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Mets should optimize bullpen's high-leverage innings

Which Mets relief pitcher should set up Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia?

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The month of August is about halfway over, and this sentence is still true: The Mets’ bullpen has been very good this year. Mets relief pitchers have a 2.94 ERA, the sixth-best mark in Major League Baseball this season. They have done so using an eclectic mix of pitchers—seventeen in total, nine of whom have had a 3.15 ERA or better in the big leagues.

A bunch of those pitchers are not part of the current bullpen. Jerry Blevins, Jack Leathersich, and Buddy Carlyle are out for the rest of the season with various injuries. Jenrry Mejia received a 162-game suspension shortly after returning from an 80-game suspension. Alex Torres was designated for assignment and is now pitching in Las Vegas. Logan Verrett is pitching there, too, despite his success in a brief stint in the Mets’ major league bullpen. Erik Goeddel is working his way back from elbow woes. Dillon Gee made a bullpen cameo before he was designated for assignment and sent to Vegas, and Akeel Morris’s lone appearance in the big leagues—coming up straight from High-A St. Lucie—might be his lone big league appearance for a while. The healthy pitchers among the group could return to the Mets this year, but none are there just yet.

Right now, the Mets’ bullpen consists of Jeurys Familia, Tyler Clippard, Bobby Parnell, Hansel Robles, Carlos Torres, Sean Gilmartin, and the recently-acquired Eric O’Flaherty. According to Fangraphs, that’s the order in which they have been used according to leverage when they have entered games.

Familia tops that list, as he very clearly should. He’s the best relief pitcher on the team and one of the best in baseball this year. Tyler Clippard ranks behind him, which makes sense, too, especially in the absence of Mejia. Clippard hasn’t been as dominant this year as he has been in the past, but he’s still pretty clearly the Mets’ second-best relief pitcher right now. Like it or not, the Mets are using the bullpen pretty conventionally, with Familia the closer and Clippard the vaunted "eighth-inning guy." After that, things get a little bit dicey, as Parnell and Robles have been rolled out in similar—and fairly important—situations.

In his return from Tommy John surgery, Parnell has not returned to his dominant pre-surgery form. In 18.1 innings this year, he has struck out and walked the same number of batters per nine innings: 4.82. Neither rate is any good. He has a 3.86 ERA and 3.64 FIP, and the fact that he hasn’t allowed a home run yet helps both of those numbers. Before his surgery, Parnell had been very good at preventing home runs, but the peripherals here are still concerning overall.

Robles has struck out more and walked fewer batters than Parnell, but the results haven’t been great. With a 4.22 ERA and 3.60 FIP, he’s been okay in his first season in the big leagues. His swinging strike rate has been good, and perhaps there are more strikeouts to come in the future. He just hasn’t been dominant thus far.

Carlos Torres (Photo: Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports)

After those two, there’s Carlos Torres, who seems to have been underrated and overlooked over the past two-and-a-half seasons. Since the beginning of 2013, Torres has a 2.92 ERA as a relief pitcher. That ranks 57th among 155 qualified relief pitchers over that span, which isn’t elite but certainly isn’t bad. His strikeout rate this year isn’t special, but it’s workable, and he has done a good job limiting walks. His 3.50 ERA and 2.99 FIP are superior to the numbers Parnell and Robles have produced.

Like Torres, Gilmartin seems to fly under the radar a bit. Picked up by the Mets in the Rule 5 draft during the offseason, he hasn’t pitched all that often—or in big spots—but has pitched well when he’s gotten into games. In 34.2 innings, Gilmartin has a 2.08 ERA and 2.99 FIP with 8.05 strikeouts, 3.63 walks and 0.26 home runs per nine innings. As the leverage numbers suggest, he has often pitched when the Mets are either trailing or ahead by a lot.

Last but not least, there’s O’Flaherty. His overall numbers and splits make it clear that he should strictly face left-handed hitters in high-leverage situations, as he has continued to pitch well against them recently despite struggling mightily against right-handed hitters. His leverage numbers above reflect only his very brief time with the Mets, but he should be trustworthy in tight spots as long as he only faced left-handed hitters.

So looking ahead, the Mets might get an injured relief pitcher back or pick one up in a trade before the waiver trade deadline on August 31. Given the current roster, though, it looks like Torres should be getting work in high-leverage spots over Parnell and Robles. It’s tough to see Gilmartin’s role changing drastically, but he’s been better than those two pitchers this year, too. Even with the Mets’ strong starting rotation often pitching deep into games, it would be ideal if the team optimized its bullpen pecking order the rest of the way.