Building a better Mets bullpen

Who wouldn't want this guy in their bullpen? - Mike Zarrilli

The Mets' bullpen has been among the worst in MLB over the past couple of years. How can the front office make it better?

Last year, Grant Brisbee took a look at the best bullpens in baseball. Since bullpen value is a bit more complex and nuanced than simply comparing WAR—a stat that undervalues most relief pitchers—he used an aggregate of different stats: FIP, Win Probability Added, and Clutch. Here are the rankings he came up with.

Rank 2012 2013
1 Braves Braves
2 Orioles Pirates
3 Rangers Athletics
4 Rays Yankees
5 Royals Rangers
6 Yankees Marlins
7 Padres Twins
8 Pirates Royals
9 Giants Reds
10 Reds Cardinals
11 Athletics Dodgers
12 Indians Red Sox
13 Nationals Diamondbacks
14 Dodgers White Sox
15 Twins Padres
16 Blue Jays Rockies
17 Diamondbacks Nationals
18 Tigers Rays
19 Mariners Tigers
20 Marlins Indians
21 Cardinals Angels
22 Rockies Giants
23 Red Sox Blue Jays
24 White Sox Brewers
25 Phillies Mariners
26 Astros Phillies
27 Angels Mets
28 Brewers Orioles
29 Cubs Cubs
30 Mets Astros

Let's look at the top bullpens from both leagues in 2012 and 2013, limiting the search to a minimum of 20 innings pitched. Anything less just isn't enough to have made a real impact on the team.

2012 Atlanta Braves

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Craig Kimbrel 63 62.2 1.01 14 116 2.01 16.66 0.126 92.8 % 0.78 4.15 0.38 3.3
Kris Medlen 38 54.1 2.48 13 36 2.15 5.96 0.232 76.4 % 2.73 0.78 -0.28 0.8
Luis Avilan 31 36 2.00 10 33 2.5 8.25 0.206 79.2 % 2.54 0.83 1.16 0.7
Cristhian Martinez 54 73.2 3.91 19 65 2.32 7.94 0.272 72.9 % 3.16 -0.54 -1.06 0.7
Eric O'Flaherty 64 57.1 1.73 19 46 2.98 7.22 0.225 84.6 % 3.27 2.64 0.49 0.6
Jonny Venters 66 58.2 3.22 28 69 4.3 10.59 0.266 82.9 % 3.76 0.04 0.37 0.1
Livan Hernandez 18 31 4.94 8 19 2.32 5.52 0.313 75.6 % 4.74 -0.66 -0.37 -0.2
Chad Durbin 76 61 3.10 28 49 4.13 7.23 0.227 81.6 % 4.78 0.96 1.07 -0.5

2012 San Diego Padres

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Huston Street 40 39 1.85 11 47 2.54 10.85 0.128 79.4 % 2.2 2.12 0.02 1
Dale Thayer 64 57.2 3.43 12 47 1.87 7.34 0.239 69.5 % 3.04 1.13 0.37 0.6
Luke Gregerson 77 71.2 2.39 21 72 2.64 9.04 0.211 87.1 % 3.36 2.49 1.14 0.5
Nick Vincent 27 26.1 1.71 7 28 2.39 9.57 0.196 90.9 % 2.87 0.25 -0.09 0.4
Joe Thatcher 55 31.2 3.41 14 39 3.98 11.08 0.242 76.9 % 3.06 -0.35 -0.17 0.3
Andrew Cashner 28 27 3.67 16 29 5.33 9.67 0.23 77.6 % 4.17 -0.8 -0.2 -0.2
Brad Boxberger 24 27.2 2.6 18 33 5.86 10.73 0.22 79.4 % 4.29 -0.25 0.05 -0.2
Alex Hinshaw 31 28 4.5 20 36 6.43 11.57 0.215 81.6 % 5.2 -0.3 -0.36 -0.4
Miles Mikolas 25 32.1 3.62 15 23 4.18 6.4 0.252 78.3 % 4.86 -0.24 -0.05 -0.4
Brad Brach 67 66.2 3.78 33 75 4.46 10.13 0.204 81.9 % 4.56 0.5 0.34 -0.7

