Costly Decisions

Costly Decisions

MLB

Costly Decisions

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AP

The spotlight is always shining brighter on athletes who play in New York. It is the city where stars are made. From Derek Jeter to Carmelo Anthony to Odell Beckham Jr. – only the biggest names and more importantly personas can survive in the Big Apple. An athlete the New York media latched onto was New York Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard. The flamethrower nicknamed “Thor”, due to his thunderous delivery, golden locks and ability to drop the hammer with his pitches. The media built him up to literal superhero status, turning him from an athlete into a celebrity.

This was a narrative that had previously been done with former Mets ace Matt Harvey. There is nothing wrong with a player becoming their own brand in a city that loves them, however, with personas like these, it can often blind the organization from potentially dire situations. Harvey was an excellent pitcher and a very valuable asset from 2012-2015. He was spectacular, and even after a lackluster 2016, Harvey still could have warranted a tremendous haul. Unfortunately for New York, it was not until 2018 until they realized his time in the orange and blue were up. At that point, only veteran catcher Devin Mesoraco was worth their former face of the franchise.

This is the trap the Mets had the opportunity to avoid in 2019 when Zack Wheeler was a pending free agent and Syndergaard was on the trade market. The team could only keep one of them and because the Mets are the Mets, they of course chose the latter. On the outside looking in, deciding the keep the younger, electric, and in general, more aesthetically pleasing pitcher did not seem to be the wrong option. Syndergaard is beloved by Mets fans, he helped them earn their lone win during the 2015 World Series, and he is also a very old school pitcher – not afraid to throw inside or keep the hitters honest.

Syndergaard is an exhilarating pitcher to watch, yet because of his stardom and explosive playstyle, this misconception around the league arose: He is an elite pitcher. Syndergaard has only had one real standout season: 2016. This was his only All-Star appearance when he was arguably the ace of the Mets staff. The Texas-born pitcher has had other solid years, though durability has always been his Achilles’ heel, with him only starting in 30+ games twice in his career (2016, 2019). The inability to stay on the field has handicapped his value, plus the last time he was fully healthy, his performance displayed a steep decline. 

During the 2019 season, albeit the ball was likely juiced this season, Syndergaard put up career worsts in almost every statistical pitching category. From his rookie season to 2018, the starter posted a 2.93 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. His 2019 campaign saw his ERA leap to a very subpar 4.28. Despite his 2018 being respectable, the signs of his downward spiral were eminent as in both these seasons, his WHIP exceeded 1.20 and his strikeouts decreased dramatically. The additional baserunners coupled with the more balls hit in play would eventually come back to hurt him and 2019 was proof. One more variable that is often overlooked with Syndergaard’s game is the extremely slow delivery that allows baserunners to run wild on him, therefore sacrificing tons of extra bases lead to additional runs every year.

Sidenote: 42 of 45 baserunners successfully stole against Noah Syndergaard in 2019.

Overvaluing certain aspects of a player leads to organizations perceiving them with a warped point of view. This is exactly the mistake the Mets made when they chose to stick with their crowd enticing thrower instead of keeping the more traditional and slightly older pitcher in Wheeler. 

Before this past season, Wheeler has often been overlooked. It is often forgotten that he was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. The Mets acquired him when they traded away long-time veteran outfielder Carlos Beltrán to the San Francisco Giants in 2011. Bursting onto the scene in 2013, Wheeler had major expectations when he first debuted. The Mets were hoping for a Harvey/Wheeler one-two punch at the top of their rotation. Harvey had debuted the season before and in 2013, the name Jacob deGrom was not on anybody’s radar. 

Wheeler was very solid in his first two big league seasons, sporting a 3.50 ERA in 285⅓ innings of work. Nothing too exceptional, but he was a work-in-progress who showed splashes of greatness every now and then. For instance, pitching a complete game shutout in 2014 while facing just one over the minimum against the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately for Wheeler, a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) he suffered prior to the 2015 season caused him to miss all of 2015 and 2016.

