In the first game of 2019, we saw how it was supposed to be for the Mets. The starting pitcher went six strong innings and the game was closed out with a scoreless inning apiece by Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz. It may not be a great pen one to seven, but the final three relievers were all strong. Or so most of us thought. Since then Lugo has not been good and yesterday Familia gave up two homers in a game for the first time as a Met.
The offense bailed out the bullpen yesterday but it can’t be counted on to do that on a regular basis. Which brings me to a thought. In at least the last 30 years, major league teams have run their pitching staffs with the idea of protecting their starters. But is it time that teams – okay, the Mets – run their pitching staff with the idea of protecting their relievers? And protecting them by having them throw the fewest innings possible.
Through eight games, starting pitchers for the Mets have logged 45.1 IP with a 2.58 ERA while the relief pitchers have 26 IP with a 5.19 ERA. Take away Diaz and the relievers have a 6.04 ERA. And to make matters worse, more than half the pen has appeared in half of the team’s games. Through eight games, here’s how the appearances break down for the team’s relievers:
5 – Diaz, Familia, Wilson
4 – Lugo, Gsellman
3 – Peterson
2 – Avilan
Last year early on the story of the bullpen was how Robert Gsellman and Lugo were pitching effectively going multiple innings at a time. But this year whenever Mickey Callaway sends out a reliever to pitch after he sat down in the dugout, the results have been disastrous. For example, in yesterday’s game, Familia cleaned up for Justin Wilson in the seventh but when he came back out in the eighth, he allowed the two homers and three runs.
So, if we can’t ask individual relievers to go longer, that leaves having the starters go longer as the only option.
In Callaway’s debut managerial season, it seemed he looked for any reason whatsoever to remove a starter from the game. However, it appeared this was one area where he grew and changed as the year went on. How is he doing in that respect this season? Let’s look at pitch counts in April for both years. In 2018, the Mets played 26 games in Mar/April and only five times did a starter reach the 100-pitch plateau. This year in eight games, we’ve had a starter reach triple digits, including Steven Matz with 103 in five innings on Saturday, three times. In his outing against the Marlins, Jacob deGrom threw 114 pitches, which is more than any Met threw in the opening month last year.
Last year in Mar/April, starters threw between 74 and 110 pitches and it broke down as follows:
70s – 1
80s – 10
100s – 5
The 74-pitch outing and the 110-pitch outing were outliers. The next fewest pitches thrown in a start that month was 83 and the second-most pitches was 103. So, the range was 36 but for practical intents it was 20. This year we have a low of 74 and a high of 114 for a range of 40. Throwing out the high and low pitch outings, we have 74 and 103, for a practical range of 29. And it’s likely that will go up by the end of April.
Pitch counts are a blunt tool but in the early going last year, for the most part Callaway applied them fairly rigidly. Managers tend to be conservative with their starters and that approach is magnified in April, as starters typically don’t log a lot of innings in Spring Training and the season’s first month usually features some bad weather. Those things factor into earlier hooks than you might see in, say, July.
But the Mets have had good weather so far and that may explain why Callaway let deGrom pitch the seventh inning in Miami when he had thrown 95 pitches thru six. Only once last year did a pitcher start an inning in Mar/April when he had thrown more pitches and that was deGrom when he was sent out for the eighth inning in San Diego against the Padres when had already thrown 98. But that was deGrom’s sixth start of the season. This year we saw it in his second.
So, the weather and the pitcher helped dictate a higher usage rate. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a necessary first step in getting away from the 100-pitch bogeyman mindset that has developed. And hopefully once deGrom proves that he’s more than capable of pitching deeper in games, that others will be given that chance, too.
My initial reaction in yesterday’s game was a hope that Matz would come out for the sixth. He seemed to really struggle in the first two innings but settled down afterwards. But in addition to throwing 103 pitches, his spot in the order came up, which turned the odds from remote to zero. However, with the benefit of a more detailed look at the numbers, taking Matz out at that point, even if he wasn’t scheduled to hit, was likely the right move.
In his first start of 2019, Matz threw 74 pitches. Now maybe he should have thrown more in that game but the fact is that he didn’t. And he probably didn’t need to increase his pitch count any more than he did. If the situation is the same in his third start, my hope is that they would send him out for the sixth inning, even if he did have to bat. With 103 pitches in an outing now under his belt, my opinion is that he should be allowed to throw 120 if the circumstances are right.
Sometimes a pitcher is done after 70 pitches. Sometimes he’s thrown 110 and still has gas in the tank. Having retired 11 of his last 13 batters – allowing just a walk in the fourth and a single in the fifth – it certainly appeared that a stretched-out Matz could have gone another frame. But he likely wasn’t stretched out.
This year in MLB there have been eight times where the starting pitcher has gone exactly five innings and allowed zero runs. And teams are 4-4 in those games. Maybe this is how it’s always been. But somehow it feels specifically like an indictment of bullpens in 2019. So far this season, relievers have a 4.54 ERA, 66 points higher than the mark of MLB starters. Last year relievers had an ERA 11 points lower than starters.
The Mets’ starters are better than average and their relievers are worse than average. It seems a no-brainer to try and get the starters more work. Now, it’s inevitable that if you ask the starters to pitch more that the results will be worse. But as long as they don’t drop to bullpen-level bad – it’s still a net win, as long as you don’t push them to go too far.
But we see that in addition to Matz throwing 103 and deGrom 114, we have Noah Syndergaard having tossed 103 and Zack Wheeler with 95 pitches in his only outing of the season. Four of the five pitchers should be ready to go 115 pitches without the world coming to an end.
Just to be clear – the idea isn’t that we can keep adding 15-20 pitches per start and soon have guys throwing 190-pitch complete games. Instead it’s that there’s nothing magical so that 98 pitches equals “safe” and 103 equals “dangerous.” My personal belief is that I wouldn’t want to go much past 125 and only that high on rare occasions. If deGrom somehow has a seven-run lead after seven innings and has already thrown 107 pitches, there’s little reason to send him out for the eighth. The final two frames are classic low-leverage innings, ones to use the Tim Petersons of your bullpen.
My hope is that Callaway has his starters go longer when it makes sense, utilize low-leverage relievers when it makes sense and hope that with more rest that Lugo and Familia can be more effective. Meanwhile, let’s not forget to enjoy the 6-2 start to the season, even with the bullpen seemingly in tatters.