2012 Baltimore Orioles

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Darren O'Day 69 67 2.28 14 69 1.88 9.27 0.199 85.1 % 2.96 3.42 1.58 1.4
Jim Johnson 71 68.2 2.49 15 41 1.97 5.37 0.219 75.6 % 3.25 5.35 0.41 1.2
Troy Patton 54 55.2 2.43 12 49 1.94 7.92 0.214 84.6 % 3.26 0.99 0.34 0.9
Luis Ayala 66 75 2.64 14 51 1.68 6.12 0.268 80.7 % 3.67 1.23 1.04 0.9
Pedro Strop 70 66.1 2.44 37 58 5.02 7.87 0.215 83.2 % 3.59 1.23 0.37 0.7
Matt Lindstrom 34 36.1 2.72 12 30 2.97 7.43 0.252 76.8 % 3.48 0.31 -0.28 0.3
Dana Eveland 12 22.2 3.57 5 11 1.99 4.37 0.239 71.4 % 4.2 0.26 0.54 0.1
Kevin Gregg 40 43.2 4.95 24 37 4.95 7.63 0.289 74.3 % 5.04 -0.08 0.32 -0.2

2012 Texas Rangers

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Joe Nathan 66 64.1 2.8 13 78 1.82 10.91 0.227 78.1 % 2.78 1.78 -0.09 1.8
Robbie Ross 58 65 2.22 23 47 3.18 6.51 0.229 77.8 % 3.4 1.58 0.61 0.9
Koji Uehara 37 36 1.75 3 43 0.75 10.75 0.157 92.0 % 2.4 1.39 1 0.8
Mike Adams 61 52.1 3.27 17 45 2.92 7.74 0.269 78.1 % 3.52 2.61 1.27 0.8
Alexi Ogando 57 63 3.43 17 64 2.43 9.14 0.209 75.8 % 3.82 1.55 0.93 0.8
Mark Lowe 36 39.1 3.43 13 28 2.97 6.41 0.235 80.5 % 4.31 -0.51 -2.26 0.1
Michael Kirkman 28 35.1 3.82 17 38 4.33 9.68 0.18 74.3 % 4.31 -0.06 0.1
Tanner Scheppers 39 32.1 4.45 9 30 2.51 8.35 0.333 80.7 % 4.67 -0.47 0.2

2013 Atlanta Braves

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Craig Kimbrel 68 67 1.21 20 98 2.69 13.16 0.166 92.2 % 1.93 2.34 -0.01 2.2
David Carpenter 56 65.2 1.78 20 74 2.74 10.14 0.193 90.2 % 2.83 2.1 0.84 0.9
Jordan Walden 50 47 3.45 14 54 2.68 10.34 0.219 72.3 % 2.81 0.75 0.19 0.8
Luis Avilan 75 65 1.52 22 38 3.05 5.26 0.174 83.6 % 3.28 3.07 0.8 0.5
Alex Wood 20 21.2 2.08 5 23 2.08 9.55 0.221 77.3 % 1.62 -0.31 -1.26 0.4
Anthony Varvaro 62 73.1 2.82 25 43 3.07 5.28 0.243 76.8 % 3.47 0.16 -0.11 0.2
Luis Ayala 37 31 2.9 13 20 3.77 5.81 0.283 81.1 % 3.43 -0.05 -0.01 0.1
Cory Gearrin 37 31 3.77 16 23 4.65 6.68 0.265 78.4 % 4.34 -0.43 -0.82 -0.2

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Mark Melancon 72 71 1.39 8 70 1.01 8.87 0.222 79.9 % 1.64 2.72 -0.03 2.5
Jason Grilli 54 50 2.7 13 74 2.34 13.32 0.213 80.6 % 1.97 2.14 0.87 1.5
Tony Watson 67 71.2 2.39 12 54 1.51 6.78 0.195 80.7 % 3.2 2.32 0.71 0.5
Justin Wilson 58 73.2 2.08 28 59 3.42 7.21 0.189 84.9 % 3.41 1.64 0.15 0.5
Vin Mazzaro 57 73.2 2.81 21 46 2.57 5.62 0.243 78.6 % 3.31 1.09 0.52 0.4
Jeanmar Gomez 26 45.1 3.77 17 32 3.38 6.35 0.228 67.0 % 3.47 0.43 0.46 0.1
Jared Hughes 29 32 4.78 16 23 4.5 6.47 0.285 72.8 % 4.11 -0.67 -0.7 -0.1
Bryan Morris 55 65 3.46 28 37 3.88 5.12 0.238 81.8 % 4.89 0.2 0.25 -1.1

