Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Mets bullpen is bad. The pen’s 5.28 ERA is second worst in all of Major League Baseball. They also rank in the lower half of the league in HR/9 and in the lower quarter in K/9.
While Terry Collins deserves his fair share of the blame for his utterly confusing bullpen management, the modern “norms” of bullpen usage deserve to shoulder at least some of the burden.
What norms do I speak of? The closer’s role and the silly idea that is engrained in the minds of most baseball folks that he is to be used only in ninth inning save situations.
There is perhaps nothing more detrimental to the functionality of a bullpen than taking your best reliever and pigeon-holing him into only pitching in a certain inning, regardless of game situation.
Before I go and introduce my solution, here’s a quick introduction to the Leverage Index. The Leverage Index calculates the, well, leverage of the game situation when a reliever is used. The higher the Leverage, the more important the situation is in the game. Simple stuff.
That being said, my solution to the Mets bullpen woes is to abolish the closer role altogether. You simply take the best reliever on the team, in the Mets’ case Bobby Parnell, and make him the ace reliever. This means that you bring him in for the highest Leverage situations, whenever they may occur. A lot of times that will be in the ninth inning, sometimes it will be the seventh or eighth.
Jonah Keri explains uses numbers and research to explain this concept very well in his book, Baseball Between the Numbers (page 69):
“Over the span of 2000 to 2004, the median maximum Leverage was 1.66. Once the game situation has a Leverage exceeding 1.66 – meaning a situation where allowing a run to score has a 66 percent more impact on the likelihood of winning than it did at the start of the game – it becomes one where we should consider bringing the ace [reliever] into the game.”
Reconstructing the Mets bullpen to operate without a set closer might be the best option for the team to get the most out of the limited abilities of this year’s version of the ‘pen.
Collins would have more flexibility when bringing in a reliever, and, more importantly it would allow the team’s best reliever to pitch in the highest leverage situations, helping the team to win more games.
Now this is hardly a new theory; in the 70’s and 80’s the ‘ace reliever’ was used for multiple innings and in these high leverage situations. Mike Marshall, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry are examples of pitchers used in this fashion.
But has this adherence to silly and arbitrary labels really cost the Mets in terms of wins? Unfortunately we don’t have to go back too far to get the answer.
Let’s take the April 25 game against the Dodgers. Please.
As you may recall, the Mets lost that game 3-2 after Scott Rice surrendered two runs in a 1-1 game in the ninth inning (Ike Davis would homer in the bottom of the ninth for the other Met run). After the Dodgers had taken a 3-1 lead, Terry Collins went to the bullpen to bring in Bobby Parnell to mop up the mess.
But by that time the damage had been done. Instead of inserting Parnell at the beginning of the inning, when the Leverage Index was 2.26, Collins opted to stick with the inferior Rice because there was no save situation; and heaven forbid you use your closer in a non-save situation.
As a result, Nick Punto doubled, Adrian Gonzalez advanced him to third on a groundout, Matt Kemp was intentionally walked, Andre Ethier singled Punto in, Parnell came in, Juan Uribe drove home Kemp with a base hit, and the inning was ended when Ramon Hernandez grounded into a double play.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, used their best reliever, Kenley Jansen in the eighth inning, the highest leverage situation (1.79 LI heading into the inning, but it escalated to 3.65 by the inning’s end). Jansen was able to retire the Mets without allowing a run, and ended up getting the win when the Dodgers rallied off Rice in the ninth. Don Mattingly brought in the second-best available reliever, Proven Closertm Brandon League, to get the save in the bottom of the ninth; a slightly lower leverage situation (1.71 LI).
One could make the argument that even if Parnell had started the ninth, there’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t have allowed the Dodgers to score as well, but one thing is undeniable: Parnell gives the Mets a better chance to win the game than Rice and his 15.1% walk rate and 88 mph fastball does.
The Dodgers won because they used their best reliever when the most was at stake, and the Mets didn’t.
How many games does the Mets bullpen have to blow before something new is tried? How many times do we have to watch the 7th best reliever on the team surrender a lead in the seventh or eighth because the closer has to be used in a save situation? Why does Scott Rice have 13.1 innings pitched while the much better Bobby Parnell only has 9.1? How long does this madness have to go on before it’s over?
Only time will tell. Until then, here’s to Greg Burke coming in with two on in a tie game in the seventh.
Joe Vasile is the host of “Ball Four with Joe Vasile” on 91.3 FM WTSR in Trenton, airing Tuesdays from 12-1 p.m. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.