They say it’s a thin line between love and hate. But is that line any thinner than the one between a multi-year deal and an NRI for a lefty reliever? Channeling my inner Rod Serling, pleased to present for your consideration the contracts handed out this offseason by the Mets to Mr. Luis Avilan (NRI) and Mr. Justin Wilson (2/$10 + performance bonuses). Both of these guys seem like MLB-quality relievers. And while you might prefer one to the other, why the disparity between the two deals?
First, let’s take a look at their career numbers. Avilan made his MLB debut back in 2012 and has appeared in 399 games in the majors. In that time span, he has a 3.09 ERA and a 1.225 WHIP. Wilson also made his debut in 2012 and has 412 appearances under his belt. His lifetime MLB ERA is 3.33 and he has a 1.268 WHIP. We know it’s a “what have you done for me lately” existence for relievers. Last season, Wilson had a 3.46 ERA and a 1.427 WHIP while Avilan’s numbers were 3.77 and 1.368, respectively.
There’s not a whole lot to distinguish them from one another there.
Of course, they’re both lefty relievers. Let’s check in on their ability to retire LHB. In his career, Avilan has limited lefties to a .581 OPS while Wilson has a career .664 mark with the platoon advantage. Last year, they were almost identical, with Wilson enjoying a .003 advantage (.643 to .646) against LHB. This doesn’t really add and clarity to the contract disparity issue.
Interestingly, when the Mets signed Avilan there were several instances of people in the industry saying the Mets made a good move. But when they inked Wilson, there was no such reaction. In fact, if asked to describe how the industry responded, the correct response would be that they didn’t. It wasn’t bad – no one was going WTH – but no one was cheering, either. It seemed like a reasonable deal for both player and team.
It makes you wonder if five million per year was reasonable, and you can get an extremely similar facsimile on an NRI, how picking up Jerry Blevins’ option at eight million was a good move last year.
Be that as it may, we still haven’t answered the original question. And as weird as it may seem to say about the Mets, they might be valuing Wilson higher because he has had more success in his career against – drumroll please – righty hitters.
The Sandy Alderson/Terry Collins regime believed so completely that lefty relievers existed for the sole purpose of retiring lefty batters that they once released a guy mid-season with a 3.15 ERA because he had the nerve, the audacity, the unmitigated gall to have an OPS 144 points lower against righty batters. But now the 2019 Mets give a two-year deal to a lefty reliever with a career mark against RHB 36 OPS points below his mark with the platoon advantage.
Does this mean that they’ll utilize Wilson as, you know, a relief pitcher rather than a specialist? Man, let’s hope that’s the case! Still, let’s not declare victory yet. In his career, Wilson has just 370.2 IP in those 412 games and last year it was 71 games and 54.2 IP.
There’s nothing wrong with having a lefty reliever around to call in a tight situation to face a big lefty bat like a Freddie Freeman or Bryce Harper. You know, assuming that said reliever can actually retire those guys. The problem is when you treat every lefty batter like a Freeman or a Harper and every situation identical to a 3-2 lead with two outs and the bases loaded. And not letting your lefty reliever pitch when the rest of the bullpen is overworked.
No one knows how the 2019 Mets bullpen will look for Opening Day. But it’s entirely possible it will feature three lefty relievers. At the end of last year, Daniel Zamora came up and did a fine job in a small sample. With the signings of Avilan and Wilson, you wouldn’t want to wager on Zamora going north with the club. But at the same time, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he did.
And those three southpaws have done okay against our big lefty hitters. They’ve limited Freeman to one hit in five trips to the plate and Harper to four hits in 21 PA. And while Harper has done well against Wilson (2-4, HR, 2 BB) he is 2-12 with 5 Ks against Avilan with no extra-base hits.
If you run a seven-man pen, ideally Wilson is the sixth guy in there, one you use in lower-leverage situations and in higher ones if a (non-Harper) lefty is due up. Can you carry Wilson and a lefty specialist? Sure, if your starters give you innings. But part of that equation is the manager not pinch-hitting for the starter at the drop of a hat. Mickey Callaway seemed to get better at that as last year went along. Hopefully with a new bench coach with a ton of NL experience, we’ll see a more conservative approach to removing the pitcher all 162 games this season.
Is that sixth – or fifth – guy in the pen worth $5 million? That’s a little harder to answer. If it means we don’t have to witness Paul Sewald (46 games, 6.07 ERA) or Tim Peterson (22 games, 6.18 ERA) in 2019 for more than a game or two, then the answer is probably yes. So, welcome aboard Wilson. May you be used as a reliever and not a LOOGY for the duration of your contract.