2013 Oakland Athletics

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Sean Doolittle 70 69 3.13 13 60 1.7 7.83 0.211 70.5 % 2.71 1.36 -0.49 1.6
Ryan Cook 71 67.1 2.54 25 67 3.34 8.96 0.234 78.2 % 2.74 0.51 0.01 1.6
Dan Otero 33 39 1.38 6 27 1.38 6.23 0.275 85.4 % 2.12 0.07 -0.4 0.8
Jesse Chavez 35 57.1 3.92 20 55 3.14 8.63 0.222 66.9 % 3.01 0.19 -0.38 0.7
Grant Balfour 65 62.2 2.59 27 72 3.88 10.34 0.204 84.4 % 3.49 2.56 0.9 0.6
Jerry Blevins 67 60 3.15 17 52 2.55 7.8 0.21 77.3 % 3.88 0.14 -0.19 0.3
Brett Anderson 11 21 4.71 8 22 3.43 9.43 0.272 69.9 % 3.33 0.2 0.14 0.2
Evan Scribner 18 26.2 4.39 7 19 2.36 6.41 0.243 69.4 % 3.87 -0.13 -0.51
Pat Neshek 45 40.1 3.35 15 29 3.35 6.47 0.247 81.6 % 4.66 -0.41 -0.96 -0.2

2013 New York Yankees

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
David Robertson 70 66.1 2.04 18 77 2.44 10.45 0.211 87.5 % 2.61 3.15 0.4 1.6
Mariano Rivera 64 64 2.11 9 54 1.27 7.59 0.236 87.3 % 3.05 2.51 0.11 1.5
Shawn Kelley 57 53.1 4.39 23 71 3.88 11.98 0.23 71.4 % 3.63 0.55 0.61 0.5
Boone Logan 61 39 3.23 13 50 3 11.54 0.226 85.6 % 3.82 -0.41 0.13 0.3
Preston Claiborne 44 50.1 4.11 14 42 2.5 7.51 0.258 76.9 % 4.14 0.15 -0.27 0.2
David Phelps 10 21 5.14 11 26 4.71 11.14 0.238 65.1 % 3.67 -0.28 -0.32 0.2
Adam Warren 32 69 3.52 27 56 3.52 7.3 0.275 83.9 % 4.34 -0.12 0.12
David Huff 9 26.1 2.73 8 17 2.73 5.81 0.165 93.8 % 5.14 0.72 0.57 -0.2
Joba Chamberlain 45 42 4.93 26 38 5.57 8.14 0.275 81.2 % 5.64 -0.62 -0.15 -0.6

By comparison, here are the Mets.

2012 New York Mets

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Bobby Parnell 74 68.2 2.49 20 61 2.62 8 0.243 77.1 % 2.99 -0.41 -0.73 0.8
Jon Rauch 73 57.2 3.59 12 42 1.87 6.55 0.205 62.2 % 3.89 -0.66 -0.78 0.2
Frank Francisco 48 42.1 5.53 21 47 4.46 9.99 0.267 67.2 % 3.9 -0.31 0.52 0.1
Tim Byrdak 56 30.2 4.4 18 34 5.28 9.98 0.17 61.4 % 3.58 0.25 0.04 0.1
Ramon Ramirez 58 63.2 4.24 35 52 4.95 7.35 0.24 68.7 % 3.93 -0.92 -0.55
Elvin Ramirez 20 21.1 5.48 20 22 8.44 9.28 0.293 72.8 % 4.45 -0.67 -0.45 -0.1
Jeremy Hefner 13 24.1 4.44 4 9 1.48 3.33 0.265 70.9 % 4.57 -0.38 -0.63 -0.1
Miguel Batista 25 25.2 4.56 21 22 7.36 7.71 0.267 75.8 % 4.96 -0.46 -0.57 -0.3
Josh Edgin 34 25.2 4.56 10 30 3.51 10.52 0.2 70.8 % 4.69 -0.53 -0.47 -0.3
Manny Acosta 45 47.1 6.46 25 46 4.75 8.75 0.255 57.4 % 4.85 -0.6 -0.7 -0.5

