Met Bullpen Actually May Be Worse Than It Appears
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Sometimes, things are as bad as they seem to be. Sometimes, they’re worse. For most of this season, the Mets’ bullpen has been the former; for three weeks now, it’s been the latter. It may not end up costing them a playoff spot, but if it doesn’t, it will almost certainly consign them to a status as token victims of a brutal thrashing in the playoffs. If there’s anything worse than a lousy bullpen, after all, it’s a lousy bullpen that’s been burned out. The Mets are burnt to a crisp.
From Opening Day through the last day of August, the Mets played 137 games, in which their relievers made 452 appearances. This works out to an average of 3.30 relief appearances a game, 10% above the National League average. From the first day of September through the beginning of last night’s game against Chicago, they played 18 games, in which their relievers made 73 appearances — an average of 4.06 a game, or an increase of 23%. Take an already overburdened bullpen, pile still more work on, and you get what you’ve seen lately from the Metropolitans, with nightmarish collapse piled on nightmarish near-collapse.
The truly frightening thing, though, is that this is more like a symptom than a disease. If manager Jerry Manuel were merely prone to excessive LaRussa-ism, warming up and calling in reliever after reliever to chase some vanishing marginal advantage, one could jeer at him, assign him the blame, and plead with him to change course before wrecking the season. In truth, it’s hard to think of what else he might do. He doesn’t have a single reliever who can be trusted to pitch a full inning at a time.
Basically, the real problem is that the Mets bullpen right now comprises nothing but situational specialists. Eleven relievers have been taken the mound for the Mets this month, and nearly all of them are useless against half the hitters they might be called on to face.
Going by OPS against, and excepting Bobby Parnell on the grounds that he’s faced barely more hitters than you have, you can sort these pitchers into four tiers. The first would be for pitchers with a differential of more than 500 points of OPS between left-handed and right-handed hitters this year, which takes in Brandon Knight and Ricardo Rincon. The second would be for pitchers with a differential between 401 and 500; this would be Nelson Figueroa, Pedro Feliciano, Brian Stokes, and Scott Schoeneweis. The third would be for pitchers with a differential between 301 and 400; this includes Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith. The last would be for Luis Ayala and Duaner Sanchez, who have a split of less than 100 points, which is just to say that they’ve been equally ineffective against both lefties and righties this year.
If all this is a bit dry, consider the point in slightly more vivid terms.
Schoeneweis turns the average lefty into a pitcher, with a .516 OPS; he turns the average righty into Hanley Ramirez, with a .930 mark. Righties hit for a .586 OPS against Figueroa, and .590 against Smith; for lefties, those numbers are .980 and .946, respectively, well into Manny Ramirez territory. Righties hit Heilman for a .660 OPS, which is down in Jason Kendall or Gary Matthews Jr. territory, basically about as bad as a player can be while holding a job; lefties hit him for a .995 line. On and on it goes, the absolute worst of it being that aside from Heilman, who’s been vastly worse against left-handers than he usually has been (blame his short fastball on making his changeup relatively ineffective), none of these pitchers are doing anything at all inconsistent with what they’ve done over the course of their careers.
Having a lot of pitchers who can only be relied on to get either left- or right-handed hitters out is bad in its own right, but it also has a cascade effect. This month, the Mets have played four games in which they’ve had to call in six relievers, and another in which they had to call in seven; by contrast, they’ve had one in which they needed two relievers, and two in which they had to call in one. Effectively, an already suspect relief corps is being called to warm up in the pen and come into the game a third as often as the average one, with predictably cataclysmic results.
This isn’t their fault and even less so Manuel’s; build a pen full of nothing but specialists, and this is the result you’ll get. For right now, though, the problem is really that no one save (perhaps) Stokes and Ayala is capable of pitching well a full inning at a time even in the best of circumstances. (Unsurprisingly, these two are the ones who have been pitching in the eighth and ninth.) Over the next week, opposing managers just might cooperate by not exploiting matchups to their fullest; come the playoffs, should the Mets make it there, no one is going to be so kind. With an army of Manny Ramirez clones waiting for the bullpen in October, the Mets, barring a miracle of miracles, won’t stand a prayer.