Fixing The Bullpen: The Key to the Mets’ 2019 Success

by Nicholas Kaplan

Heading into the 2018 season, the Mets were poised to make noise in the NL East. They looked to get back into their form from 2015 and 2016. Both years yielded positive results, as 2015 marked a World Series appearance and 2016 an opportunity in Wild Card game. However, a 70-92 finish in 2017 left the team searching for answers and a need to improve drastically. What actually happened in 2018 was a different story.

After starting the season 11-1, the Mets caught the league’s attention, but a 10-18 May and a 5-21 June resulted in missing the playoffs and a final record of 77-85. A multitude of things went wrong, but no group contributed to the Mets’ downfall more than the bullpen.

Coming into season there was promise surrounding the relief unit. With Hansel Robles, Jerry Blevins and Jeurys Familia returning, there was hope they would be the leaders of bullpen arms. The acquisitions of experienced relievers Anthony Swarzak and AJ Ramos showed the Mets were trending in the right direction. Everything looked great on paper.

Performing was another story. The Mets finished third to last in the MLB in bullpen ranks with a 4.96 ERA and a combined 36 losses stemming from the bullpen.

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The arms that were acquired failed to perform. Anthony Swarzak had several stints on the DL throughout the season and finished the year with a 6.15 ERA in 29 appearances. AJ Ramos had similar issues, finishing the year with a 6.41 ERA in 28 appearances. But it wasn’t just the new guys. The returning arms failed to perform much better. Jerry Blevins struggled constantly, posting a 4.85 ERA in 64 appearances on the year. Hansel Robles appeared in just 16 games, registering a 5.03 ERA before being shipped to the Angels. The only bright spot in the bullpen was Jeurys Familia, the closer, who appeared in 40 games and recorded a 2.88 ERA and 17 saves before being traded to the Oakland Athletics in July.

The arms that were supposed to be counted on failed to perform, causing the whole bullpen to spin out of control. Searching for answers, the Mets turned to their contingency plan, moving former starters Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman to the bullpen. That didn’t pan out. GM Sandy Alderson and first year manager Mickey Callaway were left searching for answers, so they opted to experiment with a young and unknown group of relievers, which led to both positive and negative results. Paul Sewald and Jacob Rhame, who were both on the staff in 2017, failed to perform once again, so Callaway dug deep into the bullpen during games and gave young and inexperienced relievers a chance.

This plan produced encouraging results, as first year relievers Drew Smith (3.54 ERA in 27 appearances), Tyler Bashlor (4.22 ERA in 24 appearances) and Daniel Zamora (3.00 ERA in 16 appearances), helped the Mets post a 38-30 record after the All-Star break, leaving Mets fans optimistic for the 2019 season.

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The struggles in the bullpen were evident in 2018, but this is a common theme that has been seen throughout the Sandy Alderson ERA (2011-2018). To put this into perspective, it is essential to look at the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of the Mets bullpen from 2011-2018. This statistic estimates a player’s total value in comparison to a player who may be a free agent or a minor leaguer. Specifically, WAR is expressed in terms of wins, so if player A has a WAR of +6.3 and player B has a WAR of +3.3, then player A is worth about 3.0 wins more to their team. Basically, the lower the WAR, the less valuable a player is, and ultimately the more they hurt their team.

The combined WAR of Mets bullpen pitchers year by year from 2011-2018

2011: +0.4 (14 full time relievers)

2012: -1.2 (15 full time relievers)

2013: -1.5 (17 full time relievers)

2014: +1.6 (13 full time relievers)

2015: +3.9 (17 full time relievers)

2016: +6.4 (10 full time relievers)

2017: +2.9 (16 full time relievers)

2018: -2.2 (18 full time relievers)

When interpreting these statistics, it is essential to analyze 2014-2018. Sandy Alderson had much success with the bullpen from 2014-2017. The bullpen staff during each of those years helped the team more than they hurt them, as evidenced by the positive WAR’s. However, a 5.1 drop in WAR from 2017 to 2018 signaled that something in the bullpen needed to be addressed heading into the 2019 season. To begin this process, the Mets elected to hire former agent Brodie Van Wagenen in the 2018 offseason to fill the GM position. The effect of this move is yet to be seen, but it’s a signal that the Mets are ready to change the culture throughout the organization.

This begins in 2019, where the Mets must focus on reworking the bullpen. A combined 36 losses as a result of the bullpen, tied for last in the league with the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals, is unacceptable. Callaway and his staff should utilize the young arms that provided sufficient results. Whether the likes of Lugo and Gsellman are to be used in the bullpen is yet to be seen, but they shouldn’t have to be constantly relied on. Callaway and his staff must complement the young arms in the bullpen with the addition of an experienced reliever, set up man, closer or all three.

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There are several options out there on the market, including Andrew Miller, David Robertson and Cody Allen. The closer role is one the Mets must address, and can do so by looking at free agent Craig Kimbrel or working on a reunion with Jeurys Familia. Regardless of who they sign, something must be done. The Mets are currently in a position where they have a plethora of elite starters who churn out quality starts, only to have them wasted by the bullpen. These pitchers won’t be in their prime for forever, and it is up to the Wilpons, first year GM Brodie Van Wagenen and Mickey Callaway to come up with a blueprint to improve to bullpen. This is a major concern, but a well devised plan that attempts to improve the weaknesses and capitalize on the strengths can yield positive results in the bullpen and overall success for the Mets organization in 2019.