Sunday, February 18, 2024

On Prospects and Analytics

David Stearns has taken heat for moves he hasn't made this winter, but he is laying the groundwork for a transformational season.

The Mets organization has no history of being a player development juggernaut. There have been some good homegrown players over the years, even a few great ones. But there has never been a significant era in the Mets' existence fueled by a farm system continually delivering talent to the major league club. Over many decades, this has been a primary reason why the club has been unable to sustain winning.

Even so, it's not hard to look back in Mets history to see the value in a productive farm system. The Mets' last World Series winner in 1986 featured a ton of homegrown players. By far, the best farm production in Mets' history came in the first half of the 1980s. Dwight GoodenDarryl StrawberryMookie WilsonLenny DykstraWally BackmanKevin MitchellRoger McDowellRick Aguilera, and Doug Sisk were all drafted and developed by the Mets. Ron DarlingSid Fernandez, and Jesse Orosco were acquired as minor leaguers and debuted with the Mets. Randy MyersKevin Elster, and Dave Magadan also played a few games for the Championship club, although their breakthrough as regulars came later.

Large-scale success in player development fueled the longest successful era for the Mets. From 1984 through 1990, the club averaged 95 wins per season. It seemed as if there was a foundation in place for sustained winning. However, the talent pipeline only produced for a scant few years, drying up considerably in the second half of the decade. It's no accident that the winning dried up shortly thereafter. In the 38 years that have passed since they last hoisted a trophy, we've never seen anything close to the infusion of young talent we witnessed in the early 1980s.

Why were the Mets unable to sustain the success of that early '80s farm system? A significant contributing factor is Fred Wilpon gaining control of the team. In 1980, Fred owned 1% of the Mets. When Doubleday Publishing sold the club after the 1986 season, Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday became 50-50 partners. Finally, in August 2002, Fred bought out Doubleday and became the sole owner of the club.

As Fred Wilpon's control grew, the club's fortunes declined. The Mets' success in the late '80s through 2002 was significantly less than their heyday, accumulating a mediocre .514 winning percentage. But things got worse in the period when Fred had sole control. From 2003 to 2020, their winning percentage was .491. In those 18 seasons, they only finished above .500 seven times. Despite witnessing the success fueled by the farm system in Frank Cashen's first seasons as GM, Wilpon never placed a priority on maximizing his club's talent pipeline. Investment there just didn't bring the instant gratification and praise for his ownership Fred craved.

The Mets developed some good ballplayers during the Wilpon era, even a handful of great ones, headed by David WrightJosé ReyesJacob deGrom, and, for a brief, shining moment, Matt Harvey. But the Mets were never able to replicate the infusion of talent we saw in the early 80s. The consequences of this failure were a recurring theme over the ensuing decades of Wilpon's management.

For the most part, year after year, the Mets had to fill out the roster with players acquired through free agency. Depth in their system usually consisted of Quad-A types, has-beens, and retreads. When the Mets had to reach down to the farm for a pitcher to make an emergency start, the results were often brutal and ugly. When they needed to promote a position player to cover for an injury, we witnessed a lot of non-competitive at-bats by guys who really had no business being in the Major Leagues. Many a Mets season was sunk by injuries to key players and the paucity of depth available to cover for them.

The Mets got better at drafting players in the waning years of the Wilpon regime. It still wasn't great, but there was improvement. When Steve Cohen purchased the team, the Mets were still far behind MLB's best teams when it came to investing in their player development. When the Mets finally opened their pitching lab last summer, Cohen spoke about how the Mets were years behind more progressive clubs in doing so. While there is no instant gratification in player development, Cohen is right in that building a successful talent pipeline is the only way to have more than fleeting success going forward.

David Stearns is fortunate enough to be stepping into an organization that is much further down the road to being what it needs to be than the Mets were when Cohen took over in November 2020. But he was less lucky to inherit the consequences of last winter's spending spree, which produced an extremely suboptimal outcome and an overstuffed budget that didn't pay any dividends. The fanbase is understandably frustrated by 2023's outcome. A large percentage of them aren't inclined to grant Stearns's front office the leeway to spend this season evaluating what they have in house. I feel a bit of impatience myself, but it's tempered by the understanding that things have to change for the Mets if the club is finally to reverse decades of unsatisfactory results from their system.

