When Mets GM Sandy Alderson joined the SNY booth during a game broadcast last week, he offered a refreshingly honest response to a question about the team’s lack of activity at the trade deadline:
"We had some inquiries about one or two guys in our pen. It has taken us so long to get the pen to a decent level, the thought of subtracting from it was not appealing."
Not only have the Mets finally assembled a "decent" bullpen, they apparently possess desirable, tradeable assets where they once had nothing but broken leftover items you couldn’t get rid of in a garage sale.
Looking at the box score from yesterday’s loss to the Nationals (and overlooking for a moment the bullpen’s role in the defeat), it’s indeed striking to see the low ERAs among their relievers:
Through the first three full seasons of Alderson’s tenure, the team’s most nagging weakness has been its frustratingly flimsy relief corps. From 2011 to 2013, Mets relievers had the second-worst ERA in the National League, ahead of only the Astros—who were tanking—and right behind the Rockies—who play in the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. Fumbling late-inning leads and letting tight games slip away makes for an excruciating fan experience. You spend almost two hours watching your team compete through the first six innings or so, enticing you to invest your attention and emotion into the possibility of a victory and the faint glimmers of hope it may bring, only to see it all come tumbling down.
It’s long been considered a key sabermetric tenet that piecing together a bullpen can be done on the cheap, that relievers as a whole are fungible and can be just as easily scooped up off the waiver wire, Rule 5 Draft or obscure foreign leagues as they can be found among the winter’s pricey free agent class. Former Alderson protégé Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s have consistently put together dominant pens using scissors and paste (their deep pen is currently led by converted minor league first baseman Sean Doolittle), as have the frugal Tampa Bay Rays. Despite their deep pockets, the Red Sox have made a habit of crafting deep bullpens on the cheap. It shouldn’t be all that hard. It shouldn’t be too expensive. And yet the ostensibly stats-savvy Alderson regime has failed miserably when it comes to building a bullpen.
A quick look at their history in this regard:
Having inherited only Francisco Rodriguez with his massive contract (soon to be sent packing) and a couple other relief arms, the new Alderson regime arrived on the scene and went to work on building a new pen. The result: a steaming pile of dog poo. Mets relievers had the second-worst ERA in the NL, ahead of only the Astros, and fans were frequently subjected to the torture of close games slipping away in the late innings, one base-on-balls after another testing the will of even the most ardent and masochistic Mets loyalists.
One painful game sticks out in my memory: August 1 at home against the Marlins, Mets down to their final out in the bottom of the ninth, trailing 3–1, when Lucas Duda crushes a dramatic two-run homer to tie the game at 3–3 and send it into extras. Having traded away K-Rod, the closer was now 38-year-old Jason Isringhausen and he came on in the 10th, promptly loaded the bases, then gave up a soul-crushing grand slam to Giancarlo Stanton.
Key Culprits: Pedro Beato (4.30 ERA), Jason Isringhausen (4.05 ERA, 4.63 BB/9), D.J. Carrasco (5.91 ERA), Bobby Parnell (3.64 ERA, 4.10 BB/9), the one and only Ryota Igarashi (4.66 ERA, 6.52 BB/9; finished his Mets career with 5.74 ERA and 6.0 BB/9 in 69 innings).
Missing out on the fun: While his glorious facial foliage was just sprouting, journeyman Dale Thayer made 11 nondescript appearances out of the Mets’ pen. He’d soon transform into an effective reliever for the Padres. The team also briefly employed a long-haired 5-foot–7 southpaw screwballer named Daniel Herrera, but as a second LOOGY they had little practical use for him.
"I feel a lot better about the bullpen," general manager Sandy Alderson said shortly before departing the meetings. "In terms of quality and quantity, we feel we’re in much better position."
Ready to tackle their blatant bullpen problem head-on, Mets brass left the winter meetings having acquired veteran right-handers Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, and Frank Francisco. Despite taking up almost $12 million of the team’s payroll, they didn’t help much. (For comparison’s sake: the Mets’ entire bullpen this year—including highest-paid reliever Bobby Parnell, who pitched one game—will cost less than $8 million.) Of the three, the heavily-tatted giant Rauch was the most effective and that ain’t saying much: He finished the year with a 3.59 ERA while being tagged with seven losses and trying to bully the future face of the franchise. As a unit, the Mets’ pen was once again among the very worst in the league, finishing second-to-last in the NL with a 4.65 ERA, while continuing to raise fans’ cortisol levels by issuing far too many free passes.
