In an age of baseball where strength and depth of the bullpen are emphasized the most it has ever been, the New York Mets displayed their inability to produce a stable set of relief pitchers. In a combined effort in the 2018 season, the bullpen registered the third worst ERA in all of Major League Baseball, also accounting for the second worst FIP in the league.
As the new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen has made it clear that the team will be built on depth. Early in the offseason, Van Wagenen acquired Edwin Diaz to solidify the closer spot. Shortly after, the Mets brought back Jeurys Famila as a critical piece in the backend of the bullpen. The additions of two upper-echelon relief pitchers allow New York to feel more comfortable later in the games, revising last year’s weak link into one of the team’s greatest strengths.
Yet, the bullpen was not complete. In January, the organization signed lefty reliever Luis Avilan to a minor league contract. Avilan, 29, spent last season with the White Sox and Phillies on his way to a 3.77 ERA in 45.1 innings pitched. The Venezuelan native has a career 3.09 ERA in his seven years of service, also earning a 1.22 WHIP amidst a career known for making left handed bats struggle.
In his 2017 campaign, Avilan limited lefties to hitting .195/.290/.280. In 2018, Avilan had a slight decline, as left handers hit .217/.304/.341 against him. Despite the subtle loss in step, the former Phillie has been a figure of consistency, as over his tenure in the big leagues he has allowed lefties to hit just .210/.289/.292.
Although Avilan has continued to be a menace to left handers, the pitcher has reinvented himself in recent years. Since Avilan made his debut (against the Mets nonetheless), he made a reputation for being a fastball pitcher in the majors. After a rookie season of throwing his fastball 67.6% of the time, in 2013, Avilan threw the pitch 81.2% of the time, following that up the next year by throwing fastballs for 81.7% of his pitches. In these seasons, his primary fastball pitch was not a four seamer, but a sinker. The sinker was his most frequent pitch early in his career, as in 2013 and 2014 he tossed it 74.7% and 62.8% out of all his throws, respectively.
In the 2015 season, Avilan switched up his pitching arsenal. That season, for both the Braves and the Dodgers, Avilan completely ditched his sinker, switching primarily to his four seam fastball. That year, he also began to incorporate his changeup. In the previous season, Avilan threw his changeup only 9% of the time. In 2015, he used his changeup for nearly 30% of all his pitches.
In the past three seasons, Avilan has been persistent in developing his changeup. Perhaps due to diminishing velocity, which averaged 93.5 mph on fastballs in 2015 and 90.6 mph in 2018, Avilan has become dependent on his off-speed skillset. Since 2016, he has thrown his changeup at least 47.6% every season. Last season, Avilan threw his curveball for 18% of his pitches, which is the first time since 2013 he has thrown his curveball for at least 10% of his pitches. An interesting note on his curveball, Avilan averaged 70.9 mph on the breaking ball in 2018, as compared to 76.5 mph in 2017. Perhaps a higher usage rate will make Avilan throw the pitch with less pressure to preserve himself from injury.
Even if Avilan has transformed his pitching style, he has not lost his level of deception. In 2015, while still a fastball prominent pitcher, Avilan had batters swing at outside pitches 38.1% of the time, the 13th most of relief pitchers who pitched for at least 50 IP. In 2017, with his primary pitches being off-speed, he was still able to get hitters to chase on 40% of pitches outside the strike zone, ranking sixth in the MLB for relief pitches with at least 40 IP.
The way hitters have attacked Avilan has also changed with him. Last season was the first time in his career his ground ball rate was under 47%, as he had batters ground out only 36% of the time, while having batters hit fly balls against him the most they ever had at 39%. It is alarming that batters smoke line drives 24.8% of the times the ball was put in play, which was tied for the highest in his career and the 27th highest rate in relief pitchers with at least 40 IP for 2018.
Van Wagenen has already declared that Avilan ‘addresses an offseason’ priority’, so although pitchers for the Mets such as Daniel Zamora are fighting for the shot at the lefty specialist role, Avilan seems he will be the man filling that void for the team this season. On a minor league contract, Avilan could turn into one of the biggest and most impactful bargains the Mets have seen lately.