Seth Lugo and starters in the bullpen

There hasn’t been a ton of news so far in Grapefruit League play on Seth Lugo. That may be a good thing, as the attention for the most part has been on injured guys and a guy who was pulled from the starting lineup because he showed up late. No one should want bad attention. But Lugo has had two good appearances, one start and one relief outing, and if he’s pitching for a spot on the Opening Day roster, he’s doing exactly what he needs to do.

Lugo opened the 2017 season on the DL, thanks to an injury to his pitching elbow. He opted for rest and rehab over surgery and was able to come back the second week of June. At that time, the news was that he was going to be in the rotation, as the normal routine of a starter would be easier on his elbow. His first four outings were good, containing three Quality Starts, a 3-1 record and a 3.55 ERA. But his final 15 games were not so hot, as he had a 5.09 ERA over his final 76 IP of the year.

There was no offseason surgery for Lugo, who hoped more rest would be enough. He faced an uphill climb to earn a starting rotation slot in 2018, one made even more difficult with the acquisition of Jason Vargas, who seemed to be gifted one of the five spots despite a second half of 2017 even worse than Lugo’s.

The question remains if the Mets feel that Lugo is healthy enough to pitch out of the bullpen in 2018.

He still can be optioned to the minors, meaning they can send him to Las Vegas to work as a starter if they’re still worried about him pitching in relief. But a new manager and a new pitching coach and Lugo’s somewhat frail nature may be a perfect storm to create the role that may be ideal for all parties – a reliever who pitches multiple innings once or twice a week.

In the previous administration, the bullpen motto was all hands on deck whenever humanly possible. If you pitched in three of the last four games, you were available. The two leading principles in bullpen management was to put lefty relievers in the most advantageous position possible and to use the closer in ninth inning save situations. After that, it was a free-for-all.

Perhaps now, Lugo can be used out of the pen for two-to-four innings at a time, with multiple days off between appearances. It’s a set up that works even better if you have at least one other guy in the pen on the same schedule. Robert Gsellman, Rafael Montero and Zack Wheeler would all fit this bill. They wouldn’t have to be necessarily low leverage innings, either. Modern fans point to Andrew Miller but the greybeards remember when each team had guys like this.

For the Mets, you need to look no further than Tug McGraw. In his first nine games of the 1971 season, he pitched two innings or more eight times, including four inning stints in back-to-back games on 4/23 and 4/30. And the one game where he didn’t pitch two innings, he threw 1.2 IP and recorded a Save. Four of those nine games had an aLI over 2.0 and he had a WPA over 2 in those games! McGraw was 11-4 with a 1.70 ERA and a 1.071 WHIP in 1971 and finished second on the staff with 8 Saves. From 1969 through the end of his Mets career in 1974, McGraw tossed 615.1 IP in 305 games. Now, it’s a touch misleading because he made 11 starts over those six seasons. Still, he was comfortably over an inning per appearance, even after you remove the starts.

In his one relief outing so far this Spring, Lugo had the following line: 3 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 Ks.

Speculation has the Mets beginning the year with eight relievers, a plan that makes sense as Michael Conforto is likely to open the season on the DL. Four spots seem to be locks, with Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, Anthony Swarzak and Jerry Blevins claiming those. It’s likely that Montero and Wheeler claim two spots, with the former being out of options and the latter unlikely to be sent to the minors.

That leaves a group including P.J. Conlon, Gsellman, Lugo, Matt Purke, Hansel Robles and Paul Sewald competing for the last two spots. Conlon and Purke are the lefties and last year we would have given the edge to one of them making the roster. Sewald pitched well last year, which you would think would give him a leg up. He’s also pitching well here early in Grapefruit League action. Meanwhile, neither Gsellman nor Robles has impressed early on in Florida.

