>Retaking the GMAT Jr.

>So the Mets traded for Gary Matthews Jr., who is 35-years-old and no longer particularly talented at doing anything on the baseball field. Meanwhile, Brian Stokes got to join the illustrious likes of Ramon Castro and Ryan Church as a one of Jerry Manuel’s “lost boys” that has been shipped off in exchange for a slightly worse player.

This hopefully won’t turn into anything more than a meaningless deal. Gary Matthews Jr. is 35-years-old and will likely only continue to decline. Brian Stokes throws 97 MPH, which is flashy, but he didn’t really do anything else well, such as “getting hitters out” or “not walking everyone”. As many others have already noted, it’s a nothing for nothing deal, only the Mets end up paying 2.5 million over two years for their nothing. The trade itself isn’t troubling – the methodology behind it is. The Mets apparently think Matthews is a buy-low candidate, and while he was cheap, something becoming cheap is not necessarily a good reason to aquire that thing. If someone you know bought a Ferrari for $50,000 dollars* and it turned out to be a unfixable lemon that doesn’t start, would you buy it off them for $2,500? I hope not. Gary Matthews Jr. at $2.5 million/2 years is just as useless as Gary Matthews Jr. at $50 million/5 years. It’s just a reduced cost for uselessness.

*Is this even close to how much a Ferrari costs? I have no idea.

Supposedly, Matthews is just Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan insurance anyway, which is almost fine. Almost. If the Met wanted to buy low on a third string CF, that was good idea. But it’s like they acquired Gary Matthews Jr. just because he was once an All-Star and another time he made a fancy catch. It’s the exact kind of poorly thought out move an ESPN-obsessed twelve-year-old makes for his fantasy baseball team. It almost makes me wonder if Gary Matthews Jr. is now a Met solely because someone in the organization recognized the name. I going to presume there actually was some more logic behind the move, so let’s take a look.

Here are some Omar Minaya quotes from the conference call, which I think reflect some of the Mets stated logic behind the deal:

“It an opportunity to get a guy that’s versatile, that in our ballpark can play all outfield positions.”

“He’s had some very good years, and some other years there’s been some drop off.”

“Change of scenery guy”

“Close to fifty RBI’s last year”

Fair enough. Here are some responses:

1. Gary Matthews Jr. can play all the outfield positions in Citi Field.

Gary Matthews Jr.’s outfield defense the past three years by plus/minus and UZR:

According to these metrics, Gary Matthews is not a good defensive outfielder. He has consistently costs his team about 10 runs a year as outfielder for the past three seasons, even though his playing time has diminished each season.

Breaking it down further, plus/minus says that almost all of Matthews’ diminishing range comes from his inability to go get balls hit over his head. His cumulative plus/minus for balls hit in front of him, at him, and over his head from 2007-2009 are as follows:

You can see that Matthews is just below average for balls in front of him and those hit at him, and then is tremendously awful at going back. He just doesn’t cover ground behind him anymore. 2009 Fan Scouting Reports agree that Matthews is a poor defender, specifically that he has a poor reaction time, which may be reflected in his struggles to go back on balls. Another outfielder who struggles getting to balls hit over his head and has a poor reaction time? Mets LF Jason Bay. They’ll make a fun defensive pair.

So the Mets plan as stated is to take someone who can’t get to balls hit over his head and let him play centerfield in the great plains of Citi Field, where there will be a multitude of catchable balls hit over his head. GMJ will not catch most of those balls. Hopefully the Mets’ scouts see something the numbers don’t show, or there’s going to be a lot of doubles hit into the left-center gap.

2. “He’s had some good years, and some bad years.”

Yeah. This claim is technically true in a vague way, but misleading. If you go by WAR since 2002, GMJ has had four above-average years and four-below average years. But three of those four below-average years were 2007, 2008, and 2009, when he was worth a cumulative -1.1 WAR. He’s been declining with his age and wasn’t very good to begin with. So while he has had good years and bad years, he has had only bad years for the past three years. My guess is that the decline is probably a sign that he will continue to not be productive, and not that he will suddenly again become productive at 35.

3. “Change of scenery”

That’s vaguely, sort-of, not really possible. It’s probably even less possible because he’s 35, but that’s almost a passable-ish claim.

4. “Close to 50 RBI last year.”

Gary Matthews Jr. had exactly 50 RBI last year in just 360 plate appearances. To be fair, GMJ excelled at driving in runs, hitting for an OPS of 1.031 with runners in scoring position and an OPS of 1.137 in high leverage situations. Despite being worth negative WAR in 2009, he was actually worth +1.75 WPA because he was ridiculously clutch. So there you go: Gary Matthews Jr. was a fantastic clutch hitter in 2009, the fourth best clutch hitter in the majors. That’s how he was able to drive in 50 runs.

Unfortunately, all that doesn’t indicate much about Gary Matthews Jr.’s offensive capabilities in the future. The problem with clutch hitting is that it’s much more a reflection of luck than anything else. A player being clutch one year doesn’t tell you much about how he’ll perform the next season in similar situations because it wildly fluctuates from year to year. Mr. Clutch himself, Big Papi, has WPA clutch scores* from 2004 through 2009 of -0.15, 3.31, 1.50, -1.71, -0.73, 0.26 – I certainly don’t see a pattern there, if one exists. Some years Ortiz appears clutch, some years he looks useless in big spots. We should expect the same random clutch up and down from G-Mat Jr.

*A score of 0 means a player did the same in clutch situation as he did in other situations, a negative number means he did worse, and a positive number means he did better.

Gary Matthews Jr. has a career OPS with runners in scoring position of .764, and a career OPS of .786 in high leverage situations, well below what he did in 2009. So while overall he does hit slightly better in important spots, he’s not a good hitter to begin with. A poor hitter who hits better in clutch situations becomes, at best, a slightly-less poor hitter in those clutch situations. A better hitter would still be better hitting in those spots, despite Matthews clutchness.

Gary Matthews Jr. drove 50 runs in because he had men getting on base in front of him and a lot of his balls fell in for hits in those situations. That doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again in 2010. It could, but no one should be counting on it.

***

The only vaguely valid reason for acquiring G-Mat Jr. I heard in Omar’s conference call is the change of scenery idea, and only if
you buy into cliches. Someone could claim that it worked for Jeff Francoeur for a half-season in 2009, so maybe a move to the East Coast will help Matthews out. But it’s a weak reason for a 35-year-old.

I don’t like that GMJ came at the cost of a bullpen arm and a roster spot for two years, and I don’t think the Mets reasoning behind the move makes any sense. The Mets bought an old lemon, and just by paying anything, they paid too much.

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