Of all the things that have gone right in the early going for the Mets in 2018, it’s hard to argue that any of them has loomed larger than the revamped bullpen, bolstered by the presence of former starting pitchers, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. The Mets bullpen currently holds an impressive 1.49 ERA, which ranks second in baseball. They also lead baseball with seven saves as a staff and are the only bullpen that has yet to suffer a loss.
A great bullpen has become essential to have success in this era of baseball. This is nothing revolutionary. There has been an ongoing trend for years toward fewer innings for starting pitchers and more innings and increased specialization of bullpens. More and more, teams are realizing that starting pitchers that struggle the third time through the batting order or with the workload of 185 to 200 innings over the course of a season may flourish as relief pitchers.
Building the modern bullpen may very well involve one or two such pitchers who aren’t simply “long men” in the sense that they are relegated to mop-up duty when a starter is knocked out early. The days of a bunch of one inning relievers with one “long man” thrown in may be dwindling. Mickey Callaway watched A.J. Hinch and the Astros utilize starting pitchers out of the bullpen during the playoffs last season with overwhelming success. Between the acquisition of Jason Vargas and much better luck with health relative to last season breaking camp, the Mets were set up to follow the Astros model, with Gsellman and Lugo taking center stage. With much of the Mets rotation comprised of pitchers with injury concerns and pitchers that struggle the third time through the batting order, Gsellman and Lugo were slotted to be used in the middle innings, but in games that were close, often entering in high leverage situations. Provided they could become accustomed to a bullpen role—and not every starter is able to—they would make the Mets’ bullpen one of the deepest in the game.
Eleven games in, the experiment has gone just about as well as the Mets could have imagined. And they have absolutely needed it to. Shockingly, Zack Wheeler’s seven inning start against the Marlins on Wednesday was the longest outing by a Mets starter so far this season, as even Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have struggled to go deep into games in the early going. Additionally, despite the fact that the Mets’ 10-1 record is a dominant one, most of the games they have played thus far have been close. As a result, Gsellman or Lugo has played a major part in nearly every one of the Mets’ ten wins. Seth Lugo has yet to allow a run in his six innings of work, earning him the honor of being named the pleasant surprise for the Mets from MLB.com. For his part, Gsellman has only allowed one run in seven innings. Each of them has earned a win.
So what has made them so successful in relief roles? Both of them are using their best pitches more. We already know that Lugo has elite spin rate on his curveball. He is now using that pitch nearly a quarter of the time, way up from last season.
Gsellman is now prioritizing his two-seam sinker over his lesser four-seam fastball—which he has abandoned nearly entirely—and that pitch has looked positively filthy so far this season (as it does in the gif below). It is, of course, early. But the optimist in me is seeing the Andrew Miller comparisons being thrown around when it comes to Gsellman and buying into the idea that he very well may be able to become that sort of guy for the Mets moving forward.
Both pitchers also have increased velocity on their fastballs in 2018. Lugo’s velocity is up 1.8 mph on average and Gsellman’s is up 1.3 mph. In fact, their increases represent two of the top five largest in baseball between last season and this season. There is something to be said for being able to air it out over a shorter outing in a relief role.
And the results have been outstanding. Both Lugo and Gsellman are currently sporting strikeout rates way above their career averages, at 10.5 and 15.43 per nine innings, respectively. Of course, sample sizes are small at this stage and there is reason to believe both pitchers may come back down to earth at least a little bit. However, given that all of Matt Harvey, Jason Vargas, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler tend to struggle the third time through the order, Lugo and Gsellman continuing to provide quality multi-inning relief appearances will be absolutely key to the Mets sustaining their early success over a whole season.
For now, Mickey Callaway is pushing all of the right buttons, building and utilizing a modern-day bullpen. And Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo have played a huge role in that success.