The other day I walked into a second-hand book shop and plunked down $4 for Michael Lewis's Moneyball. Sure I'm a little bit late to the party, but I thought it was about time I finally read the little book that caused so much trouble. I plan on doing a separate fanpost on it - not so much a review as a discussion of what has happened in the seven intervening years since it was written. But first I wanted to look more closely at one of the main protagonists of the book and especially as it relates to our "beloved" Amazins.
There are actually quite a few connections to the Mets throughout the book. Of course the main character - Billy Beane - happened to have been once the number one overall pick for the New York Mets, and was one of the most notorious busts ever at the number one overall position. There's a particularly funny and cringe-worthy (for a Mets fan) chapter covering the trade deadline where Beane has subsequent conversations with then Mets GM Steve Phillips and future Mets GM Omar Minaya. Sadly Phillips comes across as more with it than Omar, the latter looking like a Storm Trooper conversing with Obi-wan Kenobe. (Those aren't the players you're looking for.) And then there's the
puppet manager of the A's, Art Howe, who was but a year removed from becoming the manager of your New York Mets. I don't recall Howe saying anything much about "battling" in the book.
Lewis spends several chapters detailing some of the prized Beane acquisitions - guys like Scott Hatteberg whom Beane is able to acquire because the market undervalues their worth. One of the guys highlighted in Moneyball is reliever Chad Bradford. Lewis details how Beane and his team, including future Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta, recognized the value of a guy like Bradford when his own organization - then the White Sox - did not. Bradford would become the anchor of the A's bullpen. In fact, even though Billy Koh is the nominal closer, Beane makes it clear to Howe that Bradford is really the main guy out of the bullpen, and therefore Howe is instructed that he is to use Bradford during the game's most critical points.
2002 was Bradford's best in the bigs. His numbers declined slowly over the next few, though he was still clearly an effective pitcher. Luckily for the Mets, he fell in their laps and signed with the club after the 2005 season for a 1.4 million bucks. He was was worth at least triple that, becoming one of the key cogs for what was then an excellent bullpen. (Saying excellent and bullpen in the same sentence when referring to the Mets? Remember when?) Not only did Bradford have an excellent season - 1.6 WAR according to Fangraphs, 0.9 according to Baseball Reference - but he was also just about the only guy who pitched well in the playoffs, surrendering no runs at all in a post-season where every other reliever had at least one memorable meltdown.
Bradford was a free agent after the season, and I think most fans wanted him to stick around. There were some concerns that his season was a bit fluky, and perhaps that's why Minaya let him walk to Baltimore, where he signed a three-year deal for a little over $10.5 million. The price may have seemed high to some - after all, he only had two saves, and we all know that's the true measure of a relievers worth. In reality, the deal was perfectly fair considering his recent performance, and as it turned out, would prove to be a slight bargain even though his career would end in the middle of the final season of the deal.
But no worries - the Mets had a plan. They were going to be just fine. Duaner Sanchez would return from injury. Guillermo Mota, who had a great two months for the Mets down the stretch (forget the shitty two and a half years before that) had been re-signed for the bargain price of $5 million over two years. Plus Omar had other moves up his sleeves - like swinging the clearly going nowhere Heath Bell along with Royce Ring for the promising Jon Adkins and future slugger Ben Johnson. YEAH!
Umm, no. Sanchez, as it would turn out, wouldn't pitch an inning in 2007. Mota was suspended for the first 50 games of the season after he tested positive for PEDs. Adkins pitched all of one inning, while Bell compiled a modest 3.5 WAR season in San Diego.
So the Mets desperately turned to the free agent market to fill the hole left by the departure of Chad Bradford. It was late January, and their options were dwindling. Left with few alternatives, the Mets signed free agent Scott Schoenweis.
Now, Schoenweis had had some decent success in his career, but had really never been quite as effective as he had been for the Angels in the early part of the decade. He had turned into a roughly .5-1.0 WAR pitcher - not bad, but he also wasn't quite as good as the man he was replacing. In fact, by all indicators, advanced and traditional, he was nowhere near as valuable as Bradford had been in 2006. Bradford excelled in every peripheral category, and was worth a full win more.
But that's life, and Schoenweis was still a decent enough fill-in. And so, after not signing the clearly superior pitcher because he had asked for just too much money for a middle reliever, the Mets signed Schoenweis for the bargan basement price of . . . $10.8 million over three years. Or, basically the same exact deal that Bradford got.
I'm willing to cut Omar just a tiny bit of slack. He had no idea that the market for relievers would be so strong, and he signed Schoenweis late in the off-season only when it became apparent that they were going to be a little thinner in the relief corps than previously anticipated. And, after all, why would an organization playing in a small market like New York ever dream of giving some guy with a funky motion $3.6 million a year when they can give a proven veteran the same amount.
So what did the Orioles - and then the Rays - get for their investment? In two years Bradford actually pitched better than he had in 2006. Though Fangraphs and Baseball Reference differ in their WAR assessments for pitchers (explained here by Patrick Flood), he was worth at least two wins over these two years, and as much as three. In other words, however you slice it, he was worth every penny he was paid, and probably a bit more. His peripherals did decline. He only struck out 2.58 batters per nine in 2008, although his walk rate also declined to 2.28 per nine. His consistently low HR/FB rate (1.9% in 2007 and 9.4% in 2008) was what upped his value. He was out of baseball by the end of 2009, but for those two years he would have added 1 or 2 wins each year for a team that missed the playoffs by a single game both times.
As for Schoenweis - well, he didn't do so well. He was by any standard clearly inferior to Bradford. According to Fangraphs he was worth negative .8 WAR over 2007 and 2008, though Baseball Reference had him at about break even (-.5 in 2007, 0.6 in 2008). By either standard, he was worth a full three wins less than Chad Bradford for a team that missed the playoffs by a game two consecutive seasons. He was traded after the 2008 season, and somehow managed to fare even worse. So while Chad Bradford at worst exactly matched the value of his three year deal, even while missing most of the that third year, Schoenweis was off by the entire value of the contract and then some because he actually produced a negative WAR (either standard) over the life of the deal.
Now it would be a bit extreme to pin all of the Mets woes on their failure to sign on middle relief pitcher. A lot happened after 2006 that negatively affected the team's production. In terms of the bullpen, though Wagner, Heilman, and Feliciano all basically maintained their 2006 production in 2007, the rest of the bullpen was a complete mess after those three, and Heilman and Feliciano both took steps backwards in 2008 while Wagner got hurt. But Chad Bradford was a valuable cog in the 2006 bullpen, arguably more valuable than any other piece in it save for Wagner (no pun intended). Instead of ponying up what was a fair market value for that piece, Omar let him walk. That he shelled out the same exact amount of money for an inferior pitcher is only icing on the cake. In the end, unlike the Jedi master, Omar the stormtrooper did not recognize the full market value of one his own valuable piece of merchandise.
As sort of a footnote to all this, we of course know that MInaya went out and shelled out in excess of $13 million a year for Frankie Rodriguez. Why? Well, he was desperate. But also Frankie had all those wonderful saves - and of course saves are the most important statistic there is to measure a reliever's worth. They're so valuable that they motivated Omar to sign Frankie for four times the amount of money he could have given to Chad Bradford. In reality, saves or no save, Rodriguez has been even in recent years with declining peripherals more valuable than Chad Bradford ever was, but he was nowhere near four times more valuable than Bradford. Not even close.
Market inefficiencies. A clever GM knows how to exploit them. Others, not so much.