picks lost weren't the gist of Mr. Grady's argument, but this was a significant overstatement of what the Mets gave up.

I loved Mike Jacobs, and hated to see him go, but exactly how much leadership would he have provided if he was the starting first baseman this year? Mr. Grady's numbers can't tell him about the veteran leadership that Delgado, Lo Duca and Wagner have brought to this team. They can't take into account the aggressive pitch-calling of Lo Duca, and the great job he's done with the young pitchers. They can't tell you which guys come to your team and help other guys to be winners. There's simply no way to quantify what Delgado's presence has meant to Beltran. It's also hard to deduce from bare numbers what it might mean to have a closer in which you have real trust. These are all the "i" word that stat guys spend so much time and energy dismissing: intangibles.

I don't think Mr. Grady's arguments are all without merit, but they aren't the be-all and end-all that he seems to think they are. I do believe that the Mets have already reached the saturation point with older, high-pay high-risk ballplayers, and need to concentrate on developing some young (and cheap) talent. I believe that large-market teams can learn from the hybrid approach the Red Sox have been taking in Boston, where you take a core of veteran stars and surround them with young talent and very good role players. That's where I'd like to see the Mets go down the road. However, don't dismiss the importance of what Omar accomplished this winter with bare numbers. You'll be looking at only a part of the story.

This post is being discussed in the MetsMerized Mets Talk Forum.

Mets.com: Trade Winds
Chris Girandola gets Omar Minaya's thoughts on the trade market, particularly involving pitching:

Minaya has been proactive when it comes to trade discussions with other teams. He said he has been actively pursuing a quality pitcher who could help the starting rotation. Pitchers who have been mentioned in reports include the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis, the Nationals' Livan Hernandez and White Sox starters Javier Vazquez and Freddy Garcia.

But Minaya praised the improvement of rookies John Maine and Mike Pelfrey and said their performance this week -- along with the healthy return of Pedro Martinez expected this week and Brian Bannister in August -- could dictate whether the Mets go through with any type of transaction.

None of those names excite me in the least except for Willis, of whom I have zero belief that he's actually going to be trades here. If Pelfrey and Maine can continue to prove that they are legit major-league starters, why waste talent and money for guys who in Ron Darlings words, "will give you two good starts and one bad, then one good start and two bad."

Girandola also informs us that Brian Bannister threw a 5 inning simulated game, and quotes Omar that Bannister is "close to being taken out of rehab and put into a routine to get him back in the swing of things."

Daily News: Valentin
Peter Botte and Roger Rubin update on the continuing remarkable story that is Jose Valentin. He quotes the Mets second baseman on his terrific season:

I've gotten my second life. I wasn't playing at all at the beginning of the year. It was a bad situation. Now that I get to play every day, I want to stay there. I don't want to lose the job.

As I've stated previously, maybe it's not a bad thing that Willie won't come out and say that Valentin has the job for the rest of the year. It's been working so well like this, why mess with it? I stated my feelings about Valentin before the game yesterday, and will just restate that this guy's season is the antithesis of all of those "take the money and run" stories that Mets fans have had to endure over the years. Mo Vaughn probably stuffed more down strippers' g-strings over the years than Valentin is making in 2006.

Bergen Record: Francisco Pena
Aditi Kinkhabwala recounts the 16-year-old's introduction to the Big Apple.

Mets Walkoffs: Home/Road Splits
Mark shares some eye-opening numbers.

More Mets Stories:
SportsSpyder Mets
Pro Sports Daily Mets

Comments (17)

The thing about Delgado and Mike Jacobs is that you didn't even have to wait until today, July 22 2006 to say the difference in impact between the two will be big.
I been saying, and many people been saying from the beggining, since November, that Mike Jacobs can be a fine player but he can't provide the lineup protection that Delgado can.
This is something that was pretty obvious from the start.

I'm a BIG numbers guy, personality and intangibles are something I'm not a big fan of, I think they're BS BUT that doesn't mean you have to say and make stupid comments like Delgado isn't a huge upgrade... please. That's just silly, I don't care how many numbers you crunch, that's just dumb. Same goes for Billy Wagner.
If he was the closer last year, the Mets make the playoffs.

