Putting out fires in the middle of innings could be an issue for the New York Mets, one that has already cost two aces wins in 2018.
A couple of weeks ago, the sartorial splendor that was the New York Mets‘ blazing 12-2 start was quickly dressed down in the matter of a mere inning. They have been a .500 team ever since.
Jacob deGrom was cruising, and, up 6-1, the Mets seemed well on their way to taking a fourth straight game from the Washington Nationals.
Working into the eighth inning, deGrom had thrown 103 pitches and given up two well struck, but harmless singles. With a left-hander on deck, Mets manager Mickey Callaway made the judgment that deGrom had enough, and went to Seth Lugo for one batter, with an idea of bringing on Jerry Blevins to face Bryce Harper, on deck.
Two weeks ago was the time to examine Callaway’s decision—one I felt was wrong—to take deGrom out to face Howie Kendrick, whom he struck out three times. Trust your ace and stop babying pitchers. Where have you gone Dallas Green?
In all seriousness, it’s not about that decision itself. What ensued points to a larger problem.
Lugo, a former starter, came in with runners on base and promptly walked Kendrick. Though the lead was big, that was a spot for a short reliever, not a converted starter the ilk of Lugo. Four relievers, nary one able to stop bleeding, and two outs later the Mets watched a five-run lead metamorphize into a two-run deficit.
They haven’t been the same team since; however, those were high standards which to adhere.
That couldn’t have been a situation Lugo has seen very often, as a former starter used to start innings with the bases clean, often from the windup.
Noah Syndergaard left in the middle of an inning with a lead a week later. The Mets bullpen couldn’t hold the lead.
A week ago, yet again a similar narrative came to pass. Syndergaard ran into trouble after cruising through 7.1 innings and was removed for Robert Gsellman, who gave up the game-tying base hit. The Mets would storm back twice to take leads, but the Cardinals would come back each time, eventually winning the game 4-3 in 13-innings.
The outcomes point to a larger issue at hand: The Mets’ need for middle-inning fireman.
Both Lugo and Gsellman, former starters, were brought in during a rally in the middle of an inning, and neither could stop inherited runners from scoring, though technically Lugo did not allow an inherited runner to score since he was backed up by another reliever.
Less important of a stat than ERA for relievers is their ability to strand runners, and thus far the Mets are fourth in left-on-base percentage. But there are cracks in the foundation and potential issues with Swarzak on the shelf.
That said, these two anecdotal examples bring up the fact that the Mets have a bullpen full of former starters who are much better equipped to start innings.
While Gsellman has seemed to make the adjustment to becoming a late-inning reliever, pitching to just a 1.13 ERA and looking spectacular at times, putting out fires could become a problem for the Mets. He has been nothing short of spectacular, but with little relief experience comes little experience coming into games with runners on base.
Same goes for Lugo, who is just better when he begins an inning and as a multiple-inning reliever, a role in which he has been excellent in 2018.
Blevins has struggled so far this year, pitching to a 7.94 ERA and allowing four inherited runners to score. It was he who gave up a two-run single to Harper with the bases loaded after Lugo issued that dreaded walk a couple of weeks ago.
A.J. Ramos, the only really experienced short-man in the bullpen right now, aside from Jeurys Familia who is the closer, walks too many batters to be trusted with runners on base, and as a former closer is himself used to starting an inning.
Thus far, Ramos has walked almost a batter an inning, issuing nine free passes in 11 innings. The titular setup man, he can look unhittable a batter at a time, but his lack of velocity and consistency make him vulnerable, especially when asked to put out fires. Whether he can be trusted to come in during a difficult situation remains to be seen.
Anthony Swarzak, ostensibly the upgrade to manage fiery situations with runners on base, has recently had to shut down his rehab, as he again felt discomfort in his injured right oblique, meaning he is is nowhere near a return to the mound.
Paul Sewald was groomed as a reliever in the minor leagues and has been impressive, pitching to a 1.98 ERA and striking out 17 in 13 innings. But most of his appearances have been in low-leverage situations, so it is tough to know how he would fare if asked to put out fires.
Familia has been asked to get far too many four out saves, and at times he too struggled when coming into games with men on base allowing half of his inherited runners to score. Two of his blown saves have been multiple inning affairs.
Matt Harvey is in the bullpen… He can’t even be trusted to talk or stay out of nightclubs, much less pitch, in any situation.
Jokes and fallen heroes aside, the Mets need help in the bullpen and should look into acquiring another reliever with more experience coming into the middle of innings. Albeit, the Mets bullpen, is currently ranked 10th overall, but the current makeup of the pen lacks experienced short relievers who are well versed at coming in with runners on base.
Sure, the Mets bullpen has pitched well overall, but with Swarzak out for the long-term, the Mets are missing a high-strikeout reliever that can come in during the middle of an inning with runners on base and get a much-needed strikeout. Gsellman isn’t that guy yet but could be.
If Swarzak remains on the shelf, the Mets should and need to examine acquiring another experienced short reliever who can come into games with runners on and get big outs. Starting an inning with the bases clear and putting out fires are two different animals, and experienced short-relievers often have mastered that art of making the big pitch.
The Mets comeback ability and outstanding record despite a low run differential points to them being great in close games but those kinds of games are often won by a bullpen’s ability or lack thereof to put out fires.
The two losses with deGrom and Thor on the mound point to a potential problem the could rear its head as the season moves along. Worse, with how the back of the rotation the Mets can ill-afford to lose games with their two aces on the mound.