Mets Fan Reeducation: The Media, The Management, And You

When I heard Reverend James Lawson, a local professor at Vanderbilt and a hero of the Civil Rights movement, speak about First Amendment rights, I was taken aback by one thing in particular he said (and I'm paraphrasing): "The news media is based on hate for the other party."

His words took on renewed meaning to me when I re-watched a Youtube favorite of mine, Jon Stewart on Crossfire. Most people remember Stewart (a Mets fan) calling Tucker Carlson a dick in a bowtie. Upon this watching, however, another thing he said in the interview stood out:

Begala: "By beating up on them? You just said we're too rough on them when they make mistakes."

Stewart: "No, no, no, you're not too rough on them. You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks." (emphasis mine)

I immediately thought back to this quotation when I read Omar Minaya's sound byte from earlier in the season:

There is a smile on David Wright's face, a smile on Jose Reyes's face. But there is not an edge to them.

By now, most of you probably don't know what I'm talking about. Eric is having a heart attack, because I'm committing the most epic and flagrant violation of the no politics rule in site history. My point is: just as the news media is ruining political discourse in this country, so too is the sports media ruining the Mets and the discourse of their fans. Is there really a difference between Minaya jumping on the "Mets have no heart or edge" train to shield himself from criticism, and a politician being complicit with media ad-hominem attacks on his or her opponent? When John Harper asks a random scout to confirm his totally-unjustified assertion that the Mets have a bad farm system, is it really that much different than FOX interviewing someone from the Cato Institute or CNN someone from MoveOn.org?

Mets fans go along with this stuff, because they're easy explanations. It allows scapegoating. The media tells us what we want to hear. Just like the Harper's scout or FOX's think tanks, it reifies our beliefs, plays on our most intense emotions. It's tough to be a Mets fan. With four of the top 10 players in the league, the Mets keep falling short of the playoffs in the most agonizing ways. Do they not want it as bad as we do? I talked about this phenomenon on a smaller scale, when the "no edge" talk first started popping up. The media (not all of it, but enough) often feeds into these emotions, without adding anything substantive to the discussion as to why the team actually is losing.

So why give this rant now? Did the Phillies sweep push me over the edge? Actually, as James alluded to a couple of days ago, Eric asked me to make a statistical glossary for reference of all the stats we use on the site. I wanted, however, to provide context to why I think our approach is important.  Instead of making a list, I'm going to explain these stats in groupings and lessons, with specific context of how they can improve the discourse for all fans about the Mets.

1. This is not a stats blog. I hate the term "sabermetrics".

Seriously, I hate the word. It allows people to separate the statistics they're used to (RBI, ERA, etc.) from the newer stats. Here, the media plays a prominent role in demonizing "sabermetrics" as an unholy condensing of the game into math. This is well documented. Statistics like wOBA and VORP, however, are just attempts at improving what's already there. These "sabermetric" stats attempt to measure the same thing as every other stat: how good a hitter is, how good pitcher or fielder is, just in a more precise way. Batting average as a statistic measures how many hits a player gets in non-walk plate appearances. That's what it does. It's not the end-all-be-all measure of offensive value, we have better measures of that, which I'll explain later.

2. It's about the process not the result.

I was reading an R.J. Anderson post at DraysBay about process and results, in between studying for a government exam one night.  As I glanced back down at my book, I coincidentally read a line about how British politicians and civil servants focus more on the process of formulating good policy, not the political result, like American politicians. It went on to compare these British bureaucrats to Cricket players, who are taught to pay attention to how they play the game, not whether they win or lose. This emphasis on the process over the results is why Rays fans like R.J. don't need to worry about their team. Their front-office is the best at what it does, and considering their payroll, they can handle a season where they finish third in the AL East, with the assurance they'll be competitive the next year.

Much of the sports media, the news media, and many Mets fans have this order backwards. They focus too much on what happened, not how it happened.Obscured in all that talk about the "collapse" (episodes one and two) is the poor roster construction that got the team there. Only now, with the Mets in such dire straits, are people on WFAN relating the current situation back to last season, when Minaya refuse to build sufficient bullpen depth, when Ramon Martinez was starting that fateful final game against the Marlins. People still blame Wright for not wanting it enough, despite the fact he had an off-the chart OPS in September. It's the same stupidity that robbed Wright of the MVP two years ago: Process: Wright players better than Rollins, Result: Phillies make playoffs, Conclusion: Rollins MVP.

