Monday, August 28, 2023

Building a Better Future for the Mets

This week, there is more great info on the Mets pitching lab and the young pitching prospects who will benefit from it.

In last week's post, I wrote about the Mets' new pitching lab in Port St. Lucie, based on Mike Puma's reporting in the New York Post. An excellent piece in The Athletic (subscription required) by Tim Britton and Will Sammon came out a couple of days later, which went into more depth on the subject. The Mets hope that taking advantage of the latest technology can help them catch up to more progressive organizations that have been using it for years.

There was a bit of controversy that I touched on earlier this month concerning Justin Verlander. An anonymous (of course) Met cited in a Mike Puma piece in the Post labeled Verlander a "diva" who often complained about the Mets analytics department, which he felt was inferior to Houston's. The whole thing felt ridiculously obvious. Britton and Sammon touched on it in their piece, with a "team source" acknowledging the obvious fact that the Mets were playing catchup with clubs that have been doing this stuff for years:
New York, he said, was until recently several years behind the middle of the pack in adopting the latest trends in pitching development, to say nothing of how far behind it was behind industry vanguards like Houston and Tampa Bay.

The authors noted that Steve Cohen was quoted saying that the Mets were behind clubs that had pitching labs "six, seven, eight years ago." While the Mets can catch up to these teams as long as they continue to stay on the cutting edge of baseball trends, that will not happen immediately. There have been some blips along the way and a churn of employee turnover. Original plans to start a pitching lab that Tim Britton reported on back in May 2021 were delayed. Most of the people they hired to implement it left the organization as the Mets endured some struggles building their front office. I remember getting excited upon reading Britton's early piece on the subject and then wondering what the hell had happened with the lab.

As for the newly-opened lab, there is a fairly detailed physical description of it in last week's piece in The Athletic:
Occupying the space previously reserved for Barwis Physical Therapy, the lab, according to team officials and coaches, contains a single mound with force plates that can precisely measure the way a pitcher's mechanics work and how he generates power. (The lab contains a batter's box with force plates to measure the same things for hitters.) The hope is that a better understanding of a pitcher's mechanics translates to better workout plans, better pitch design, and better health. The plan is to have as many pitchers as possible, both from the minors and majors, visit the lab shortly after the season to help establish a more refined and tailored offseason agenda.

The data from this lab is part of the pitching development equation. Britton and Sammon detail the importance of the coaches and development people tasked with taking the data and interpreting it to the players in a useful manner. Fancy equipment and all the data in the world are useless if they can't be made to work in the real world. The Mets have struggled to develop starting pitchers and have been mostly unable to produce useful bullpen arms. Had the club been just a bit better at these tasks, the Mets would likely still be in a pennant race instead of dropping meaningless games to fellow also-rans like the Angels.

As if this terrific piece on the pitching lab wasn't enough, Tim Britton followed up with another great article on some of the Mets' young pitching prospects. Britton's coverage of the Mets is second to none and is, frankly, the reason that I maintain a subscription to The Athletic. The piece on the lab was an essential part of the story, but certainly only part of that story. Having technology and development people well versed in it is important. But you still need promising young arms to take advantage of it and progress into being Major League pitchers.

Britton's piece looks at Mike VasilDominic HamelBlade TidwellChristian Scott, and Tyler Stuart, Mets Minor Leaguers who represent the best hopes of the club to become Major League pitchers in the near future. Moreover, they're representative of the task of developing pitchers without the benefit of high draft picks. Vasil was an eighth-round pick, Hamel a third-rounder, and Tidwell a second-rounder. Scott (5th round) and Stuart (6th round) were primarily college relievers that the Mets converted back to starting pitchers.

If the Mets are to eventually sustain success and still develop players, they need to have success with guys like these. While it would be nice if one or more took the Jacob deGrom route and greatly exceeded expectations, it would be a significant development victory if some become mid- to back end of the rotation starters or even effective relievers. Taking advantage of the new pitching lab will undoubtedly be an important component of the development equation. Correctly identifying changes these young pitchers need to make to be more effective and successfully coaching these changes will be vital also.

In my post last week, I referred to yet another great piece in The Athletic from 2022 by Eno Sarris and Alec Lewis that went into great detail on the use of biomechanics in MLB. There was a quote that I used from the piece that I'd like to circle back to here, where the authors offered somewhat of a roadmap for a club looking to best take advantage of the technology:

Being able to measure the physical changes in a player before and after drills selected by their coaches is one thing. It's another to then use those measurements to create benchmarks with which to judge the efficacy of the coaches and the organization in developing players. It's a third thing to actually then make organizational changes based on hitting those benchmarks. It's maybe a fourth thing to understand your organizational strengths through this lens and then acquire players who will benefit the most from your ability to help them move better.

Step one, measuring physical changes, is what this lab represents. Step two, creating benchmarks used to judge the effectiveness of coaches in developing players, is, I assume, what the Mets are working on now. Step three, making organizational changes as needed to better hit those benchmarks, will be the ongoing process of years for the club — although there's no reason that they can't get better and better at this starting now. Step four, understanding what the organization does best and then acquiring players — through the draft and in other ways — best suited to benefit from these organizational strengths, is part of a process that will likely take a while. Moreover, success will significantly depend on the organization's ability to identify strengths and weaknesses correctly.

When Jon Daniels was fired last year, there was a real lesson in what happened to the man. He was once the wunderkind who led one of the most successful orgs a little over a decade ago. But the advantage the Rangers had over other clubs dissipated over time to the point where the Rangers endured a long rebuild that essentially didn't work. From what I've read, the perception from the outside was that the Rangers became somewhat stagnant and failed to change with the times. What was once cutting edge simply wasn't any longer.

So, back to the Mets, it's wonderful that they are now owned by a guy who isn't intimidated by technology and analytics and wants to give his club every advantage. Even amongst the ruins of a failed 2023 campaign, there is hope for Mets fans like myself in that fact. I have no doubt that the Mets can catch up to clubs like Houston and Atlanta if they keep on this path. But they will also have to keep their organization fresh and their internal analysis of what they are doing honest and unflinching. With due respect, I look at what is happening with the Yankees now as an example of a team that has enjoyed success for a long time but needs to question its own processes and figure out how to change and adapt. There is tremendous upside in the Mets' future if they can avoid just becoming too comfortable with anything they're doing.

Be well and take care.

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