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The implications of the Mets’ three-out restriction on Edwin Diaz

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The Mets’ intentions to try to keep Diaz healthy are good, but such a rigid policy is concerning on many levels.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at New York Mets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

As Jeurys Familia struggled to get outs during Monday night’s game against the Phillies, many were clamoring for Edwin Diaz to come in to try to get a four-out save. Diaz did get a save, but not until the eleventh inning. The Phillies tied the game up against Familia and Robert Gsellman, forcing the contest into extra innings, leading to questions after the game regarding Diaz’s usage directed at Mickey Callaway.

Callaway answered the questions in a direct, but unexpected way: The Mets will not use Diaz in non-save situations and they will not use him for more than three outs. The rigid restrictions were so surprising that Brodie Van Wagenen had to step in to defend the policy and clarify that this was an edict coming from the front office, not a decision Callaway made himself. Van Wagenen cited a desire to control Diaz’s workload in order to “put all of us in a position to succeed.”

Van Wagenen is certainly not wrong about the fact that Diaz is one of the most important players to the Mets, not just now, but moving forward. The Mets’ desire to keep him healthy and effective in the long-term is certainly a defensible stance. However, whether dealing in such absolutes is the correct approach to achieve that end is certainly up for debate and this policy raises several concerns.

Probably chief among these concerns is that for that this protocol to be effective, the guys pitching ahead of Diaz have to be effective too. When asked about the three out rule, Mickey Callaway said in part, “...we have faith in our other guys and they’ve got to get in there and get the job done. And if they don’t, we might lose a game.”

So far, overwhelmingly, they have not gotten the job done. The Mets’ 5.87 bullpen ERA is fourth-worst in baseball and that’s with Diaz’s innings included. In order for the Diaz policy to not cost the Mets ballgames, there have to be other relievers Mickey Callaway can trust in high-leverage situations. Familia was supposed to be one of those guys and he has been ineffective so far this season. Seth Lugo might be that guy, but he is also a reliever that Callaway wants to be able use for multiple innings, not a single key out with the bases loaded in the eighth. Robert Gsellman and Justin Wilson have had mixed results thus far this season.

Not only has the bullpen’s performance been uneven, the relief corps has been taxed heavily early in the season, due to the inability of the starting rotation to pitch deep into games. This has a domino effect that is compounded by the restrictions on Diaz’s use. If you have one pitcher in your bullpen that you will absolutely only use in the final inning and no earlier, that’s all the more innings your other guys have to pitch, whether they are high leverage or not.

Questions emerge from this revelation that also go beyond the implications for in-game managing of the pitching staff. A general manager stepping in to answer questions at a press conference, especially this early in the season, is highly unusual. Typically, general managers fielding questions from the media is reserved for major events, such as injuries, trades, signings, or personnel changes.

The fact that Brodie Van Wagenen had to come to Mickey Callaway’s aid in Monday night’s press conference regarding the Diaz situation, to me, says one of two things. Either Callaway is making decisions that are indefensible on their own and so Van Wagenen has had to fall on the sword for his manager, or this really was the company line all along and Van Wagenen is not giving his manager the independence to manage. I don’t find either of those situations to be terribly positive, and it doesn’t bode well for how much the front office trusts Callaway. If we take the Mets at their word, this has been the policy since Diaz was signed. Why not be forthcoming about that from the outset if that’s the case?

The answer to that may be, in part, that the Mets did not want other teams to know this information, as it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. This remains true and is another issue with such a rigid policy. By defending the choice to not use Diaz for a four-out save as team policy, Van Wagenen has let the Mets’ opponents know it is team policy and they can react and strategize accordingly.

There are ways to handle Diaz’s usage carefully, but also judiciously without having to resort to such an unyielding “closer” role for your best relief pitcher—an antiquated way of thinking that runs counter to the Mets’ claims that they want to be a more analytically-driven franchise. It is, indeed, quite literally the opposite of what Mickey Callaway said when he was hired. “I don’t know who’s going to come up in the ninth inning, so for me to designate somebody to pitch the ninth, and I don’t know what hitters are coming up, it seems kind of silly to me,” Callaway said in his very first spring training press conference in February 2018.

Last year’s version of Mickey Callaway was right. If you’re going to choose your battles for Edwin Diaz, it is far more important for him to have to get an extra out once in awhile when that out is needed with the bases loaded up one run in the eighth inning than it is for him to record three outs in the ninth when up four runs, which he has been asked to do already this season.

This year’s version of Mickey Callaway, unfortunately, seems hamstrung by a policy whose heart is in the right place, but is ultimately misguided and hurts the team’s chance to win.