Thursday, March 3, 2022

Too Much of a Good Thing

2021 was a disappointing season for the New York Mets. The pitching staff was beset with injuries. Jacob deGrom and Carlos Carrasco, the two pitchers penciled in as 1 and 2 in the Mets' rotation, made only 27 combined starts. That was only the tip of the injury iceberg that sunk the Mets'season — all told, 42 starters and relievers toed the rubber for the Mets last year. That was not a recipe for success.

For all of that, however, what bothered me most personally about last season was the offense. It looked like a strength heading into the year, but the Mets finished the season dead last among National League teams in hits and runs scored. Had they hit as expected, the team might well have competed for a playoff spot until the end of the season. Instead, they fell out of the race before September began.

Early offensive struggles led to the decision on May 4 to replace hitting coach Chili Davis and his assistant Tom Slater with Hugh Quattlebaum and Kevin Howard. Both new coaches were originally hired by the Mets for very different jobs. Quattlebaum was initially employed as a minor league director of hitting development, while Howard was brought on as director of player development. It was unusual for a major league team to make such a drastic move with the season well underway.

Reportedly, the front office was very dissatisfied with Davis' aversion to the increased use of analytics. The hitters definitely weren't producing when Chili was handed a pink slip. Francisco Lindor struggled mightily, hitting .182/.297/.234 in March and April. Jeff McNeil slashed .203/.299/.339 during that same period. Dom Smith limped along at .222/.250/.333, while Michael Conforto delivered a weak .211/.325/.324 batting line.

In hindsight, the Mets would have been better advised to have waited until after the year to make such a drastic change, even if they weren't happy with Davis' approach. The offense never turned around when Quattlebaum and Howard took over. It wasn't for lack of data. Reportedly, Mets players were overloaded with details by the analytics team afterward. The needle swung drastically from too little use of data to information overload. Injuries played a part in the struggles, of course, but the Mets never found a way to put up offensive numbers even close to their potential, even when their hitters regained health.

It's easy to oversimplify a story like this and declare that the "old ways" are best. However, the problem wasn't the use of analytics — it was the failure to properly integrate the information in a manner that allowed the players to utilize it for success. Contrast this with the Mets' success by using data to position their fielders in a way that dramatically improved their defensive numbers last season.

For analytics to successfully help a team win, it takes more than just having intelligent folks crunching numbers. It's every bit as important — probably even more so — that teams utilize a coherent and efficient manner to get that data to the players so that they can use it to improve their performance on the field. When the Mets hired Eric Chavez as their new hitting coach over the winter, the idea was to employ an approach that integrated analytical information without overwhelming hitters with TMI.

I'm 63 years old. I was decidedly a late-life convert to the importance of using analytics in baseball. What brought me around was how innovative teams integrated analytics and technology with more traditional methods of running a baseball organization. Advances in technology allowed trained professionals to measure players' performance in ways that weren't even possible a couple of decades ago. More importantly, teams were hiring and training coaches who understood the data and were proficient at interpreting that information for the players. All the data in the world is useless if teams lack the ability to use it to unlock a player's potential.

Over the last few years, it increasingly bothered me that the Mets failed to invest in the latest breakthroughs. It's been gratifying to see that has changed under Steve Cohen. But I'm not surprised that the transition to a more modern approach has included stumbles like last season's data overload for the hitters. The Mets are heading in the right direction, but it's going to be a process to get the data interpreted in the most optimal way for the players. It's as important to have coaches who understand the latest and greatest and possess the people skills to translate this stuff for the players.

Last spring, Tim Britton had a terrific piece in The Athletic about how the Mets were working on developing a state-of-the-art pitching lab in Port St. Lucie. The idea is to use the latest technology to help young pitching prospects refine their talents and graduate to the major leagues. It's also very useful in helping pitchers who are rehabbing from injuries.
A lab would be a tangible sign of the Mets' revitalized investment in infrastructure. For years, New York has lagged behind other major-league teams in its investment to modern technology and baseball analytics. [Steve] Cohen and [Sandy] Alderson have vowed to change that. Already, [director of baseball analytics Ben] Zauzmer's department has been aggressively hiring both analysts and data scientists, doubling its size from eight last year to 16 this year, with plans to hire at least four more.

"What we’re hoping to do is create a situation where we can execute on existing ideas as well or better than anyone, and then potentially anticipate the next big idea," Alderson said.
I hope that they've made progress in getting that off the ground over the past year. In Britton's article, the lab was mentioned as a work in progress, with a goal of having it ready by this spring. I haven't read anything new about it this year, not surprising since the ongoing lockout has dominated the baseball news. However, I'm pretty confident that the Mets aren't just going to sit on their hands and not have every tool possible at their disposal with Steve Cohen calling the shots.

Properly using technology like this is crucial to reversing the sad state of the Mets over the last couple of decades. If it helps only a handful of younger pitchers develop into major leaguers and injured hurlers successfully return, it will more than pay for the investment. But the glitch with the hitting coaches has pointed out how vital it is to build human infrastructure around this data and technology. That will be something to keep an eye on, also.

This is an exciting time to be a Mets fan after so many years of what truly felt like stagnation. Now, if Rob Manfred and the voracious billionaire team owners would only allow baseball to resume.

Please be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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