July 21, 2018, was a bittersweet day for Mets fans, as that was the day that the organization traded All-Star closer Jeurys Familia to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for two prospects: third baseman Will Toffey and reliever Bobby Wahl. On the one hand, the Mets were not a contending team and Familia was set to become a free agent at the end of the season, so it made all the sense in the world to get something of value in return for two months of his services—though whether or not the Mets got an adequate return for him is another discussion altogether.
But it still hurt to say goodbye to a guy who had spent his entire professional career in the Mets organization, who was on the mound when the Mets won the pennant in 2015, and who has several high-ranking spots on the Mets all-time stat leaders list, including third in saves and ninth in pitching appearances. Familia had already done enough to secure his place as one of the most effective relievers in franchise history, but it was reasonable at the time of the trade to assume that his days in New York were over.
Familia’s departure from the organization was not be a lengthy one, however, as the team ended up signing him to a three-year, $30 million contract in December. The move was something of a surprise, as the Mets had already acquired closer Edwin Diaz in a trade with the Mariners, and it seemed reasonable to expect Familia to sign with a team that would let him continue to handle the ninth inning. But as he expressed, his affinity for the organization compelled him to accept a nominal demotion in order to come back. As if it’s not nice enough to have a player love playing for this team so much that he’s willing to sacrifice a more high-profile role to continue playing for them, fans should also be excited about Familia’s return because he will be able to pair up with Diaz to provide a dominant 1-2 punch that should make the Mets a force to be reckoned with at the end of games.
To fully understand just how effective that combination will be, it is worth looking back on Familia’s track record and reminding ourselves just how dominant he’s been over the course of his major league career. There is a tendency on the part of some fans to judge him too harshly for the few high-profile performances—namely his blown saves in the World Series, though it is worth remembering that a lot of other players and individuals share the burden of blame for those losses—and/or the few bad stretches he’s had over the past few years. But in looking at the totality of his work, it becomes clear that he has been among the most consistent and effective relievers in baseball since 2014, the year he was first moved to the bullpen full-time.
During that time span, he is fifteenth in ERA and fourteenth in FIP among relievers with at least 200 innings pitched. He is also eleventh in fWAR and thirteenth in strikeouts in that same time period. If those rankings put him just outside the truly elite relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Dellin Betances, he nevertheless remains comfortably in that second tier of great bullpen options. Many teams don’t have any relievers in that second tier, and very few of them have that type of player as their setup man.
The consistency that Familia has demonstrated throughout his career should leave us feeling confident about his ability to be an excellent eighth inning option for the Mets in 2019. In all but the 2017 season, during which he was suspended to start the year and missed a lot of time because of arterial blood clot, he has had a 125 ERA+ or better. That 125 ERA+ season came last year. He was above 150 in the other three seasons.
If Familia’s performance last season sets the baseline of what to expect for him in 2019, then he will be a very good setup man. If he reaches the heights that he reached in some of those earlier seasons, then he may well be one of the best non-closer relievers in baseball. If we wanted to look for reasons for concern, we could perhaps note that his heavy workload over the past five seasons—he pitched in at least 70 games in every season but 2017—could conceivably make him more susceptible to injury moving forward.
But that heavy workload is simply the byproduct of him being as consistently effective as he’s been. It’s possible that it may catch up with him at some point, but the alternative would have been to go with a less dominant and less established reliever instead. Given those two options, it makes sense that the Mets chose to bet on Familia maintaining his past levels of production.
Considering both the greater level of emphasis that so many teams have placed on building dominant bullpens in recent years and how awful the Mets bullpen was in 2018, it was heartening to see the team investing in that area over the offseason. The fact that they did so by bringing back one of the best homegrown players the organization has developed in recent times is just icing on the cake. With Familia handling the eighth inning of close games and handing the ball off to Diaz, Mets fans may well get to experience the unfamiliar feeling of being very confident in the later innings of baseball games in 2019.