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Mickey Callaway’s bullpen strategy has taken a radical shift since original outline

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The Mets’ bullpen theory has reverted to the baseball stone age.

MLB: Winter Meetings Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports

When the Mets hired Mickey Callaway in late 2017, he displayed several progressive, forward thinking bullpen usage ideologies that he took with him from the Cleveland Indians, who famously used their best reliever, Andrew Miller, all over the place in the 2016 playoffs. Miller’s usage ranged from the fifth inning to the ninth inning, and he was inserted into the game depending on the leverage of the moment, where a team’s win probability could dramatically swing in one direction or another based on the score, runners on base, and the skill level of the batter at the plate.

At the Winter Meetings in December 2017, Callaway outlined a plan to essentially remove the word “closer” from the Mets’ bullpen vocabulary and instead use his best reliever in the most critical moments of the game, regardless of what inning it was. Take a look at some of these Callaway quotes from the 2017 Winter Meetings:

“When you use [relievers] in that high leverage situation, that is the save. The save that night is the highest leverage situation.”

“We are not going to have (Familia) locked into [the ninth inning]. We have to make sure we get to a save situation, and if we can’t there doesn’t do any good to have this guy be named the closer, so we are going to pitch guys when it makes sense and do everything we can to win the game that night.”

Callaway’s vision for a more bullpen-by-committee approach has never really been fully implemented in games the way he originally outlined, spanning two seasons, both under different general managers. In 2018, then-closer Jeurys Familia was still entering late in games with the intent of finishing them. And the deviation from his original strategy has become even more stark this season. Compare his Winter Meetings 2017 quotes to the Mets’ bullpen usage of 2019, where the team has been locked into outdated and inflexible bullpen strategies. Edwin Diaz, a reliever so dominant that the Mets traded 2018 sixth overall pick Jarred Kelenic as part of a package to acquire him, has pitched before the ninth inning just twice in 31 appearances this season as the Mets refuse to budge him from the traditional closer’s role reserved for the end of the game.

From MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo in April: “Mickey Callaway spelled it out clear as day in his postgame tonight: The Mets are going to practice static bullpen management this season. Familia is the eighth inning guy. Diaz is the ninth inning guy. Diaz won’t ever pitch more than three outs, or in a tie game on the road.”

The Mets’ refusal to use their best reliever in the most critical moments of the game most notably came back to bite them this past weekend against the Cubs, when the lead was surrendered during a Javier Baez at-bat in the eighth inning that leverage index pegged as the highest leveraged moment of the game, a moment that a fresh Edwin Diaz could have been brought into to relieve a fading Seth Lugo, who entered the Baez at-bat 39 pitches deep into his appearance. Something similar happened in the eighth inning of an April 15 game against the Phillies where Jeurys Familia clearly did not have command of his pitches yet was left in to surrender the lead because he was the designated and pre-ordained eighth inning man. This type of inflexible and outdated bullpen strategy is exactly what Callaway was attempting to get rid of when he was hired.

The backwards shift in ideology back towards the baseball stone age raises eyebrows, and a skeptical observer could theorize that the bullpen philosophy is an organizational one that is coming from above the manager. Mike Puma of the NY Post recently reported that the distrust between who he deemed a team of ownership/front office and the players/coaching staff is at a high point and added, “(Callaway) is getting coached in every direction, how to deal with the media, who should be in his lineup, when to use relievers…he is not his own man”.

Which should result in the question: how much of Callaway’s bullpen usage during his tenure as Mets manager is his own doing, and how much should be blamed on an organizational philosophy or mandate required of him, perhaps mandated by ownership? And if Callaway is being blamed for poor and outdated strategies implemented not by him but rather by ownership, how does that change how his managerial tenure should be viewed?