My reading of the tea leaves has Lugo and Sewald grabbing the final two spots, with Gsellman drawing the short straw to pitch as a starter in Las Vegas. Sewald becomes the low leverage/fill-in guy while Lugo joins Montero and Wheeler to function as multi-inning relievers, with the other four relievers mixing and matching as needed to close out games.

Some will fret that a bullpen with only one lefty will be a giant handicap. Those people tend to be those who aren’t happy unless they are complaining about something or people who think that RH relievers are incapable of retiring lefties, despite all evidence to the contrary. Blevins is still around for the biggest left-on-left matchup(s). And would you rather see Purke or one of these guys:

Familia – .706 lifetime OPS, including sub .630 marks his past two full years
Ramos – .623 lifetime
Swarzak – .586 OPS last year

The Mets’ front office made the decision that another starter was more valuable than a second lefty reliever, which is why the club signed Vargas instead of, say, Tony Watson. Maybe you feel like Watson would have been preferable. But that’s not where we are today. Purke seems like insurance in case of an injury to Blevins, rather than as someone who should appear in 50-plus games. We shall see.

But assuming his elbow is healthy enough for the job, the idea of Lugo – and others – pitching multiple innings at a time out of the pen seems like a good thing. Now it’s up to Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland to make it work. The fact that Callaway was in on the Miller experience should give everyone confidence that he can manage the load for Lugo and the other starters working out of the pen.

16 comments for “Seth Lugo and starters in the bullpen

  1. Hobie
    March 4, 2018 at 10:54 am

    I was thinking Lugo & Wheeler piggy-back with Harvey & Matz in some fashion, but I like your idea better.

    Nice essay.

  2. New Mexico Red
    March 4, 2018 at 11:15 am

    Don’t be so quick to make Matz a starter. Gotta think Wheeler or Lugo can beat him out with a good spring. Matz would be the second lefty in the BP and a two inning + guy.

    • Steve S.
      March 5, 2018 at 8:06 am

      Maybe, or send Matz to Vegas.

  3. MattyMets
    March 4, 2018 at 11:24 am

    It’s fun to speculate, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be at least two of these guys on the DL or extended ST to start the season. That’s the sad reality and that’s what depth prepares you for. Our big 5 have never been healthy all at once so having those 5, plus the new guy and the 3 depth guys all ready to go for opening day seems about as likely as a powerball jackpot.

    • March 4, 2018 at 12:47 pm

      Hey Matty – just wanted to give you a heads up that Chris F. found out your password and posted under your account.

      Anyway, as you may already know, I’m an NC State fan. And the fanbase for NCSU is similar to that of the Mets, in that they always feel like they can’t have nice things. But State got a new coach and he’s changing the mindset. In his opening press conference, he announce, “Kevin Keatts is a winner.” And now, after every win, all of the blogs have a meme with that quote. It’s going to be the same thing with the Mets. Mickey Callaway is a winner and say goodbye to LOLMets.

      • MattyMets
        March 4, 2018 at 1:44 pm

        Funny Brian and good point.

        Btw, aside from health there’s also the current issue of what the hell is wrong with Steven Matz. He got clobbered again today and has looked awful so far.

      • Chris F
        March 4, 2018 at 3:23 pm

        😉 conspiracy theorist.

        You know something is up when Matt thinks Matz is a depth level pitcher!

  4. Name
    March 4, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    I really don’t think Andrew Miller is a good example of a multi-inning rubber arm. Last season his game high for pitches was 35, in 2016 it was 36. But he generally tops 30 pitches in less than 10% of his appearances. He’s able to go a bit further in terms of outs because he doesn’t allow many baserunners. His WHIP is sub 0.90. There are only a handful of pitchers who can do that.

    Doing a search, i can only find a few guys per year who manage to pitch 70+ innings and average more than 5 outs (1.2IP) per appearance. The best ratio in recent history actually belongs to Swarzak in 2013 when he appeared in 48 games and pitched 96 innings, a ratio of 2 IP per game and held a sparking 2.91 ERA. But sandwiched around that season were 2012 and 2014 which he also had high ratios but dismal results.

