Data is everywhere in baseball now. Since it’s so ubiquitous, you’d think there would be little advantage when it comes to the numbers that fuel game-day preparation. But many believe there still is an edge in data and it has to do with a job, or more specifically a job title, that is now spreading across the sport: the quality assurance coach. The tale of this title, which first arrived in Tampa Bay 13 years ago this week, tells us a little about how the data edge in the game today comes from the how and the who and the when, as much as the what.
Simplistically speaking, the QA coach is tasked with making sure the right data is getting to the right people on the team, so that they are ready to make the right decisions during the game.
The Mets were one of the teams that utilized this position last year, as former player Brian Schneider held down the job. But today, I'm reading in the New York Post that the Mets have eliminated this position and have reassigned Schneider to a different job within the organization. The Mets are working hard to beef up their Research and Development after hiring Ben Zauzmer from the Dodgers organization. Unlike many other teams who utilize a QA coach to make sure that all of the advanced data is properly integrated by the coaching staff, the Mets are choosing a different path:
The Mets have eliminated the quality control coach position ... leaving a direct line of communication between the analysts and coaching staff. [Current manager Luis] Rojas served as the quality control coach in 2019, distilling analytical information for the rest of the coaching staff.
"We feel pretty comfortable that our analysts and strategists are going to be talking to our coaches," Rojas said Wednesday. "Right now the digestion of the information is clear. Our coaches learn a lot about the usage of systems and some of the formulas out there, so there is the straight line of communication and now that we have expanded and have more manpower you can see it working already."
Mike Puma, the author of the piece, didn't offer further details or insight into why the Mets decided to buck the trend by eliminating the position. I'm pretty sure that it's not that they don't care whether the right information is being given to the right people and being implemented correctly. I would imagine there is still someone responsible for making sure all of the data is being integrated successfully, but, at least for the Mets, that person will no longer be a coach.
Over recent years, as it became clearer how important integrating advanced analytics into the day to day running of a successful baseball club truly was, I would look at what the best clubs were doing and wonder what a difference it would make if the Mets ever decided to wake up and follow suit. I find it really interesting that now they are finally are owned by someone willing to make investments in that area, they're choosing to buck a trend used by some very successful organizations in implementing that data. Then again, there's really not one correct way to do something.
In Puma's article in the Post, he also cites manager Luis Rojas on the Mets' desire to improve their own baserunning. A significant part of the reason the Mets struggled to score runs despite generally excellent offensive numbers was poor baserunning, and this has been somewhat of a trend for them in recent years. What often sticks out when we think of bad baserunning is watching runners getting thrown out trying to take an extra base. There's certainly been some of that, but I often found myself frustrated last year watching the Mets being timid on the basepaths. Properly aggressive teams will get some players thrown out at times. It's always a balance. You want to avoid the really dumb mental errors, but playing it too safe costs runs and lets opposing pitchers off the hook.
Baserunning was just one of the reasons the Mets underperformed last year. Granted, their pitching was awful enough to sink them, anyway, but the Mets could have made it interesting at the end of the season simply by winning a few more games. The Mets finished the abbreviated season at 26-34. This included dropping their last 3 games to the Nationals. The Brewers made the expanded playoffs with a 29-31 record. It wouldn't have taken much for the Mets to have snatched that last wildcard spot for themselves. They probably wouldn't have done much in the playoffs, but it still would have been nice to see them there for however long.
Joel Sherman had a piece in the New York Post today that looked at some of the Mets' weaknesses over the last few years. I thought it was overly harsh but made some points worth talking about. In particular., Sherman criticized the Mets for their weaknesses with the fundamentals of the game:
I asked an NL executive [why the Mets underperformed] last season and the reply was that in every more nuanced item that determines a close game, in particular, the Mets were terrible. Cut a ball in the gap. Take an extra base properly. Stop a secondary runner from gaining a base.
The numbers back this up. The Mets are minus-13 the last two years in outs above average on defense (Baseball Savant). They are last (30th among 30 teams) the last two years in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric and they are six runs worse than the next team — and just as a comparison 43 runs worse than the Braves, who have won the NL East in those two years.
No team has a worse caught-stealing percentage than the Mets in 2019-20. Runners have been successful on 85.7 percent of steal attempts — the next worst is 82.5. The Mets have allowed 180 steals in that timeframe. The next worst is 149.
Think of all the bases gifted on defense and self-deprived on offense. Begin to envision how the Mets do not win, for example, a larger percentage of Jacob deGrom’s starts. The Mets may have talent, but even the Big Red Machine would have difficulty overcoming all that the Mets have not done well.
Any knowledgeable fan who has watched their share of Mets games over the last few seasons understands how serious the Mets' lack of fundamentals in many facets of the game has hurt their cause. Sherman was pessimistic about how much the team has done to address this, but I think a lot of that is still TBD.
There's little doubt that a significant number of players remain from these poor fundamental teams. Particularly if there is no NL DH this season — also still TBD — the Mets will have an improved but still flawed defensive club on the field in most games. And yes, Sandy Alderson has been an executive who has favored offense over defense on the clubs he has constructed.
But Alderson himself has indicated that he has come to an understanding of how important run prevention has become. I don't see it as being an issue where the club will ignore defense as they have in the past. And yes, the Mets will need to continue to evolve over time through personnel decisions on both the pro and amateur levels to a more well-rounded club. But I don't believe the Mets are somehow fated to remaining fundamentally poor if they're willing to change that.
There has been a lot of sloppiness that's been tolerated here for a while, and that just can't continue to be acceptable. Every team has to overcome some weaknesses. For instance, nobody fields a Gold Glove winner at every position, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't demand, in as much as possible, fundamentally sound play from their players.
On defense, players need to be properly positioned and taught to make the correct choices in the field. Everyone is going to make mistakes at times, but fundamentally sloppy and/or lazy play should never be tolerated. And any defender, regardless of his skill level, can work to improve. Fortunately for the Mets, players like Dom Smith (at least in LF) and J.D. Davis, who definitely have defensive shortcomings, are willing to work at their defense. They will never be great defenders, but they certainly can and should get better.
The Mets may not have had the best throwing catchers over the last decade or so, but their pitchers have consistently struggled to hold baserunners. They were never going to be great at limiting the running game, but there was absolutely no reason for them to be this bad.
For all of the Mets' flaws — defense, running the bases, limiting the other teams' running game — the long-term answers will include employing more well-rounded players, in their system and on the major league club, and doing a better job of imparting fundamentals to those minor leaguers. But part of the solution is demanding more from everyone in the organization, prospects and big leaguers. That doesn't have to wait. That can and must start right now.
The Mets don't have to be fundamentally perfect to reap the benefits of placing much greater importance on all of their areas of weakness. Improvement will equal more wins. A tolerance of sloppiness for too many years has led to many losses. Putting an end to that history and implementing a new culture must be a major goal this season.
I'm out for today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.
Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos