Two key pieces of the second-half 2016 Mets bullpen are now free agents. Jerry Blevins posted a 3.07 ERA with a 5.0 K/BB ratio from July 15 to September 18 while Fernando Salas had a 2.08 ERA, a 0.635 WHIP with 19 Ks and 0 BB in 17.2 IP after being acquired from the Angels. There’s been a whole lot of talk about re-signing Blevins but considerably less about re-upping with Salas. And in my opinion that’s backwards.
First, let’s look at the guys that will make up the Mets’ pen, regardless of which pitchers the team adds before Opening Day. The pen starts with the dynamic one-two tandem of Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed, who were both terrific last year. Of course, the threat of a suspension hangs over the head of Familia. The court system has dropped the domestic violence charges against the Mets’ closer but MLB has yet to make a ruling.
Recall that last year, Aroldis Chapman was suspended 30 games and charges against him were dropped, too. It’s not completely clear if Chapman’s wife had the bruising that Familia’s wife did. However, a gun was fired – not near his wife – during Chapman’s incident. No guns were involved in Familia’s case but authorities did find knives, ones that were said to be wedged in the door when Familia locked himself in the bathroom.
Allegedly, MLB was going to give Chapman 40 days but when he declined to appeal, they knocked it down to 30, with the suspension being announced on March 1. It would be reasonable to assume that Familia will get the same punishment. So, the Mets need to have someone they feel comfortable pitching the eighth inning, with Reed sliding into the closer’s job, while Familia is not available.
In addition to those two, Hansel Robles returns. The bullpen will likely feature the two pitchers who don’t win the fifth starter’s job, possibly Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler. Other contenders for a role include Josh Edgin, Sean Gilmartin, Erik Goeddel, Rafael Montero and Josh Smoker.
Included in that list are three lefties. Edgin has been used as a LOOGY in the past but that’s more due to the Alderson-Collins fascination with the role rather than any limitation of Edgin. Gilmartin had success in 2015 when used as a long man and struggled greatly last year when he was not. He allowed 9 ER in 7.1 IP in nine appearances when he was used for an inning or fewer. Smoker had a .594 OPS against RHB and a 1.048 OPS against LHB last year, which fits the LOOGY profile even worse than Alex Torres. May his usage be better.
We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that management’s preference is to have at least two lefties in the bullpen, ones that they will seek to get the platoon advantage as often as possible, even if, as in the case of a healthy Edgin, they don’t need it. Or in the case of Smoker, if the platoon advantage doesn’t actually help them.
If given the choice between a lefty who gets out LHB at a good rate but gets destroyed by righties or a lefty who is worse than average against LHB but better than average against righties – this Mets administration will pick the former every time, without batting an eye. Their overwhelming preference is for a Scott Rice type rather than a Smoker type.
Among all pitchers and batters combined, platoon advantages are real and it’s certainly possible for the LOOGY gambit to be a good play. The issue is there are so many innings that your bullpen has to provide and you put additional stress on your other relievers if one player is so limited when they can be deployed. If your starters consistently go deep in the game and you have a shutdown closer, the LOOGY gambit has a better chance of success.
It seemed like the 2016 Mets would be that club. However, the starters didn’t excel quite as much as hoped and the Mets were constantly in situations where their relievers had pitched in three of the last four games. Because of the LOOGY deployment, the Mets had to pitch guys who could have used a day off because they were unwilling to have their lefty reliever pitch against RHB unless absolutely necessary.
Blevins is a perfect example of this. He actually has a track record of being okay against RHB and last year he was very good against righties, holding them to a .611 OPS. Still, the Mets bent over backwards to optimize the number of lefty batters he faced. Last year in the National League, 53,253 of the 92,540 PA were by RHB. That’s 58% of the batters. Yet Blevins had 113 of his 178 PA by lefties. That’s 63% and that doesn’t happen by accident.