    To me, effective multi inning relievers are like rainbows. They appear randomly and disappear quickly as well. Trying to find and chase them is a fruitless exercise.

    • March 4, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      I think the pertinent question is if effective multi-inning relievers aren’t found in MLB today because it’s too difficult to do or if it’s because they’re no longer groomed. Maybe they’re like 300 IP starters – a group that existed previously but no longer does because the game has changed too much to make that creature realistic. That’s certainly a possibility with the multi-inning guy. My opinion is that in this age of specialization that the multi-inning guy is no longer something that teams look to create. If we worked half as hard trying to develop those as we try to develop LOOGYs, I’m sure we could have some.

      • MattyMets
        March 5, 2018 at 10:15 am

        As much aaa I appreciate name’s rainbow metaphor, I’m with Brian. The game has evolved. Back when teams only kept 9 or 10 arms on a 24-man roster with a 4-man rotation multi-inning relievers were the only kind. Now with teams routinely keeping 12-14 arms on the roster, plus shuttling guys to AAA it’s completely unnecessary.

      • Name
        March 5, 2018 at 11:45 am

        To your point i will note that Mike Montgomery was on his way to also posting an excellent multi-inning relief season last year. He had 61.1 IP in 30 G as a reliever and a 2.49 ERA.
        But the thing is if you can excel for 2-3 innings, teams are gonna give you a shot to see if you can do it for 5-6 innings. And that’s what happened to Montgomery so he didn’t get to do complete the role for a full season like Swarzak did in 2013. I imagine this happens a lot and why i didn’t find a lot of good examples.

        They’re still definitely like rainbows because you need the perfect set of circumstances. They have to have the durability of the starter and yet have failed enough as a SP that teams don’t want to give them a chance anymore. But they need to have shown enough as a starter that you think they can pitch in the majors. Then if they’re effective you need a manager to resist using him in high leverage situations and effectively transitioning them into your 1 inning setup/closer. You’ll also need the pitcher to not realize that his role is undervalued and ask for a change back to SP or for a higher leverage higher paying relief role.
        So like a rainbow, be happy if you happen to see one, but realize it’s probably not gonna last long.

        • March 5, 2018 at 11:56 am

          The set of circumstances you paint as “perfect” more or less describes what the 2018 Mets have. And if more teams transition to the idea of a SP not going through the order more than twice, there will be more demand for guys who can at least go through the order once and away from guys who can only face one or two batters per appearance.

          The time is right and the teams with a manager/front office that recognize this sooner will have an advantage.

          • Metsense
            March 5, 2018 at 5:02 pm

            The Met’s pitching staff have the personnel to implement more than one multi inning middle reliever. I hope the manager/front uses it. It is not too often that these circumstances exist.

  5. Metsense
    March 4, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    The competition for the fifth starter appears to be between Matz, Wheeler and Lugo. Matz had another rough day and showed nothing. Your analysis is also how I see see the situation. The three middle relief pitchers should pitch 2-4 innings. It would keep them stretch out and also maximize their talents.

  6. Eraff
    March 5, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    I’m semi “in” on a 6 man rotation— health…innings limits…etc.

    When this is used in Japan, do the “Starters” provide any relief appearances in between Starts?

    Another Thought is a 5 man rotation with Skipped starts ….you skip every 5th/6th start—I haven’t done the math yet on it. Again—added rest and lower innings…a better shot to have your best guys available and healthy for the big playoff games.

  7. Eraff
    March 6, 2018 at 6:24 am

    I am getting a bit weary or the “Genius Analysis of the Day” by both Eiland and Callaway— a string of “fixing a guy in 10 minutes” stuff that has been in stories about Harvey, Matz, Familia, etc….some sort of combination of Leo Buscaglia’s Hugs and Rick Petersen

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