During this span, Wheeler was nearly dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers in a now infamous cancelled trade during the 2015 trade deadline. It was not until 2017 where he would return to a major league mound, though it was in 2018 when he finally returned to form. Following a very underwhelming first half, Wheeler completely flipped the script in the second half of the season. In eleven starts, he was 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP and a .179 opponents’ batting average. If not for his teammate making MLB history, Wheeler would have surely gained more attention for this spectacular stretch. His 2019 was not quite as strong as the previous season, but it played out very similarly with him starting out rough but finishing strong.

New York was eager to become serious playoff contenders after just missing it in 2019. However, with so many major names on the payroll, certain players were going to be leaving. For their rotation they had Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard under contract. They also had David Peterson expected to debut (Mets 10th ranked prospect in 2020). Wheeler was the only major pending free agent pitcher that New York needed to decide, but instead of offering him a respectable deal, the Mets let him walk to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies.

Syndergaard’s name was really the only name in the Mets rotation besides deGrom that held any real trade value. The front office had played with the idea of moving him, but never pulled the trigger during the season. They adored what he brought to the table and could not let him go, even with the potential to get a hefty return. On the other hand, Wheeler was basically a member of the Mets organization his entire professional career. Had he even received any semblance of a decent offer, he would have probably stayed.

Keith Allison

When Greg Joyce of the New York Post asked Wheeler about his free agency decision, he said that he heard “crickets” from New York. Former Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen did not shy away from defending his decision.

“Our health and performance department, our coaches all contributed and helped him parlay two good half-seasons over the last five years into a $118 million,” Van Wagenen said. The decision to let Wheeler walk created a hole in the Mets rotation, therefore leading them to sign Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha as potential replacements, however neither panned out well. 

Van Wagenen was a former sports agent before earning the general manager job in October of 2018. He understood finances and how to make players money, not how to run a major league ball club. Van Wagenen made some very rash decisions that the Mets will have to pay for in the foreseeable future. Whether it be trading away nearly the entire farm system for a closer in Edwin Díaz and a former star in the twilight of his career with Robinson Canó. Signing players like Jed Lowrie (seven total at bats in two seasons), Jeurys Familia and Todd Frazier to just underperform immensely. And worst of all, letting a future Cy Young candidate in Wheeler walk. 

The Mets are the Mets. They would rather have players who have a flare for the dramatic then put a competent roster on the field. Syndergaard may have had more raw potential, but he was not nearly as refined as Wheeler with the second halves of both 2018 and 2019 being plenty of evidence to validate the latter as being the better pitcher.

As fate would have it, Syndergaard would tear his UCL in March of 2020, forcing him to undergo Tommy John Surgery and effectively knocking him out of play for all of 2020 and almost all of 2021. While Syndergaard was sitting on the sideline, Wheeler elevated his game to a whole new level. The pandemic plagued 2020 season is not a great sample size to reference, but his 2.92 ERA over eleven starts was promising for the Philadelphia considering they just gave him a massive 5 year/$118 million contract.

@Phillies on Twitter

For a previously injury prone player who had never even made an All-Star team, this move was risky, however the Phillies front office were willing to take a chance with the lackluster starting pitcher market and 2021 proved they made the right move. In 32 starts, Wheeler pitched a league leading 213⅓ innings, struck out a league leading 247 batters, threw three complete games, including two shutouts and earned himself his first All-Star game nod with a stellar 2.78 ERA. Wheeler brought his game to another level this past season and he still can win his first Cy Young award.

It is impossible to predict the future. Had Syndergaard stayed healthy and pitched great, the disparity between the two players would not seem so drastic. However, seeing what the Mets are missing out on now, for what they decided to keep because they overvalued a specific player is noteworthy. Both Wheeler and Syndergaard were former first-round picks the Mets acquired by giving up a key veteran. Their paths to the majors had many similarities and both were supposed to be formidable pieces in what should have been a dominant rotation. 

However, players turn out differently than expected and it is up to the people in the front office to decide which ones are worth keeping long term. Hindsight 20-20, the decision is clearly obvious. Even overlooking the 2019 perspective on both pitchers and the analytics still support Wheeler. He was always the better pitcher. The Mets were just oblivious.

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