And Alfonso Soriano, this season, with the power and stolen bases, is probably the #1 ball player and I STILL wouldn't want him on my team. Just certain things and players you have to pass on despite the numbers.

Also, quick comment, is the kids name Alejandro Peña or Francisco Peña, what the hell? Can't they make up thier minds.
What is with these damn kids changing thier names?
Remember last year with Fernando Martinez? His original name, was fittingly enough, Jesus Martinez.

Benny, I've watched and played sports for too long not to believe in personality and intangibles. I've played with guys that had modest talent and were winners and guys that were dazzling but were losers. Not trying to change your mind, but I'll always want to look deeper than numbers. But I don't discount their value.

It's Francisco on Mets.com. Since they signed him, I figure they should know.

I read Mr. Grady's article as well and actually tended to agree with him on the most part.

Looper did need to go, but Wagner provided a huge bump in price for a minimal bump in production.

Paul lo Duca, who I love as a motivational guy, has hardly produced enough to justify his salary. Delgado, a leader who carried this team at the plate for the first month and a half of the season, has also been left in the dust by his predecessor.

It doesn't really matter, since the team is winning, but the more money the Mets tie up in older players with dwindling effectiveness, the less money they'll have to sign guys like Wright and Reyes to long-term contracts, especially since they're both nearing big paydays.

Don't forget about the Mets trying to acquire other players with potential big contracts, like Abreu, or in the long-term if Milledge and the Pelfrey-led corps of starters pans out as well.

Well with Wagner, Delgado, and Lo Duca. Lo Duca is gone after next year (2007). Delgado the year after that, and then Wagner the year after that.
The only one I'm REALLY concerned about it Wagner.
And besides with Milledge, Pelfrey, and most probably Martinez and Humber coming in to actually make an impact to produce, Minaya is in a good position to replace certain guys with cheap talent when Wright and Reyes get thier big paydays.
AS long as the Mets spend smart and only pay top dollar for top talent it's all good. The days of paying close to top dollar for marginal talent is over.
I see them having a decent mix and blend of putting in a young guy to replace a veteran every year.
Omar got into a perfect situation with the Mets.

schuyla -- my point is that the Mets are not a moneyball team to have to obsess over about getting the maximum production for every dollar spent. They have some good leadership on this team now, and Wagner seems to be rounding into decent form -- although I agree with Benny that he's the one I worry about the most. I spoke against getting Abreu because I think the Mets have enough invested in older guys set to decline right now. Lo Duca is only signed through next year, and they could live with Pedro and Delgado declining, as long as they do it fairy slowly.
Benny, we don't agree on intangibles, but I agree with what you said about Minaya and the young talent.

Mike, I too have played and observed sports for too long to not add character and intangibles to the mix. While talent obviously is the main factor in any player, it is far from the only factor. That's why they're called intangibles; it's different for every player. Some things you can put your finger on, some not so easily. If it were easy to pick up on, your team could be a winner every year. While I understand one's argument for stats only, my personal experience has proven to me there's more too it than that.

Exactly, George. While only a fool would ignore what quality statistical analysis can reveal about the game, those who believe that the numbers tell them everything are equally foolish.

One quibble, Mike: There's "no doubt Billy Wagner has been bad this year"? "At times" would be the qualifier I'd use.

We can all tick off all the Excedrin Headache No. 13 moments he's given us without even thinking, and he's not that mythical closer who throws nine strikes and shakes the catcher's hand, but he's been a) close to flawless since that Cincinnati meltdown of a month ago and b) about as good as there is to be had. Of course the Mets overpaid for him. The market was set by the Blue Jays with B.J. Ryan (who's as close to lights out as anybody this year, yet gave up a big homer last week and a game-tying hit the other night), and Wagner could and did command more years than we would have ideally given him. Omar was in the business of winning in 2006 and money and draft picks were, in the post-Duquette era of realpolitik, not going to stop him. Pending Wagner's next inevitable hiccup, thank goodness he did. I'd sure as hell rather take my chances with Wagner instead of Looper or, for that matter, almost anybody.

