I’ve been thinking about “conventional wisdom” lately.
Baseball is full of it. The stuff that most everybody believes and accepts as true. Then, gradually, new thinking comes along that challenges those long-held beliefs.
For example, “strikeouts bad” becomes, over time, “strikeouts really not so bad after all.” And so on. I draw your attention to two books on my baseball bookshelf, The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin; and the obnoxiously subtitled, Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. (Leave it to the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, self-annointed “experts,” to annoy me with the very title of the book, a note of condescension right off the bat.)
The truth is there are people who think harder and deeper about these topics than I do. It doesn’t mean they are always right, because nobody knows everything. That’s baseball, right, if it hasn’t humbled you already, just wait, it will. It’s why I’ve never liked the term “expert” when it comes to baseball writers. Only a moron or an egotist would accept the label.
The irony to any evolutionary thought process is that after iconoclastic thinking upends the old, calcified ways . . . the once-radical idea inexorably morphs into established “truth,” calcified in its own crust, and unquestioned by most.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
When everybody zigs, there’s your opportunity to zag. To me, in a nutshell, that’s Moneyball. Thinking outside of the box. Commodities become either over-valued or under-valued as tides of opinion ebb and flow. Once you are numbly repeating what everybody thinks, sitting in the box of commonly-held opinion, there’s some trailblazer a step ahead of you (but you don’t know it yet).
The great thing about the sabermetric spirit in its purest form is it’s founded on questions, not answers. And the questions are: Is that really true? And how do we know?
Over the past 10-15 years, a new conventional wisdom concerning bullpens has become entrenched. To wit: We’ve learned to question the efficacy of signing free agent relievers, since various studies have taught us about the unpredictability of relievers in general. In a game where there are no sure things, relievers are the least certain of them all. In addition, we’ve seen examples of extremely effective bullpens (see: Oakland A’s 2013) that were built on the cheap.
But because it can be done, does not necessarily mean it should become the model for every team. Of course not.
The dogma we see repeated everywhere is that it’s “a bad idea” for teams to spend on the bullpen. Too risky. I can’t tell you how often I read that sentiment, a dismissal of the notion of bolstering the pen by signing free agent relief help.
To site one example, over at Rising Apple, Danny Abriano recently wrote:
As anyone who follows baseball knows, bullpen arms (with very few exceptions) are extremely volatile year to year. Signing relievers who are viewed as established contributors guarantees nothing. For recent examples, take a look at Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, and Brandon Lyon.
I selected this quote from Abriano, but it could have come from dozens of other sources. It’s the kind of thing we read all the time. Everyone knows.
Here’s Mike Smith at Rant Sports on the Mets acquisition of Ryan Reid:
Reid is not a headline-grabbing name, but this move is still a good start, the Mets desperately need depth in their bullpen, going after big name bullpen guys never pays off in MLB, so it is always best to build depth and stick with what works.
Hmmmm, “never” and “always.” Okaaaaay. We’re in the land where certitudes and baseball meet. Good luck with that. Because what’s right for one team might be completely misguided for another. Which in a nutshell is why any conventional wisdom is problematic, there will always be exceptions to every rule.
In fairness, the conclusion might be that when it comes to spending money, which can be in short supply for some teams (cough, cough), there’s simply too much risk associated with spending on relievers. It might also stem from the fact that we love an underdog, so the small market methodology holds greater emotional appeal. We want it to be the best way. And when it works, we dance in circles. Even if, well . . .
What if Billy Beane had spending money in those white walking shorts? I think he’d (gasp) use his resources. (Are we all wearing our bracelets, “WWBBD” bracelets?) My belief is that, as in most things, its not either/or, but a combination, a balance.
To be clear: I don’t have the answers, nor do I have the wherewithal to grok this in fullness (sci-fi reference for you literary types out there). I suspect there is no single answer, since so much of baseball is situational, context-driven.
