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Jeurys Familia will pitch for the Mets in 2021—whether he should or not

The former closer has pitched poorly the past two seasons.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jeurys Familia lowered his ERA by nearly two runs in 2020 from the previous season. Devoid of any context, that mark would stand as stupendously impressive, especially from one of the greatest relievers in franchise history. Unfortunately for Familia, other statistical measurements exist, and most of them show that his 2020 season was just about as bad as his 2019 season.

Despite his thoroughly pedestrian 3.71 ERA, Familia posted career lows in FIP and xFIP and produced -0.1 fWAR for the Mets in 2020. He also struck out less than 20% of the batters he faced for the first time since 2013 and walked an astounding 15.8%, landing him in the bottom 4th percentile of all pitchers. No matter how you look at it, it’s hard to find a counting stat that shines a positive light on Familia.

Familia has always had control issues but has overcome them in the past by missing bats and limiting hard contact, and that remained true in 2020. His 30.1 hard-hit percentage improved nearly four percentage points from 2019 and hovers only a little above his peak years in 2015 and 2016. He’s also a developed his slider into one of the nastiest pitches in his arsenal, registering a 46% whiff rate while becoming his go-to secondary pitch over the last two seasons. Based on these numbers, one might guess his poor performance may be due to a decrease in quality of his pitches. But that’s not the case, either.

In 2020, Familia averaged close to 97 mph on both his fastball and his sinker. That not only placed him in the 92nd percentile of all major league pitchers last year, but also represented a significant increase in velocity for Familia over the past two seasons. By September, he was averaging 98 mph on his fastball, a number he hadn’t reached since May of 2017. Familia also retained elite drop on his sinker and splitter, which is the type of movement that got Terry Collins excited upon their reunion in 2019.

Familia was bad in 2019 and 2020 because the batters he faced struck out less and walked more, but it’s hard to explain why with the underlying measurements, especially when they’ve arguably improved over the past year. The best explanation I can come up with is the league-wide proliferation of quality relief pitchers: Familia’s arsenal of mid-90s pitches with spine-shattering movement isn’t novel any more. It’s become a meme at this point, but there is some truth to the idea that every team now has a few pitchers in their respective organizations that can do what Familia has been doing for years. Batters don’t seem fazed by this type of pitching any more, and if Familia can’t consistently hit the strike zone and miss bats, it doesn’t really matter how fast he throws and how far his pitches move.

If Familia were just about any other reliever in the organization, his numbers would be enough for a demotion off the roster entirely for 2021. But Familia will be making $11 million this year, making him the sixth-highest-paid player on the roster, which means the Mets don’t have much choice but to try to find some value out of him. It doesn’t help that the bullpen is the one area on the field the Mets did not significantly improve in the offseason, and that the Mets likely need a healthy and effective season from either Familia or Dellin Betances to ensure quality options in middle relief. Considering neither pitcher has shown much over the past two years, it’s a lot to hope for.

The good news for the Mets is that Familia is only 31 years old and hasn’t seem to have lost his stuff. The other good news is that Familia is on the last year of his deal, giving the Mets more options to work with if he pitches poorly again in 2021. The bad news is Familia has pitched very badly for two straight seasons, and the Mets can’t really afford to wait and see if he can return to form much longer.