I'm not one to dump on former GM Billy Eppler. He stepped into a situation that was quite chaotic after two GMs were handed pink slips in the space of a few months. This undoubtedly hampered Steve Cohen's plans to upgrade scouting and development. Eppler certainly didn't get everything right, but he stabilized the situation and made some real progress. One area where Eppler's front office came up lacking, however, was in their failure to create a situation where prospects had the maximum opportunity to thrive.

Young players such as Francisco ÁlvarezBrett BatyRonny Mauricio, and Mark Vientos received significant playing time over the past two seasons with varying degrees of success. However, there was never a discernible plan in place for any of these kids. They received opportunities due to need created by injury or lack of production from veterans. They often saw inconsistent playing time upon promotion.

Their results were quite mixed. Álvarez, by far, enjoyed the most success, but endured big slumps. Francisco finished with an anemic on base percentage of .284 and an OPS+ of 95 — not terrible for a catcher, but more than a bit disappointing.

Meanwhile, Baty went from a top-100 prospect to somewhat of a flop, both offensively and in the field. Fans really wanted to see the Mets sign a third baseman this winter, as expectations for Baty plummeted.

Mark Vientos had a somewhat promising September when finally awarded regular playing time, but struck out in over 30% of his ABs last season. There are still big questions whether Mark can make enough contact in the big leagues, particularly since his defense will never provide much value.

Finally, Mauricio will miss the entirety of the 2024 season, missing out on some hugely needed development time. Ronny has a ton of potential, but also only managed an OPS + of 77 with the Mets last season, striking out in 31 of 108 PA.

Essentially, the Mets didn't have a clear win with any prospect, including Álvarez. They have to do better going forward.

In 2024, the Mets have several position player prospects relatively close to making their MLB debut. Trade pickups Drew Gilbert and Luisangel Acuña are the closest, with Jett Williams not very far behind. We could very well see all of these guys in Queens this summer, along with some pitching prospects percolating up through the system. What I hope to see from David Stearns's front office is a more coherent plan for all of these kids, including the ones mentioned above that have already accumulated MLB service time.

David Stearns has spoken of the rationale for not going out and signing one of the established DHs in the market. The primary reason was to create opportunity for young players. That answer won't win any popularity contests, but it's exactly the right thing for the 2024 Mets to do. In a way, the path of least resistance would be to sign a veteran in the hopes of finding a couple of extra wins in the quest for a Wild Card berth. That was the path the Mets always seemed to take in the Wilpon years — when they were trying at all. But doing the easy, popular stuff has failed to pay off for the Mets in decade after decade. So I'm willing to give Cohen and Stearns a break and some leeway in trying to forge a new way of doing things for the Mets.

I don't like losing, either, folks. Believe me. I've seen wa-a-a-a-y too much of it over the last five and a half decades of rooting for the Mets. But fixing things around here is going to involve more than just writing big checks and putting together a Stars and Scrubs type of roster again. Building organizational depth and giving kids a real chance to establish themselves is a sensible approach from a really smart guy. I'm on board, even if it doesn't immediately pay off this season. Changing the program may be a bit painful to watch at times, but the consequences of not changing things that just aren't working are even more painful to experience.

I've prattled on quite a bit here, but if you'll indulge me for a bit longer, here's one more brief point. Steve Cohen has some understanding of the importance of analytics from years of making himself a billionaire. But now there is sentiment from a significant percentage of fans that the Mets have become too reliant on analytics, to the detriment of their success.

I wasn't someone who bought into analytics for many years. Being just plain old has a tendency to make one's beliefs somewhat old-school. But learning about the way that smart clubs were integrating analytics into their decision-making processes slowly changed my thinking. That doesn't mean that I see analytics as some magical ritual that teams can perform to boost their win totals. Clubs that are succeeding with analytics are doing so because they have achieved a harmony between maximizing the effectiveness of whatever data they choose to incorporate and making sure the data is truly useful.

There is always a delicate balance to strike when using data properly. Whether it is data used in internal evaluations or data given to players to help them compete better against other teams, there is a fine line between useful information and information overload. I am not on the inside of what is happening with the Mets, so I can't pretend to know what they have gotten right and where they have come up short. What I am reasonably sure of, however, is that the fault is not with the science of analytics, but rather with a failure to implement things properly.

One of my many hopes for David Stearns running the show is that he fine-tunes the club's processes for utilizing analytics, figuring out what is working and what isn't, and then making adjustments accordingly. Again flashing back to the Wilpons, the Mets barely dabbled in analytics during those years. You can find ways to screw things up by ignoring analytics or using the science improperly. Let's hope that, under Stearns, the Mets finally find that sweet spot in the middle.

Be well and take care.

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