On a smaller scale, this confusion of two steps explains the problems with many popular statistics, leading to the first thing I'll write that remotely resembles something from a glossary:

3. Defense is fielding and pitching OR why you should have seen Oliver Perez coming a mile away:

Here, we use true-Run Average (tRA) instead of the popular ERA. Earned run average reflects the results of every play, and is hence heavily dependent on the defense behind a pitcher. Voros McCracken first pioneered Defense Independent Pitching statistics, leading to the statistic Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), created by Tom Tango, which express a number similar to ERA, minus those factors outside a pitcher's control.

tRA is an improvement on the FIP formula. It incorporates other factors, like GB%, which sinker ball pitchers, for instance, do have some control over. A practical example:

Pitcher A had a 4.22 ERA, but a 4.98 tRA last year.

Pitcher B had a  4.67 ERA, but just a 3.50 tRA last year.

The Mets offered Luis Castillo for Pitcher B, and 36 Million dollars for Pitcher A. Pitcher A is, of course, Oliver Perez who had been benefiting from Shea Stadium, good defense, and some luck. Pitcher B is Javier Vazquez, who had pitcher in a notorious hitters' park in the tougher American League. The Braves picked up Vazquez, who's been one of the most dominant pitchers in the NL with a 3.05 ERA. Oliver Perez has been the biggest free-agent flop in years.

4. Just win, baby!

On those final games of the last two season, would you have rather the Mets had won in a pitchers' duel or in a high-scoring affair? The answer of course is "I just wanted them to !#$^#%% win!"

Did you ever ask this past offseason, when Minaya claimed he couldn't focus on a hitter while he was trying to fix the Mets pitching: "Why?!?" He has all day, every day of the winter to address these issues, and he can't think about them at the same time??

Herein lies the problem with the last three years of Mets management. I touched on it earlier this year:

Why were the results in 2008 largely the same as 2007? The process had not changed: assume the team would perform exactly the same the next season if left alone, identify one weakness and address it. In 2007, they failed to realize how much had gone right the year before, specifically in the bullpen, and got caught off-guard when their luck swung the other way. In 2008, the weakness was the starting pitching. The Mets brought in Johan, not recognizing that Moises Alou was not a dependable solution for left field. Scarily enough, this past offseason feels like exactly the same thing: finally addressing the bullpen, without realizing that their young, overworked, and rehabbing rotation might not be all that dependable, especially in the early going.

And so it goes, the Mets have two of their top starters on the shelf and gaping holes at firstbase and leftfield. Granted, the injuries have hurt the Mets, but injuries have hurt the Mets in those other seasons, too. Moises Alou missing an entire year, only to get replaced by garbage, seems oddly similar to the Mets' situation this year. Minaya simply hasn't put enough complementary talent on the field, leading to my next point:

5. Depth is only as good as guy number one on the depth chart.

Daniel Murphy OPS: .668. That's pitiful, I mean Rey Ordonez bad. Left field is one of the most offensive heavy positions in the world, and this guy was the plan in left? Thankfully Gary Sheffield magically remembered how to hit, or this team would have been sunk, injuries or not. So why didn't Minaya spend a little money on a leftfielder? Not enough defense?`

That's why we use the statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to evaluate players. WAR attempts to measure the absolute value of a player, measuring their fielding and hitting (or pitching) equally. No more guesswork and attempts to field a "strong defense up the middle" team, regardless of hitting skill. WAR attempts to measure the runs a hitter contributes as a hitter, measure by the aforementioned wOBA times Plate Appearances and as a fielder, measure by stats like Ultimate Zone Rating and Plus/Minus and simply adds them. That's an oversimplification, so for the sake of brevity, I'll refer you to these excellent guides on hitters' and pitchers' WAR. In short, WAR attempts to measure the totals Wins a player contributes to his team, by playing over a replacement level player, such as Damion Easley or Jeremy Reed (who tend to have WARs around 0).

6. Research more, hang around, tell your friends

This post is just a cursory look at these statistics, and probably doesn't fulfill my glossary-assignment. Still, I think these points are a good starting point for discussion and a plea as to why you should care.

Getting back to my introduction, I remember a speech that my Congressional Representative Jim Cooper gave about the media. He addressed many of the same points I have here, while adding that the news media's focus on results and slant has left people confused and disoriented, because they're losing the real history of events. I relate that to the confusion Mets fans feel, wondering how  the team could have gotten here after how great they were in 2006. That's why things like "I Don't Trust the Mets" get written. We lose sight of the real problems, leading to a vague and pointless blame game.

That's also why I blog, because this site is an ongoing discussion and chronicling of the real history of the Mets teams, the real reasons they fall short, which I hopefully touched on above.

Mets fans,

I say all this now because I'm sick of people praising the team's awful offseason, then blaming Wright, Beltran, the farm system, and everyone but those actually at fault. I'm not saying "fire Minaya," even though I wish it sometimes. I'm pleading that we all raise the level of discourse surrounding the team, forcing the organization and the media to follow suit.

Much love,

Sam

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