That the Mets are blowing a lot of games with their bullpen this year can be characterized as somewhat of a mild surprise. Even when you look at the numbers, they’ve been mediocre rather than bad. By Baseball Prospectus‘ ARP statistics, the Mets come up with a total of three runs prevented on the season, and offenders such as Jorge Sosa have been removed from the roster. Dan Scotto offered up two rather simple solutions, with better defense being the one that seems to be within reach. Eric offered up his own take, coming up with more questions than answers, but he did provide two very good points:
1) Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez (inexplicably, after injury) have been worked very hard.
2) Despite the relatively low number of innings pitched by the bullpen as a whole, a majority of them seem to be getting fatigued at this point.
While these issues seemingly go against each other, I’m here to offer another explanation for the faults of the pen: Sanchez and Heilman are the only two guys in the pen that have the trust to throw a full inning.
When Jerry Manuel took over, I was excited, because as I pointed out, he seemed to be much more willing to let his pitchers work through jams. And while Eric pointed out that the Mets bullpen has not thrown an inordinate amount of innings, they have made an awful lot of appearances. Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman had both appeared in 60 games coming into Friday’s games, only Blaine Boyer of the Braves had appeared in more. Joe Smith had appeared in 55, Scott Schoeneweis in 53, and Duaner Sanchez at 49 despite missing the first two weeks of the season and initially being brought along slowly. Between Feliciano, Heilman, Smith, and Schoeneweis, the Mets own four of baseball’s 26 most-used arms out of the pen, and Sanchez would have been right on that same pace had he been ready to go at the start of the season.
So what? They still have the same innings, right? Well, the thing is, with a reliever, he’s got to warm up just like a starter does. You’re already getting a bit of fatigue just from that even before you get to the innings they actually pitch. I’m not going to come right out and say that it’s bad strategy to have your relievers be specialists, because it can be great in a crucial spot. But the problem is that the Mets swing this way too far. At this point, they are essentially carrying three specialists out of the six “trusted relievers:” Feliciano, Schoeneweis, and Smith.
I think you can safely label Schoeneweis and Smith specialists. Feliciano, I’m not so sure. I know Eric pointed out his poor right-handed splits this year, but, even counting this year’s putrid performance, he’s allowed a .265/.354/.406 line against them over a career that’s seen him face more righties than lefties. This may be a case of the Mets turning Feliciano from a good all-around reliever to a good specialist, or it may be a case of the league figuring him out from the right side of the plate. Either way, it seems fruitless to lobby the Mets to pitch him as a non-specialist, as they’ve decided his role and haven’t budged from it for two years now.
With three specialists in the pen, the Mets have pigeonholed themselves into making too many moves. To the Mets, getting two left-handed batters and one right-handed batter out is more important than finding players that consistently get three outs period. This fails the Mets in a lot of ways. Almost every time the specialist gives up a hit, he needs to be replaced, because either the next batter will bat the opposite way or a pinch hitter will appear. Every time a regular reliever lets a man on, one or two of the specialists are up throwing in case it gets to that. I have no way of checking this, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that the Mets are in the top-five in baseball in mid-inning pitching changes, and at least in the top-10 for innings with multiple relievers used.
In 2006, the Mets had one of, if not the, best bullpen in baseball. That team had, arguably, two specialists: Chad Bradford and Feliciano (although at this point he wasn’t purely used as one). But, it also had multiple guys that the Mets counted on in the late innings to give them an inning for better or for worse: Heilman, Sanchez, Roberto Hernandez, Roidy McMota, and Darren Oliver.
In the Raul Ibanez column I wrote, I said that I didn’t think relief pitching was a big problem on this team. I stand corrected, but not because the relievers are appreciably bad players; there just are too many specialists, and it’s throwing the harmony of the bullpen out of whack. If the Mets are going to go with six main relievers, one of which is the closer, at least three of them need to be able to be trusted to go an inning, with specialists in place to take care of two out jams or combine for an inning when rest is needed. The perfect six-man Mets pen would feature Billy Wagner as the closer, Heilman and Sanchez as two of the three trusted relievers, and Feliciano and Smith from either side, leaving one empty spot that shouldn’t belong to just another specialist.
Yes, that’s right; my personal quest to convince the Mets to rid themselves of Scott Schoeneweis is back at full force. They almost pulled the trigger at the trade deadline, but they just couldn’t help themselves. He’s got a worse track record than Feliciano, he makes more money, and he arguably could’ve been released this offseason. Is he an okay lefty specialist? I guess. But that spot is rightfully occupied by Feliciano.
Now, as far as solving the problem, the Mets have called up Eddie Kunz already. Could he be the guy? We’ll have to see, but he also has thus far just been given the Carlos Muniz-Heath Bell memorial “inning every third game that doesn’t matter too much” spot so far. I haven’t gotten a chance to watch him pitch yet, but his minor league numbers aren’t all that impressive to me, even given his age. It’ll be a lot harder to find good help now that the trade deadline has passed, but with Chad Bradford and Scott Eyre both moving, it seems that the relief market is at least a little palatable. The Mets aren’t going to acquire Brian Fuentes or Huston Street, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that they wind up with someone like David Weathers or Frank Francisco. Or of course, they could just use Feliciano as a real reliever and use Schoeneweis as a specialist. It couldn’t hurt to try at this point, could it?