Mets' brand of Moneyball not so successful

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
2:00
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"Moneyball" is about a small-market, cash-strapped baseball team that succeeded by using innovative methods -- included valuing OBP, ignoring size and body types when evaluating amateur talent and using quantitative analysis (i.e., sabermetrics). In its purest form, "Moneyball" is about finding value in undervalued assets -- or exploiting market inefficiencies.

Almost a year before the movie's premiere, the "big market," financially distressed Mets hired Sandy Alderson, the "godfather of 'Moneyball,'" to right their sinking ship. Immediately, Alderson began applying Moneyball-style concepts in Flushing -- some that might be familiar from the book, others that may have been developed more recently. How have these strategies worked out? We'll review some of them and then you can be the judge.

Valuing OBP

[+] EnlargeSandy Alderson
Douglas Jones/US PresswireUnder Sandy Alderson's leadership, the Mets began to favor high OBP-types over free-swinging hitters who didn't get on base as much.
With Alderson as GM, the Mets would no longer be signing walk-less free swingers such as Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas. Instead, they added players with strong on-base potential such as Willie Harris and Brad Emaus, and gave minor-league OBP machine Josh Thole a chance to win the catching position. Additionally, they hired hitting coach Dave Hudgens, who initiated a new hitting approach that valued patience, working counts and taking walks. The result? With a week left in the season, the Mets are first in the NL in walks, and second in OBP -- mission accomplished. However, despite all those baserunners, they're only fifth in the NL in runs scored. Why? Because they also lead all of MLB in runners left on base.

Get On Base, Hit Dingers, and Value Every Out

This is an extension of the previous entry, and may help explain why the Mets couldn't score more runs. Sabermetric studies suggest that it's best to get on board and wait for someone to push you around the bases -- preferably via the long ball. That said, attempting to steal bases should be kept to a minimum, since it risks outs. Similarly, the sacrifice bunt is a bad idea.

This strategy works well when you have sluggers who can hit balls over fences. But that skill was lacking in Flushing this season: The Mets are 14th out of 16 NL teams in home runs, and their leading slugger has hit only 15 -- and he (Carlos Beltran) was traded in July.

You can wonder if this Moneyball principle can work for a team that plays half its games in a ballpark as enormous as Citi Field. Indeed, Sandy Alderson has already announced the fences could be moved in for 2012. Which begs the question: Do you build a team to suit the park, adjust the park for the team -- or change the dimensions to force a formula to work?

Batting Average and Stolen Bases Are Overrated

A basic Moneyball tenet is that batting average is not a good indicator of a hitter's value; on-base percentage and OPS are much more reliable measurements. Additionally, attempting to steal a base is a mathematically risky proposition that should generally be avoided. Henceforth, players with high averages and high stolen-base totals -- particularly those with low OBPs -- are usually overrated.

Sandy Alderson applied this tenet when Jose Reyes requested a conversation regarding a contract extension prior to spring training. Though the speedy shortstop stole plenty of bases and hit for a fairly high average, Alderson cited Reyes' low OBP in 2010 and recent injury history to deny the request, saying, "we'll wait and see" what happens in the 2011 season. As it turned out, Reyes had a career year, leading the NL in hitting for much of the season and posting a career-high OBP. Did Alderson make a mistake by not negotiating with Reyes at a time when the team held considerable leverage? Or was it a smart move, since Reyes did have some hamstring issues and, in turn, his stolen-base total reduced significantly?

Undervalued Assets: Pitchers Coming Off Surgery

Signing pitchers with bum arms wasn't a concept published in the "Moneybal," but it seemed to be a "market inefficiency" identified by the new Mets front office. Sometimes a team will take a chance on one or maybe two pitchers whose health is a major question mark, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.

The Mets, however, signed six of these guys: Chris Young, Chris Capuano, Boof Bonser, Taylor Buchholz, Taylor Tankersley and Jason Isringhausen. The logic was that all of these pitchers were undervalued because of their injury histories and their recent appearances on surgeon’s tables.

How did it turn out? The good news: Capuano wound up giving the Mets 30 starts and Jason Isringhausen came out of the bullpen 53 times. Young was spectacular through his first four starts, then reinjured his shoulder and was done for the year. Buchholz lasted until June, when shoulder fatigue and other issues ended his season. Bonser and Tankersley never made it out of spring training.

Errors Aren’t a Good Measurement of Defensive Ability

Defensive statistics are still evolving, with disagreement about the best metrics. One thing that has nearly universal agreement, however, is that errors don't tell much about a fielder's ability. As Bill James once stated, "you have to do something right to get an error; even if the ball is hit right at you, then you were standing in the right place to begin with." We don't know for sure what defensive metrics the Mets are using internally for evaluation purposes. However, we do know for sure that the Mets are second in the NL in errors -- and fourth in MLB -- with 113. Does it mean anything?

Saves are a Useless Stat; Closers are Overrated

This one is a favorite in saber-circles: Converting the last three outs of a ballgame is highly overrated and, in turn, most closers are similarly overrated and overpaid. The thinking is that equally important outs often occur earlier in the game -- sometimes as early as the fifth or sixth inning. Further, the ability to get outs in the ninth is not necessarily a specialized skill -- getting outs, period, is what’s important.

Following with that line of thinking, a team is better served "creating" a closer from within their organization or by finding someone undervalued by others, rather than acquiring an established (and expensive) closer. Sandy Alderson did this when he pulled former starter Dennis Eckersley off the scrapheap and made him a one-inning finisher; Billy Beane did the same with Jason Isringhausen at the turn of the 21st century.

Perhaps with this logic in mind, the Mets were quick to shed a potentially enormous vesting option by trading veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez after the All-Star Game, using a "closer by committee" situation for the second half of the season. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out so well, as the Mets blew 22 saves in 2011, converting only 65 percent. What makes those numbers more dismal is this: Rodriguez converted 23 of 26 save opportunities before leaving New York, while all other Met relievers converted only 17 of 36 chances (47 percent).

Alderson himself is now wondering whether the save -- and closers -- aren't so overrated after all. When speaking to Adam Rubin regarding the bullpen's inability to close out games, Alderson said, "I think it has a real impact on not just team success, but also team outlook, team attitude, team confidence. Blown saves from time to time are part of the game, but blowing them at an inordinate rate can have, I think, a real negative impact on a team. So it needs to be a point of concentration for us."

Conclusion

Sandy Alderson has had less than a full year to establish his imprint on the Mets, so it's too early to know whether his strategies will turn the team into a winner. As of now, it seems that Moneyball tactics may be outdated, and new ones are under development. In some ways, Flushing, New York, could be considered a laboratory, where the next market inefficiencies are being hypothesized and tested. Ten years from now, a sequel to "Moneyball" might be published -- if there are still books by then. And maybe by then Brad Pitt will be old enough to play Sandy Alderson in the movie.

Joe Janish is the founder of Mets Today, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and has thrown BP to Don Mattingly, caught Jim Bouton's knuckleball, and eaten a meal prepared by Rusty Staub. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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