Key Culprits: Ramon Ramirez (4.24 ERA, 4.9 BB/9), Manny Acosta (6.46 ERA, 4.8 BB/9), Miguel Batista (4.82 ERA, 34/31 K/BB), Frank Francisco (5.53 ERA, 4.5 BB/9), and the list of 4+ ERAs goes on and on.
Lone Bright Spot: Bobby Parnell came into his own, inducing a ton of ground balls and finishing with a 2.49 ERA as he began to harness his heat.
Finally, a bit of progress. They rose all the way up to 12th in the league in bullpen ERA and received strong contributions from Bobby Parnell (until he suffered a season-ending neck injury in August) and veteran pickup LaTroy Hawkins, while discovering that Carlos Torres could be a highly effective weapon out of the pen. Torres had a 1.62 ERA as a reliever and regularly pitched multiple innings. As a whole, this crew still left plenty to be desired, striking out fewer batters than any other NL bullpen while surrendering more hits than all NL teams except the Rockies.
Key Culprits: Scott Atchison (4.37 ERA), David Aardsma (4.31 ERA), Brandon Lyon (4.98 ERA), Greg Burke (5.68 ERA), Robert Carson (8.24 ERA and a debilitating -1.1 fWAR in just 19.2 innings).
Extras: The Mets played in 20 extra-inning games, their pen holding on just long enough to make it sting really bad when they lost … in 15 innings to the Marlins on April 29 (with Jon Rauch getting the win, dang it!), 20 innings to the Marlins again on June 8, and 15 innings to the D’Backs on July 4. They did pull out a 4–3 win in 16 innings against the Giants on July 8, but on the whole it was another frustrating season for Mets relievers. They watched the opposing team celebrate 13 walk-offs.
To the surprise of virtually nobody, this problem persisted through the start of the 2014 season. The team’s sole reliable reliever, Bobby Parnell, coughed up a ninth-inning lead on Opening Day before hitting the DL with a season-ending elbow injury. Now they were stuck with the likes of scrap heap pickups Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth before both gave up too many walks and homers and were summarily released.
Finally, at long last, the front office decided to get a little creative and, as of this writing, the Mets have assembled a makeshift pen that may have finally solved their most pressing need. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jenrry Mejia were shifted to the bullpen, where both would find success—the latter posting a minuscule 2.70 ERA as the team’s new closer. They decided to bite the bullet on Vic Black’s control problems, and his tightrope walk has been both exhilarating (4.8 BB/9) and effective (2.22 ERA) thus far. Tantalizing prospect Jeurys Familia has been entrusted with a setup role and thrived to the tune of a 1.97 ERA, with his high–90s heat inducing plenty of ground balls. Carlos Torres continues to be highly reliable in an old-school fireman role; he’s on pace for 93 innings out of the pen. They’ve replaced LOOGY Scott Rice’s wildness with Josh Edgin and Dana Eveland’s stinginess (combined 1.6 BB/9). Even journeyman Buddy Carlyle has pitched terrifically (if unsustainably) thus far.
At 15–10, the Mets completed July with the NL’s best record for the month and the revamped bullpen was a big part of that; the group had the NL’s fourth-best ERA for the month. While relievers’ performance in general tends to be as volatile and unpredictable as a Valverde appearance, the Mets appear to have finally gotten over the hump here. Mejia looks like he was born for this role and Familia has the potential to truly dominate. Both are homegrown converted starters. Bobby Parnell is also expected to be back next year. Barring injuries, next year’s staff could potentially have eight starting pitchers under contract: Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Rafael Montero. FIve of those guys are homegrown, plus Wheeler and Syndergaard, who came up through the Mets’ system after a trade. This embarrassment of riches offers plenty of opportunity to either ease inexperienced arms into the majors via the bullpen or even convert them to a full-time relief role.
After years of suffering through washed-up vets and unreliable journeymen surrendering games in an often soul-crushing fashion, the Mets have gathered an imposing batch of relief arms with the potential for more to come. This alone won’t make them a great team, but it certainly helps Mets fans to be able to watch a game without flinching in fear every time Terry Collins hands the baseball to another relief pitcher.