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Evaluating Sandy Alderson’s baseball legacy

Even though his Mets fizzled out, he left an indelible mark on the sport.

Division Series - New York Mets v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Sandy Alderson’s tenure as general manager of the New York Mets has come to an end. After announcing that he would step away from baseball operations to focus on his ongoing battle with cancer, the first thing the baseball community can offer is their prayers in such a stressful time for himself and his family.

It’s also fair to take a moment to both examine his legacy, both as a Mets executive and as a leader in what has become a full-scale revolution in baseball and analytics.

Lay people would probably say that Billy Beane wrote the book on Moneyball or that he somehow was the first to introduce objective data analysis into the front office, but that honor actually belongs to Alderson. In a recent Q&A with MLB.com, he explains how this revelation came about:

“Because I wasn’t a scout, I didn’t really have a traditional way of evaluating players. I was pretty open to alternatives that were maybe more accessible to me. That’s where analytics came in... that got me started was listening to a radio piece on National Public Radio by someone who was local in the Bay Area and had written a small book called ‘The Sinister First Baseman.’ His name was Eric Walker. This was about the time that Bill James was writing as well. I was intrigued by it. It seemed to be that some of the thesis, the importance of on-base percentage and things like that, seemed to be borne out mathematically. It was also consistent with my parochial view of baseball, which was, ‘Hey, I love home runs anyway.’ I recall the advocate for the three-run home run was the manager for the Orioles, Earl Weaver...”

Even though people consider the early-2000s Athletics as the model for sabermetric engineering, it was actually his own A’s that set the early stage. A 1989 World Series and credited with developing Jose Canceso and Mark McGwire, the modern baseball model of on-base ability and power became a popular one at the turn of the century.

Just like the early Yankees brought power writ large earlier in the 20th century, Alderson’s A’s were just as revolutionary for how the sport is watched. For better or worse, the three-true-outcome era we reside in was kicked off by that squad. It’s no surprise that, by design, his Athletics had the second-highest walk rate, tenth-highest strikeout rate, but the fourth-highest wRC+ (103) of any team in baseball.

After the As in the mid-90s became a team of the low payroll variety, it became something of a standard for him to squeeze more out of less, which eventually set the stage for his final tenure as a Mets executive.

I’m not really sure how people in a few years will view his time with the Mets, mostly because it’s so hard to evaluate what was preempted by his own decision making, and what was forced by the Wilpon family’s budget-slashing after the event of Bernie Madoff. The first criticism, of course, is that a number of players—Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and David Wright, for example—were players from the era of the more scouting-oriented Omar Minaya.

Yet despite the fact his decision-making was stunted by both his age with respect to how new his ideas were, combined with payroll concerns, there were still two moves that defined his Mets legacy in a positive way. Those were trading RA Dickey for Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud, for one, and the lucky events of the then-failed Carlos Gomez trade that collapsed, ultimately leading to the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes, despite his injuries in recent years, has a 137 OPS+ in his Mets tenure, the highest of any of his teams, and his 155 OPS+ was one of the main reasons the then-anemic 2015 offense was propelled to their first World Series in 15 years. I would say the Syndergaard deal has worked out wonderfully, as his 76 ERA- and possible trade potential could have positive ramifications for another decade down the line.

Not to say it was all roses, of course; it’s still the Mets. One of the main criticisms was the team’s handling of injuries; their seeming hush-hush nature with the press started as a mere flesh wound, then a short DL stint, then a season-ending surgery in a flash. It’s unclear their strategy here was something deliberately wrong, or just bad luck.

And, ultimately, all of the luck ran out as the Mets contention window seems to be shutting closed as Alderson exits stage left. Part of that is because of his reliance on over-the-hill veterans on a budget, part of it injuries, and partially just the way the team was constructed prior to him ever arriving—when the team revolves around pitching, high-variance outcomes with respect to injuries sometimes prevail.

Nevertheless, you can’t look back at the totality of Alderson’s career and not see a fundamental change in baseball itself. He’s a Hall of Fame executive, easily, and despite the hollowed-out team he left, you wonder what his skill would have borne with a payroll of substantial size. Father of modern sabermetrics, and returning competitive baseball to Queens—for that, he’ll be fondly remembered. Here’s to hoping that he’s soon in good health again so we have this baseball mind around for years more.