I read Grady's article at your suggestion and found it yet another example of stat-derived conclusions for their own sake. I try not to be reflexively neanderthal on the issue of sabermetrics, because they represent a potentially revelatory tool, but all I got out of the piece was the impression that the writer had been waiting for Jose Reyes to have a bad week so he could say "Itol'yaso!"

Mea culpa on Wagner, Greg. I'm starting to be impressed by him again. I glossed over Wagner because I was more interested in making the point on the article. I just thought he went way over the top with the numbers. Some of these guys just don't have a clue on how much the team dynamic affects performance.

Regarding the Jacobs/DelGado comparison: there is no question that a healthy, in his prime DelGado is a superior hitter to Mike Jacobs. But that's not what we're discussing; we're comparing two players at very different points in their careers.

Perhaps you saw a piece, actually a portion of a piece that appeared over at Hardball Times a few weeks ago. It was one of those Ten Things I didn't Know articles, and it singled out Jacobs as being in an awful situation for his skills as a hitter. He plays in the 2nd or 3rd worst hitters park in the NL, moreover a park where the predominant winds blow in from right field at an average 16 mph. This wind tends to take about 20 feet off of a fly ball, which is often the difference between a fly out and a tater -- a lousy situation for a lefthanded flyball hitter. That Jacobs has come back from the dead to have a decent season under those circumstances, that tells me something about the kid. There are a lot of different ways to lead.

At his best, in a neutral park, Jacobs is about as good a hitter as the present day Carlos against the righthanders, I think, with fewer peaks in his batting record but also with fewer valleys. He may never be a good hitter against the lefthanders. Mike is much younger than DelGado, suggersing that he should have an edge of staying healthy, but he is still capable of getting hurt. But he has stayed in the lineup with a bum ankle and continue to produce pretty well, which, again, speaks to some positive leadership traits.

I believe that Jacobs is about 80% of the hitter that Carlos is; that is to say, he delivers about 80% of the margin over replacement level of play that Delgado produces. I also believe that a general manager could replace that missing 20% for less than $10 million. In the case of these Mets one might cover half that distance by giving Julio Franco a few more AB's against the lefthanders. And the team leader stuff is, I feel, hardly a one-sided affair; Carlos has the acomplishments, the service time, the voice and the age, while Jake works on his game, scrambling to stay in the majors. Leaders tend to work on their weaknesses; is Carlos DelGado a better fielder than he was five years ago?

All that said, DelGado IS an upgrade, certainly for this season. I kept my mouth shut at the time of the trade because it's hard to oppose an upgrade, even though it pained me to lose Jacobs and Petit. But at the time I thought that the money DelGado would cost would have been better spent in fetching a quality second baseman or a starter.

Ah, what luxury, to be able to parse these tiny quibbles! The BIG stuff is working out very well for these Mets.

By the way: has anyone else had the thought that, in watching Jose Valentin's resurgence, we're watching the 2006 version of the Ray Knight story, circa 1986? Both formerly good players were thought ready for the glue wagon, with only their managers holding out hope.

I not only see the Jose and Ray thing, but certain plays that jump out and remind me of plays from '86'. For me to many to mention, but I see it like then when it seemed we had a differant hero every day. A team pulling together having fun.

DD -- Jacobs is obviously more productive for the money than Delagado. My point on leadership has to do with what goes on in the clubhouse. I don't think Mike Jacobs lacks leadership capability, I think he is to young to be a leader in a clubhouse like the Mets. You'll notice that David Wright treads lightly there, and that's good, because at 23 years old he needs to benefit from the leadership of others. He has enough on him for one so young. Valentin/Ray Knight is a fun comparison.

I like that Rev -- A team pulling together having fun

Sounds like a better slogan than Our Team. Our Time.

Just jumping around the net today and saw,Jason Stark at ESPN reported Billy Bean willing to trade Zito for Milledge straight up! Would you do it?I know he is a free agent next year and if we wait we could have both. But this year in the rotation sure would look nice.

That's a tough one Rev. If you do it, you better win the world series, or you just traded away your best chip for 2 months of Barry Zito.

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