2013 New York Mets

Name G IP ERA BB SO BB/9 K/9 AVG LOB% FIP WPA Clutch WAR
Bobby Parnell 49 50 2.16 12 44 2.16 7.92 0.205 68.6 % 2.33 0.04 -0.89 1.2
LaTroy Hawkins 72 70.2 2.93 10 55 1.27 7 0.256 74.7 % 3.06 1.34 0.88 0.8
Gonzalez Germen 29 34.1 3.93 16 33 4.19 8.65 0.241 70.8 % 2.9 -0.62 -0.57 0.5
Scott Rice 73 51 3.71 27 41 4.76 7.24 0.228 70.4 % 3.4 0.35 -0.2 0.3
Carlos Torres 24 36.2 1.47 5 25 1.23 6.14 0.201 94.7 % 3.51 1.23 0.71 0.1
Greg Burke 32 31.2 5.68 15 28 4.26 7.96 0.305 57.6 % 3.93 -1.37 -0.75
Scott Atchison 51 45.1 4.37 12 28 2.38 5.56 0.247 58.4 % 3.75 -0.34 -0.03 -0.1
Josh Edgin 34 28.2 3.77 12 20 3.77 6.28 0.241 75.3 % 4.02 0.34 0.15 -0.2
Brandon Lyon 37 34.1 4.98 13 23 3.41 6.03 0.307 69.5 % 3.98 -1.5 -0.57 -0.2
David Aardsma 43 39.2 4.31 19 36 4.31 8.17 0.252 80.5 % 5.27 -1.01 -0.44 -0.7

So after looking at the success that these teams have had and the Mets' lack of success, what can the Mets do to field a more competitive relief corps?

A strong bullpen starts from within

A common theme among the top bullpens is the amount of homegrown talent they've had—players who were either drafted by the team or spent significant time its farm system. Almost half of the Braves' bullpen the past two years was homegrown. Half of the Rangers' bullpen listed above is homegrown. More than half of the Yankees bullpen listed above is homegrown. With a strong core of bullpen pitchers developed within the system, money can be allocated to addressing weaknesses elsewhere—including fortifying the bullpen with free agents.

The Mets have been very hit-and-miss in this area. While Bobby Parnell is the most notable success story, and Jeurys Familia is quite possibly another, the Mets' homegrown relief pitchers are few and far between. Since 2012, Elvin Ramirez, Gonzalez Germen, and Josh Edgin are the only in-house pitcher who got considerable playing time in the bullpen, and the trio pitched to mixed results, trending towards the negative side.

The future does look somewhat bright. Relief prospects John Church, Chase Huchingson, Adam Kolarek, Jack Leathersich, and Jeff Walters all are on the cusp of being given their MLB cups of coffee. And, ignoring the need for pitching depth for a moment, pitchers such as Jacob deGrom, Darin Gorski, Cory Mazzoni, and Logan Verrett might be converted into relief pitchers—as Erik Goeddel already was—to get them into major league roles.

Obtain relievers when the opportunity arises

Since Sandy Alderson was hired after the 2010 season, countless relief pitchers have been traded. While many were short-term rentals or a contender looking to address a weakness while gearing up for a playoff run, an equal number were more long-term deals. Some big names have been dealt: Huston Street, Sergio Santos, Jose Veras, Mark Melancon, Sean Marshall, J.J. Hoover, Edward Mujica, Jordan Walden, Joel Hanrahan, Pedro Strop, Carlos Marmol, Matt Thornton, Francisco Rodriguez, Scott Downs, John Axford, Jim Johnson, Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, and Addison Reed.

Ramon Ramirez and Vic Black were both obtained via trade, but it stands to reason that many more pitchers who could have been obtained for equal value have been available. That is not to say that Alderson should be docked points based on theoretical trade scenarios that might not have been possible, but these markets represent sources of talent and should not be avoided because the players would cost other players. Relief pitching is a fairly fungible commodity within baseball, but avenues of talent should not be ignored.

Need to pay to play

On December 6, 2011, Alderson signed Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million contract. To date, this contract—valued at $5.5 million in 2012 and $6.5 million in 2013—represents the largest contract given to a relief pitcher by Alderson's Mets. While it is wise to not sink large sums of money in relief pitchers, the next most that a Mets reliever was paid was Jon Rauch, who earned $3.5 million for one season, and Ramon Ramirez, who earned $2.7 million on a contract that had been negotiated by the San Francisco Giants. In 2012, six of the ten Mets relievers that pitched at least 20 innings made less than $1 million; in 2013, nine of those ten made under $1 million. If virtually no money is being invested into the relief corps, it should come as no surprise when the bullpen fails to impress.

