The New York Mets: honestly who ever even knows with these guys.
To follow them day to day is to see things that fans accustomed to normal teams would never believe: feckless failson goofs dictating lineups to the manager from the owner’s box, minor injuries systematically mismanaged into season-ending ones, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. To those wise or fortunate enough to know the Mets only as one peevishly mismanaged MLB franchise among increasingly many, the team’s strange behavior in the MLB Draft this week might just have registered as Some More Weird Mets Shit, if it registered at all.
The MLB Draft is notoriously difficult to assess in the moment. Very few people have seen or even heard of most of the players that are getting picked—there are just too many of them, scattered across various big and small college baseball programs and the same eight or nine high schools in California, Texas, and Florida that seem to produce all prep prospects. And because of how baseball player development works and because baseball is very hard it will take years to know whether teams got their picks right or wrong, and how right or wrong they got them. Patterns emerge over time, as patterns do, but even a historic run of fucking-up like the one that the Seattle Mariners have been on with their first-round picks since 2005 or so tends to emerge in the negative and even then only bit by disappointing bit, instead of all at once. It is too soon to assess how the Mets or any other team did in this particular draft, and probably will be for roughly another two or three years. But it is safe to say, now and going forward, that the approach they had was strange.
In the first 20 rounds of the MLB Draft, the Mets took an astonishing 15 four-year seniors. This is way more than any other big-league team over that stretch—the Marlins, Indians, and White Sox drafted seven, the Padres, Orioles, Mariners, and Astros five, and only one other team took even four. The Mets’ haul includes a senior at every pick they made between the fourth and 13th round. They then picked it right back up and pretty much stuck with it; 21 of their 40 picks were college seniors. Four of the first 20 players the team picked will turn 23 during this MLB season, and the first senior the Mets picked, Mississippi State star Jake Mangum, has been 23 for nearly three months already.
The Mets picked Mangum last year, too, when he was—like most every other college player selected in the MLB Draft—a junior. He opted to return to school for his senior year, and will almost certainly get paid even less as a fourth-round pick than he would have as a 32nd-rounder last year. This is because senior signees, in a way that no one else picked in the MLB Draft does, have zero leverage. A high school draftee can always go to college if the money or team isn’t a fit; a college junior can opt to go the Mangum route, play another year and maybe get a degree, and then try the draft one more time. A senior pretty much has to take the bonus that he’s given, and as a result those numbers tend to be low. It’s for this reason that something like a third of what the Mets did makes sense.
At first, the reason why the Mets locked in on college seniors seemed clear, because it was the same reason that other teams usually draft seniors (albeit in significantly smaller numbers and generally in the crapshoot that is the third day of the draft.) The Mets’ third pick, at 89th overall, was a pitcher named Matthew Allan, a Florida high schooler who was generally considered to be one of the dozen or so best prospects in the draft. He was also generally considered to be bound to the University of Florida on scholarship; the price for buying him out of that commitment was initially rumored to be $4 million, although more recent reporting has it closer to $3 million. Either way, given the way that the draft’s bonus pool system works across the draft’s first 10 rounds—and given the serious penalties that exist for exceeding it—the Mets would need to find a way to pay other draft picks somewhat less than the designated slot value so that they’d be able to pay Allan much more than his. The team’s first-round pick, a 19-and-a-half-year-old high school prospect named Brett Baty, may wind up signing for less than his slot; every one of the seniors that the Mets took from the fourth through tenth rounds certainly will. This is where the Mets will find the money to sign Allan within the draft’s spending rules, provided they don’t screw it up.
After the 10th round, though, the Mets stopped accruing any sort of Allan-style benefit from drafting seniors; the money they’ll save on bonuses is just money they’ve saved on bonuses, and the system is set up such that it would be very difficult for the Mets to attempt to attempt The Matthew Allan Maneuver twice in one draft. The system is built such that the Yankees, who drafted an elite prep pitcher in Jack Leiter with their 20th-round pick, effectively cannot sign him without blowing through spending limits in ways that would cost them multiple future picks.
That the Mets will be able to pay those other senior draftees smaller bonuses simply because those players have no leverage to demand more is probably virtue enough for a team as endemically and systemically cheap as the Mets. But there’s another element at play here. As with most neurotic Mets management tics, this one sort of fits into a bigger baseball trend; as with all of the funniest Mets management tics, it implies that the people in charge of the Mets believe that they alone have identified The One Weird Trick that has eluded all other teams.
“Two decades ago, about 40 percent of the players selected in the first 40 rounds came directly from high school, the norm for much of the 1990s,” Jared Diamond and Tom McGinty write in the Wall Street Journal. “Of the 1,217 players taken this season, only about 24 percent of draftees jumped straight from high school, the seventh consecutive year with a decrease in that category.” There are reasons for this that teams profess, and reasons that they can’t. The former are reasonable enough, and all amount to risk aversion: high school players are by their nature very far from the majors and a great many things can go wrong along the way. They could also pop in surprising ways and become stars, but there’s a great chance of coming up empty. Teams know more about the college players that they draft because they’ve seen more—seen them play in more games, against comparable talent, over more years. This is the part everyone admits.
The part that teams don’t and can’t admit is that high school draft picks have the most leverage. Elite prep players can and do name their price in the way that Allan or Jack Leiter did; teams that can’t or won’t meet it have to watch them play in college for another three years before taking their shot. When they’re next eligible, after their junior years, teams will know more about what type of players they are. Relative to basically every other team in the sport, the Mets have an extremely small and stunted analytics department, even after new GM Brodie Van Wagenen pledged to grow it out. The owners have never prioritized it enough to spend money on analytics staffers, which is part of why they’ve grasped at various isolated metrics—exit velocity, but not launch angle; spin rate for spin rate’s sake—and generally gotten a lot of things wrong. The person currently heading the Mets analytics department is a specialist in advanced analytic modeling, and the Mets’ bet on seniors may just be them betting that, with an extra year of data for him and his tiny staff to parse, the team will be likelier to hit.
That’s not an unreasonable thing to try to do, just like paying up for Allan in hopes of stealing a premium talent in the early doldrums of the draft is both bold and sensible. It’s just all a lot harder to credit when you know the Mets. That means knowing not just their longstanding preference in the early-middle rounds for lower-ceiling college players, although this new approach sure honors that, but their owners’ tendency to bet on the idea that this time they’ve beaten the rest of the sport to the one isolated secret to success, and then just keep betting on it.
Their draft suggests that the Mets believe that they’ve figured something out about scouting older prospects that will give them both cost savings and an actual edge; it also suggests, alongside everything else the team has done during the Wilpon years, that they have not considered that they might not really be miles ahead of the rest of the sport. “It’s a dangerous thing to think you are smarter than everyone else,” one scouting analyst told me about the Mets draft. While that’s true, it’s only true if there are consequences for being wrong. By the time the Mets find out if they were right or wrong about their strange and unprecedented draft, years down the line, the chief wisdom masters in charge—the ones who can’t be fired—will have moved on to the next One Weird Trick, or the one after that.