Currently the Mets have 12 obvious, signed bullpen options, probably more:
NAME, Career IP (MLB)
- Bobby Parnell (306.1)
- Vic Black (17.0)
- Jeurys Familia (23.0)
- Carlos Torres (181.1)
- Josh Edgin (54.1)
- Scott Rice (51.0)
- Gonzalez German (34.1)
- Joel Carreno (37.2)
- Jeff Walters (0.0)
- Ryan Reid (11.0)
- Jack Leathersich (0.0)
- Cory Mazzoni (0.0)
While I realize that the above list of names could work out — that there’s a dream scenario where it does — I also feel there’s a strong chance of nightmares along the way. Bobby Parnell is the only guy I’d personally consider reliable at this point, and he’s coming off a wonky injury. The others come with mixtures of hope, unicorns, fairy dust, and rainbows. Are these unproven players prepared for the long, hard haul of a full baseball season? And does the Collins/Warthen combo offer the best oversight to help this group thrive?
I am saying, yes, the overall methodology appears sound, but it does not at all ensure that it will work with this particular group — not by a long shot.
We all remember the sad, bad bullpens of Sandy Alderson’s three-year reign. A few names to jar your memory: Manny Acosta, Pedro Beato, Chris Schwinden, Pat Misch, Blaine Boyer, Josh Stinson, Dale Thayer, Danny Herrera, Mike Connor, Elvin Ramirez, Robert Carson, Justin Hampson, Sean Henn, Greg Burke, Aaron Laffey. Just because a guy “throws hard” or has a “funky delivery” doesn’t mean that he’ll consistently get outs at the major league level.
While a good bullpen does not guarantee a team’s overall success, a bad one can quickly burn it to the ground.
Yet at Metsmerized, Joe D gave the Mets pen his stamp of approval:
I consider the Mets’ bullpen to be one of their greatest strengths in 2014 and certainly one of the best pens we’ve seen since the 2006 season. We have some solid young arms that all seem to be suited for the various roles that comprise a major league bullpen. Parnell is a solid closer who can be counted on, Black looks like he’ll be a dominant setup guy, Rice is the best LOOGY in the NL East, Torres was also among the best swing men in the league. Edgin and Germen lengthen the pen and we’ll see how the final one or two spots shake out in Spring Training. All in all, this should be a bullpen we can all be proud of. LGM.
Maybe Joe’s right, who knows. Meanwhile, Sean Flattery at Mets360 wondered if Terry Collins has his lefty, one-out guy:
Alderson continues to dangle Ike Davis to teams needing a first baseman, mainly Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. The prospective return for Davis remains an unknown and there have been no rumblings about a big-time lefty reliever available. After Boone Logan, J.P. Howell, and Scott Downs all signed for elevated money on the free agent market, the remaining lefty relievers wouldn’t blow fans’ hair back if they were to sign with the Mets. The most reputable free agents LOOGYs left are Mike Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Jose Mijares, and Eric O’Flaherty, who is coming off major arm surgery. Of course, there is still Oliver Perez who last year re-invented himself in Seattle as a reliable LOOGY, but one would guess he won’t be wearing the blue and orange next season.
So who will be the LOOGY of 2014? To quote Gary Cohen, it looks like Scott “Every Minute” Rice….until further notice.
I’m not specifically concerned with a LOOGY, but I feel this team may sorely miss LaTroy Hawkins’ veteran presence. And I think Sean’s question speaks to the deeper issue of Terry and his automaton ways (“Get Scott Rice warmed up, the game’s about to start!“). As much as possible, you want to idiot-proof the decision-making process when it comes to Terry and Dan. When Terry starts think, think, thinking — conjuring his old “mix-and-match” magic, then you better buckle your seat belts because trouble’s a-brewing. He hasn’t shown a gift for it; though, again, the talent has been lacking.
So, yes, I wish Sandy Alderson took the risk of signing a veteran setup man or two for the pen to complement the “depth” strategy. Because going cheap with this group, while admirable in theory, might be the riskiest play of all. By my count, we still seem a few arms short.