There’s nothing worse than having a bad bullpen. A bad bullpen can drive fans and teams crazy as hard-earned wins become heartbreaking losses. Close games can become excruciating to watch as fans wait nervously for the bullpen to pitch their team out of the game. In addition to taking years off fans’ lives, a bad bullpen can make a manager look bad since a manager’s bullpen usage is how a manager most influences a game.
In his first year as a manager, Willie Randolph had to deal with a bad bullpen, especially in the first half of the season. Here are the relievers Randolph had at his disposal on Opening Day in 2005:
The fact that four of those guys didn’t throw a single pitch to a major league hitter in 2006 shows just how bad that April bullpen was. Fortunately for the Mets and their fans, the team didn’t have to rely on those guys for very long, as relievers like Aaron Heilman and Juan Padilla emerged to provide stability. Despite the bad start, the Met bullpen finished 6th in the NL in ERA in 2005. While it was probably a little bit worse than that number indicates because the Mets play in a pitcher’s park, it’s safe to say that the Mets’ bullpen was at least league average in 2005.
League average wasn’t good enough for Omar Minaya so he made improving the bullpen a priority after the 2005 season. Omar made several moves—some of which I personally didn’t like—and the results couldn’t have been better. Here are the numbers:
2005: 413 IP, 3.92 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7.19 K/9, 3.73 BB/9, 1.93 K/BB, 105 ERA+, 69% of inherited runners stranded, Opponents batted .265/.337/.383.
2006: 542.2 IP, 3.28 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.04 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 2.79 K/BB, 131 ERA+, 71% of inherited runners stranded, Opponents batted .239/.303/.361.
The Mets’ bullpen was better anyway you look at it. Mets’ relievers were able to shed two-thirds of a run from their 2005 ERA, and that’s especially impressive when you consider that 2006 saw an upturn offensively across the entire league.
The one statistic that really jumps off the page is the difference in innings pitched. The Mets’ bullpen had to throw nearly 130 more innings in 2006 then in 2005, or a difference of five innings per week. This happened as a result of several things. First, the Mets won more road games. Second, the Mets played more than their fair share of long extra-inning games. But the most important reason for the additional innings was the rotation simply not pitching very deep into games. In 2005, Met starters averaged 6.31 innings per start, approximately two-thirds an inning more than they did in 2006 (5.67).
All this makes the Mets’ bullpen that much more impressive. Most bullpens include at least one or two pitchers who simply aren’t very good. When a bullpen is overworked, these bad pitchers usually have to throw more innings than a team would like. The Mets’ bullpen, by comparison, didn’t have a single pitcher that was not effective in the role assigned to him. Let’s take a quick look at the main contributors to the 2006 bullpen and speculate on what can be expected from them in 2007.
The Mets gave Billy Wagner a huge contract to make them forget about Braden Looper’s difficult 2005 season. At least for the regular season, Billy Wagner did what he was paid to do. Wagner is one of the greatest closers of all time so the fact that his 2006 season was right in line with his career numbers is a pretty good indication that he had a fantastic regular season. Interestingly enough, Wagner had his highest strikeout rate since 1999.
2007 Guesstimate: Despite the increased strikeout rate, Wagner allowed more batters to get on base: his WHIP was his highest in a full season since 1998. This was due to the fact that his BABIP was .304, about 50 points higher than his career average entering 2006. Personally, I think it’s a fluke, but it’ll be interesting to see if that BABIP was an aberration or the beginning of a trend. Either way, Wagner’s still one of the best in the business, and he’ll certainly help the Mets in their quest to make the playoffs. I’m sure Wagner wants a chance to improve on his disastrous postseason numbers (8.71 ERA in 10.1 IP).
After looking like a bust in his first two stints in the majors, Aaron Heilman altered his motion early in the 2005 season and he’s looked like a completely different pitcher ever since. The improvement in his ERA+ illustrates just that, rising from a 67 over his first two seasons to a 126 over his last two.
Heilman showed promise in 2005 as a starter but was rather inconsistent in the seven starts he made. That same inconsistency came through as a reliever also in 2005, but I personally think that was due to luck since he demonstrated the ability to post excellent peripheral statistics even when the final line was less than stellar. Heilman was particularly phenomenal down the stretch in 2005, posting a microscopic 0.54 ERA over his final 33.1 innings. Thanks to that strong finish, Heilman wound up with a 2.18 ERA as a reliever and a 3.17 ERA overall.
