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Steve Popper's Response, Re: Jenrry Mejia

Steve Popper was kind enough to respond to the explanation of why Jenrry Mejia should not be in the bullpen that I addressed to him, David Lennon, and Kevin Burkhardt. I think his response is fair, but I still disagree with some of the implicit logic behind both it and the original tweets that led to my post. He begins:

First, I think that anyone who believes that me or any other beat writer has a rooting interest in Mejia being placed in the bullpen may not understand how we do our job. I try to act as a source for the fans - helping them by allowing them to be privy to the access that we as beat writers have.

I understand this and I think nearly everyone who responded yesterday on twitter understands this. Only when Mr. Popper and others began defending the move--devil's advocate for the team or not--did Mets fans naturally disagree with some of the specious logic. Also, there's this.

I don't say that it's my idea that he should be in the bullpen - I say that he almost certainly will be because it's a fact.

But I'm not sure that they are wrong.

I know that's going to anger some, but here's my reasoning. We don't know what the future holds for Mejia as a starter. The Mets believe right now he's capable of helping the team in the bullpen. That's it.

Here, we who are against this move disagree. They are wrong. The statement "We don't know what the future holds for Mejia as a starter. The Mets believe right now he's capable of helping the team in the bullpen," is problematic because it implies both that: A. We DO know what the future holds for him as a reliever and B. The Mets talent evaluation process for relief pitchers is reliable to the point we can be very certain he will be a good reliever. Personally, I love Mejia and think he will be a great set-up man this year. Steve Popper and David Lennon probably agree. Nobody can be near sure, however, that this very young pitcher will succeed in the majors after relative success in AA.

More problematic, however, is that Popper's statement implies--to a certain extent--that becoming a great reliever is a suitable result compared to becoming an ace starter. He similarly implied as much when he somewhat-seriously entertained a Mo vs. Lincecum choice.  The bullpen is for failed starters like secondbase is for guys who don't have the glove for short. The whole underlying premise of my article was that relievers are incredibly less valuable than starters--to the point where the chance of Mejia becoming a successful starter would have to be astronomically small to abandon the goal. In Mejia's case, however, all the tools to be a frontline starter are there. He has a 96+ mph sinking fastball, a changeup with cutting action and a curveball that has flashed average. The build and stamina for starting are both there. If the future doesn't hold success as a starter for this guy, then it does for no pitching prospects. 

Now when I mention choosing him over Sean Green, some portray that as a false choice. But it really isn't. That is the either/or right now. It's not about what Mejia might be someday - it's what he can be right now the Mets believe. It's not a choice of starter or reliever - it's a choice of Mejia or a pitcher they consider lesser on the roster and the Mets think that he can help them win more games. If he's at Binghamton this year he can't win a game - not a single game - for the Mets this year. Has everyone really given up on this year already - even with the news today that Jose Reyes is on his way back?

My argument was never that the Mets should give up on the season or that I would choose Sean Green over Mejia all things equal. But because of bullpen chaining, leaving Mejia off the roster would mean Kiko Calero would take over the set-up duties and Green would take over unimportant, mop-up innings. And because the difference between Calero/Mejia is not that significant, the net value lost is insignificant. That's why the choice between Green and Mejia as originally presented is a false choice--we aren't swapping their potential contributions straight up. 

Comparing the value of a starter vs. a reliever is a false choice if the pitcher is better-suited for one role over the other. If Mejia can be an ace, then by all means, toss him right behind Santana in the rotation. But we don't know that.

Again, we don't know that he's better suited for one role or the other. I'll admit that with his secondary pitches underdeveloped, he is more suited right now to be a major-league reliever than a major-league starter, but only in the same way that EVERY power arm at age 20 is better suited as a major-league reliever than a major-league starter. We'll never know whether he can be an ace unless he's afforded more type to develop as one. This statement, too, errantly suggests that a closer's value is in the same stratosphere as an ace's. 

So if he can be a good reliever in the majors or a project in the minors, which one do you want? Does an affirmative here have to mean that his future is compromised?

Yes. A thousand times yes. To the tune of $15-$25 million dollars of value is the future compromised. 

The Wins Above Replacement stat is a new standard, but when it brings up Jonathan Broxton, Matt Thornton and Mike Wuertz as the elite relievers and Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke as the starters, something is not clicking properly there, right? WAR being a relatively new stat compared to whatever else isn't exactly a criticism. Fangraphs WAR does sometimes get wonky in its treatment of relievers because it is based on FIP. But to suggest Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke is a strange list for the top-3 pitchers in baseball last season is bewildering. 

We can't always rely on stat's, particularly in a case like this one where there is no statistical data to base the fight on. We don't know how Mejia will translate to a major league starter. We don't know if he starts for Binghamton, does he throw 110 pitches one night and blow out his elbow? Do we know he doesn't spend a dozen years as an elite reliever? That's the great part of sports - we don't know what we're going to see.

This passage makes me think Mr. Popper badly misread or misinterpreted my piece. The stats used were to make a general point applicable to all pitchers, not specifically Mejia. Similarly, I could have translated his minor league numbers to a major league starter's, but I'm not advocating he be a major-league starter, so I have no reason to. Also, if Mejia ever threw 110 pitches in a minor league game, I'd be equally upset about that. 

Again, this disagreement hinges on two very different perceptions of Mejia's likelihood of being a starter and the value of an elite reliever relative to a starter. I'm not sure I can convince Steve Popper or others of my position here, but it's a very logically sound one and is shared by many Mets fans, hence the reaction on twitter. Also, I hope this debate doesn't become an issue of sabermetrics vs. other stats, because it's not and I could probably demonstrate it using more basic stats or no stats, if needed. The stats just elucidate an already defensible position. 

I appreciate Mr. Popper's willingness to engage this discussion outside of the 140-character box.