There are extraneous factors to consider here, of course. Though complete details of the team's budget are not public, it is safe to say that Alderson's funds have been tight, relegating things like relief pitching to the bottom of the list of priorities. Likewise, players have minds of their own. Grant Balfour reportedly turned down an offer from the Mets exceeding or very similar to the one that he signed with the Rays, citing things like housing concerns and income taxes in the process.

Gambling can pay off

Relief pitcher value fluctuates so much from season to season that there will be numerous "lightning in a bottle" stories every year. After missing all of 2010 because of Tommy John surgery and posting sub-par stats in 2011, the Texas Rangers took a gamble on 37-year-old Joe Nathan, signing him to a two year, $14.5 million contract. Nathan returned to form over the following two years, saving 80 games and posting a 2.09 ERA and 204 ERA+ in 129 innings with 10.5 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine.

The Mets captured some of that lightning in 2013 when they signed LaTroy Hawkins. The veteran went on to post a 2.93 ERA in 70.2 innings with 7.0 strikeouts and 1.3 walks per nin and filling in for Bobby Parnell at the end of the season.

But don't gamble too much!

The 2013 Mets bullpen was composed almost completely of question marks. Parnell and Josh Edgin were the only members of the bullpen who had thrown significant innings in 2012. Hawkins, Scott Atchison, Brandon Lyon, and David Aardsma were all veterans brought in with a chance to boune back, but only Hawkins did. Carlos Torres and Greg Burke had previous MLB experience but very little and certainly not enough to instill any kind of confidence in their ability to get major league hitters out. Gonzalez Germen and Scott Rice were complete unknowns. When virtually the entire bullpen is composed of question marks, the end results are unlikely to be pretty.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again

At the time, trading Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez was seen as a smart move. In addition to acquiring Torres, Ramirez was coming off of his fourth consecutive year of pitching roughly 70 innings with an ERA between 2.50 and 3.00. As it turns out, his one season with the Mets was his first clunker since 2007, but the rationale behind the trade was fine. A move that is made based on good process but ends up with bad results is just bad luck. The process is fine, and future moves based on it aren't guaranteed to fail.

Likewise, just because high-profile signings like D.J. Carrasco, Frank Francisco, and Jon Rauch didn't work out doesn't mean they should not be made. These particular players failed to live up to their contracts, but that does not mean that free agent relief pitchers should be avoided, as not all such signings are doomed to fail.

Stop the bleeding

In 2012, the Mets had five sub-replacement relievers pitch more than 20 innings. In 2013, they had four. Other than the 2012 Padres, who also had five such pitchers, every other top bullpen had fewer than two. The Rangers did not have a single one.

While WAR is not definitive for relief pitchers, it is sufficient here to establish a very simple baseline as to pitchers that are pitching well and those that are not. A team has to have palatable secondary and even tertiary bullpen options to turn to if a player isn't performing up to par. Pitchers who aren't throwing the ball well cannot be allowed to accrue a substantial amount of innings throughout the year.

Coaching

This is an amorphous concept, but the fact is, Roger McDowell is among the top pitching coaches in baseball today, and his bullpen in Atlanta has set the standard for two years in a row. Larry Rothschild, the Yankees pitching coach, has experience with excellent pitching staffs, having been a coach in Atlanta in the mid-1990s and Florida after that. Curt Young, Oakland's pitching coach, has been with the team since 2000—aside from his one-year stint with the Red Sox in 2011—and his hand can be seen in many of the young arms the A's have developed over the years. Darren Balsley, San Diego's pitching coach for over ten years, is credited with helping get the careers of Chris Young, Jake Peavy, Akinori Otsuka, and Andrew Cashner off the ground, in addition to regularly coaching the team to league-best ERAs.

This is not to say that Dan Warthen is a bad pitching coach. R.A. Dickey had positive words to say about him, as have a few other pitchers that have played on the team since Warthen was appointed pitching coach. With the exception of Parnell—and much of the progress he's made supposedly can be credited to former teammate Jason Isringhausen—Warthen has not had any particular impact on bullpen pitchers, good or bad.

Frank Viola is highly regarded as a pitching instructor, and his work with Cyclones pitchers in 2011 and Sand Gnats pitchers in 2012 and 2013 is often cited as a big reason why those respective pitching staffs and bullpens thrived. While we won't get to see his effect on pitchers in Las Vegas this year because he underwent heart surgery, his beneficial impact should be felt in both the minor and major leagues come as soon as next year.

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