Most of Blevins’ appearances last year versus righty batters came either in blowouts or when they had no other choice. For an example of the former, three of the four batters he faced in his August 11 outing were righties but the Mets were losing, 9-0, when he entered the game. For an example of the latter, three of the four batters he faced in his August 10 outing were righties but it was the 12th inning.
If the Mets need someone to cover the late innings, especially early on when Familia likely won’t be available – why on earth would they sign a guy they have no interest pitching against the majority of batters unless it’s the lowest leverage situation or there’s no other choice? It’s important to note that it’s not that Blevins would be incapable of pitching effectively in these situations. Rather it’s that the Mets’ braintrust would bend over backwards from allowing him to even try.
When evaluating potential pitching moves, this absolutely has to be factored into the analysis.
Meanwhile, Salas was great last year in his brief time with the Mets, after being no so hot earlier in the year with the Angels. He’s been all over the map in his year-to-year effectiveness but overall he’s been a solid reliever, with a 3.64 ERA, a 3.53 FIP and a 1.156 WHIP in 388.1 innings in the majors. Perhaps the best thing about Salas is that throughout his career, he’s displayed no platoon differential.
In 895 PA against RHB, he has a .225/.284/.393 line for a .676 OPS against
In 708 PA against LHB, he has a .239/.294/.383 line for a .677 OPS against
What gets lost by so many people in the pursuit of the platoon advantage is that the Mets’ righty relievers generally do quite well against lefties. While management is plotting ways to get their lefty relievers to face lefty batters, here’s how the team’s main three relievers face against LHB
Familia – Lifetime .701 OPS but the past two seasons he’s had a .616 and a .629 OPS against
Reed – Lifetime .643 OPS against and a .577 mark since joining the Mets
Robles – Lifetime .577 OPS against
The average RHP in the NL in 2016 had a .767 OPS against LHB.
If the Mets sign Salas, they would have four relievers who are considerably better than average against lefty batters, which really negates the need to carry a LOOGY. Of course, what we really need to know is if these guys clean up against the run of the mill lefties but still have trouble against the elite LHB, which would be an argument in favor of carrying a LOOGY. Assuming the LOOGY handled the elite lefties that our righties couldn’t.
Since Robles and Reed joined the Mets in 2015 and Familia added to his repertoire the same season, let’s look at the best of the best lefty batters in the NL the past two years. There were 38 seasons where a lefty or switch-hitter qualified for the batting title and had an OPS+ of 110 or greater in the past two years. We’ll discard the five turned in by Mets players to give us a sample of 33 seasons. Here’s what those guys did, along with what they did against our three righty relievers and Blevins.
|Bryce Harper||2015||198||1.109||1-4, 2B, BB,3 Ks||1-2, HR, K||0-2, 2 Ks||0-1|
|Joey Votto||2015||174||1.000||1-2, BB||1-1, BB||–||–|
|Joey Votto||2016||160||.985||1-1,||0-1||0-1, K||1-2, K|
|Daniel Murphy||2016||157||.985||2-3,||0-1,||BB||1-8, 3 Ks|
|Freddie Freeman||2016||157||.968||0-2, BB, 2 Ks||1-3, BB, K||1-3, K||4-5, 2B|
|Anthony Rizzo||2016||146||.928||BB||1-1,||0-1, K||0-1|
|Anthony Rizzo||2015||146||.899||2-4, 2B||BB||1-1, 2B||–|
|Corey Seager||2016||137||.877||0-2, BB, K||–||0-2, K||1-1,|
|Matt Carpenter||2015||135||.871||0-1, K||–||0-1, K||–|
|Christian Yelich||2016||133||.859||2-3, 2B||2-6, K||0-1, BB, K||2-4, BB, 2 Ks|
|Brandon Belt||2016||132||.868||–||0-1, BB||BB||0-1, K|
|Adrian Gonzalez||2015||130||.830||1-3, 2B, 2 Ks||1-1, 2B, BB||–||–|
|Charlie Blackmon||2016||129||.933||0-1, BB, K||0-1||–||1-1,|
