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The 2019 Mets bullpen: Is it over yet?

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Look away if you don’t like horror shows because this midseason recap is going to get messy.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I suppose there are worse things to review than the first half performance of the 2019 Mets bullpen. I could be sitting here reviewing Battlefield Earth, a garbage barge that has burst into flame, or a particularly enthusiastic case of food poisoning. Although in fairness to all of those things, they are over much quicker than the last three innings of your average Mets game.

Mets fans will not be shocked to learn that the Mets bullpen currently ranks 28th out of 30 major league teams in ERA (5.63), 27th in losses (20), 28th in fWAR (-0.5), 29th in Win Probability (-5.57), and dead last in blown saves (21).

At the end of the offseason, though there was a nagging sense that depth was still an issue, the Mets certainly appeared to have upgraded the back end of the bullpen, adding 2018 Reliever of the Year Edwin Diaz and bringing back Juerys Familia, who had a 2.88 ERA for the Mets before a midseason trade to Oakland last year. This in theory pushed Seth Lugo, coming off his best year, into the seventh inning role and beyond that, well, they could surely patch something together to fill in the rest of it.

Instead, what has happened is an utter failure of every permutation of that “something’s gotta stick” batch of middle inning arms as well as significant regression from all three of the “good guys.” Diaz, Familia, and Lugo have seen their collective ERA rise almost three runs from 2018, while their walk rate jumped a full batter per nine innings and their home run rate nearly tripled.

Certainly a complete collapse from three of baseball’s best relievers was an improbable outcome, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the bullpen. Giving 50 innings to the likes of Hector Santiago, Daniel Zamora, Drew Gagnon, Luis Avilan, and Jacob Rhame is never a good sign. And an even worse sign is when your second best reliever of the season has been Wilmer Font.

While the story behind the failures of the revolving door of mediocre Quad-A pitchers making up the bulk of the Mets bullpen is straightforward, unpacking the utter disintegration of what should have been a tight top three is less so.

Diaz has a few markers that suggest he’s getting burned by luck—particularly a .421 batting average on balls in play and a two run gap between his ERA and FIP—but there are also major red flags that should be keeping the front office up at night. He’s allowing hard contact nearly 50% of the time a ball is in play, by far the worst of his career and one of the worst marks among qualified relievers. His slider has gone from one of the most valuable single pitches in the majors to a net negative. He’s still striking out batters at an elite rate, but as long as everything in the air is an immediate home run threat, his ceiling has a hard cap. Is he injured? Is he struggling more than average to grip his slider with the new, slick baseball? The Mets have another three and a half years to figure it out, but I’d suggest they try to do so sooner than that.

There is even greater reason for long-term worry for setup man Familia, who is not only sitting on a 7.50 ERA, but also carrying worrisome peripherals like a declining strikeout rate and a walk rate of over six batters per nine innings. Fans still stinging from the 2015 World Series may be apt to paint this as a problem to be solved by a sports psychologist rather than a pitching coach, but bolstering his confidence isn’t going to add back the two miles per hour he’s lost from his fastball. While there was widespread assumption that his two injured list stints this season were more about performance than health, the Mets also need to start wondering how much longer he can realistically pitch around his recurring issues with bone spurs, a condition that required surgery back in 2013.

In many ways the saving grace of the bullpen has been Seth Lugo, though he too has seen a drop in effectiveness since last season. His 3.35 ERA leads Mets relievers with at least 10 innings and he’s striking out a whopping 11.7 batters per nine innings, by far a personal best. Like the rest of the league, he has been a victim of the long ball and his spiked fly ball rate is something he needs to work on to get back to the excellent numbers he put up last season. The temptation with Lugo, and the likely cause of a mid-June swoon, is overuse. While Mickey Callaway is pulling his hair out trying to find someone who can get one lousy out, that someone cannot be Lugo every single night. Lugo has his own injury history to keep an eye on and if the Mets continue to burn his candle at both ends, they run the risk of losing him entirely.

What’s the good news about the bullpen? Well, there’s a decent chance they are a little less horrid in the second half just due to some basic regression to the mean, although nothing in their collective performance points to a particularly big difference. And the Nationals bullpen is one of the few that has been worse than the Mets’, if that really counts as good news when the Nationals are 7.5 games ahead of the Mets in the standings.

Unfortunately, the story of the Mets bullpen is not one with two sides or the potential of a happy outcome waiting at the end. There is no depth to churn for fresh arms, no justification for acquiring new talent in a trade at this point and only a modest indication that bad luck is at play. This is the 2019 Mets bullpen, folks. Three months to go and counting.