The Mets entered the 2006 season with the hope that Heilman would be a starter, but Brian Bannister won the fifth spot in the rotation while Heilman was moved to the bullpen to share set-up duties with Duaner Sanchez. Heilman did nothing to deserve that fate, posting a 1.59 ERA in 17 innings with a 14/1 K/BB ratio in Spring Training. It appears that Heilman was a victim of his own success as a reliever; the Mets felt they were a stronger team with Heilman in the bullpen and Bannister in the rotation.
Heilman’s year in the bullpen was somewhat disappointing simply because he raised the bar so high in 2005, but he still had a very good year overall. Heilman finished seventh in all of baseball in relief innings with 87 while posting a fine 3.62 ERA. Although Heilman saw a decline in his strikeout rate from a superb 9.82 K/9 to a still solid 7.55, Heilman’s other peripherals were strong enough for him to post a FIP ERA of 3.29.
2007 Guesstimate: Heilman has established himself as one of the best setup men in the game over the last two seasons, posting a 3.00 ERA as a reliever with peripherals that indicate that his performance was no fluke. His ability to pitch multiple innings if needed is invaluable on a team with a rotation that doesn’t have many (any?) starters that can pitch deep into games consistently. I’m expecting Heilman to have an even better year in 2007, as I could definitely see a sub-3.00 ERA from Heilman in a similar number of innings.
Talk about not wasting any time getting the fans on your side! Duaner Sanchez became a Met as a result of a controversial deal in which Omar Minaya sent Jae Seo and Tim Hamulack to the Dodgers for Sanchez and Steve Schmoll. At the time I didn’t care for the move, because I felt that Seo would be good for around 180 league average innings in 2006, which would have made him a very valuable commodity indeed. I didn’t think Minaya got enough for a quality starting pitcher making a tiny salary in baseball terms, particularly in light of the team’s decision to keep Heilman in the ‘pen.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. Sanchez quickly established himself as a fan favorite by not allowing a run in his first 21 IP, and it helped that Seo had a horrific season.
The first time I watched Duaner Sanchez pitch for the Mets the thing that surprised me most was just how many quality pitches he had in his repertoire. Sanchez throws:
1. A 4-seam fastball that sits at 95 MPH
2. A 2-seam fastball with good movement that he throws in the low nineties.
3. An excellent changeup with downward action
4. A slider
5. A good curveball
Looking at that, it’s tough to see how he hadn’t become a star reliever in LA.
Prior to his unfortunate injury just before the deadline, Sanchez was having himself a phenomenal year. His 2.60 ERA was more than 3 quarters of a run lower than he had ever posted and he was on pace to throw more than 80 innings for the third straight season before he separated his shoulder in late August. We’ll never know what might have happened in the playoffs had Sanchez been healthy enough to pitch.
2007 Guesstimate: Dirty should be completely recovered from his separated shoulder by Opening Day, and there shouldn’t be any long-term effects. Of course, we won’t know for sure until we see how Sanchez performs. In addition, his peripherals, while strong, weren’t quite as good as his ERA although his walk rate is adversely influenced by the fact that 6 of the 24 walks he issued were of the intentional variety. Sanchez is a difficult guy to project because of the injury, his stuff, and track record. Personally, I’m expecting a 3.25-3.50 ERA from Sanchez next season in around 80-90 innings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he bettered that either.
Guillermo Mota was once widely considered one of the best setup men in all of baseball, but he has struggled to find his previous form ever since being traded from the Dodgers during the 2004 season. In fact, Mota’s ERA in his time with the Marlins and Indians was an astronomical 5.14. The Mets only acquired Mota because of Sanchez’s injury but coming to Shea appeared to give Mota back what he appeared to have lost since leaving Los Angeles. Mota posted a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings, and his excellent work in August and September earned him a prominent role with the Mets during their playoff run.
The Mets found out after being eliminated from the playoffs that Mota had been using performance-enhancing drugs during the regular season, and as a result Mota was suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball. Despite the fact that Mota would not be available until late May, the Mets re-signed Mota to a 2-year deal.
2007 Guesstimate: I have no idea how much the drugs that Mota was using helped him. Mota’s stuff was just as nasty last season when he was getting lit up in the American League; his fastball was still hitting 97 during his time with the Indians. It’s entirely possible that taking the drugs helped Mota more mentally than physically as the drugs may have given Mota back that confidence he had lost. I’m not going to pretend I know what to expect from Mota next year. I wouldn’t be shocked if he were the dominant setup man he was with the Dodgers in 2003-2004, nor would I be if he stunk up the joint. Your guess is as good as mine.
Next time, I’ll look at the bottom half of the bullpen and any other guys who have a shot at contributing in 2007.