|Brandon Belt||2015||127||.834||1-2,||0-2, K||–||–|
|Ben Zobrist||2016||124||.831||1-2, 2B||–||–||–|
|Adam Lind||2015||123||.820||–||0-1||0-1, K||–|
|Jonathan Villar||2016||118||.826||1-2, 2B||–||–||0-1, K|
|Christian Yelich||2015||118||.782||0-3, K||1-2,||1-2,||0-2|
|Carlos Gonzalez||2015||116||.864||0-1||–||0-1, K||–|
|Jake Lamb||2016||116||.840||0-2, 2 Ks||0-1, K||0-2, 2 Ks||–|
|Bryce Harper||2016||116||.814||0-3, K||0-1||1-1, 2B||2-5, 2B, HR, BB|
|Dee Gordon||2015||116||.776||1-1, SH||1-2,||1-4, K||0-3|
|Chris Coghlan||2015||115||.784||0-2, 2 BB||0-1||–||–|
|Adrian Gonzalez||2016||113||.784||3-3, 2B||–||1-1, HR||–|
|Joc Pederson||2015||113||.763||0-2||0-1||0-1, K||–|
|Odubel Herrera||2016||111||.781||1-1,||1-3, 2 BB, K||0-1, K||0-6, BB, 3 Ks|
|Carlos Gonzalez||2016||110||.855||–||0-1||–||0-3, 2 Ks|
|18-54, 7 2B,||10-36, 2B, HR,||6-28, 2 2B, HR,||14-46, 2 2B, HR,|
|7 BB, 14 Ks, SF||7 BB, 6 Ks||2 BB, 15 Ks||3 BB, 13 Ks|
There’s an awful lot to digest here. This is sorted by OPS+ but since it’s easier to deal with OPS, we’ll use that. We have guys who ranged from a .763 OPS to a 1.109 rate, with an .840 median. Of the four pitchers that we are looking at, Familia had the worst results, with an .869 OPS against these top lefties. But the reality of the situation is that the Mets aren’t going to replace Familia with a LOOGY, even if Votto or the Dodgers’ Gonzalez is at the plate.
Blevins and Reed had similar results against these elite lefties. Blevins had a .760 OPS while Reed checked in with a .784 mark. But there weren’t many times when Reed was removed because a lefty was at the plate and those became fewer as the season progressed. Another thing we should note here is that Blevins’ numbers are boosted tremendously with his results against the bottom two guys on our list. He held Herrera and the Rockies’ Gonzalez hitless in nine at-bats. The other 31 elite lefties batted .378 against him.
But unquestionably the most amazing thing contained here are the results of Robles against these lefties. Who out there imagined that he held this elite group to a .660 OPS? Certainly not me. And he did it by overpowering them, as he racked up 15 strikeouts in 28 ABs. Are there five relievers in the league with better results against this group?
The only way it’s possible to look at these results and come to the conclusion that the Mets need a lefty reliever to team with Robles is by employing alternative facts.
The Mets need to add another reliever to the team. But unlike what conventional wisdom says, they do not need a lefty. That’s because their three primary righties are all better than average against LHB as a group and two of the three are better than average against the elite lefties, too. Robles, the reliever that management would most likely use a lefty instead of late in the game, has better numbers than Blevins the past two years against both LHB overall and elite lefties.
The team would be better served by adding a righty reliever that the team would use in all situations, rather than a lefty that they would hold back for the imagined platoon advantage. Fortunately for the Mets, such a reliever exists and he has the added benefit of having already performed successfully for them down the stretch in 2016. Salas, a guy with no platoon split and one who has pitched in the eighth inning more than any other inning in his career, should be the obvious choice for the team. And on top of all that, he’s likely to sign for considerably fewer dollars, making it a win all the way around.
And even if they adopt this strategy, the Mets can still employ two lefties in their pen. The Opening Day bullpen can be Reed, Salas, Robles, Lugo, Wheeler, Edgin and Gilmartin/Smoker. Shoot, they can even have three if they want Wheeler to open the year in the warm weather of the Florida State League rather than risk the elements and being overused early in the pen.