Seth Lugo allowed runs in five of his first nine games this season and sat with a 5.68 ERA after the April 19 game. Since then, he’s appeared in 14 games and in 18.2 IP, he’s allowed just 1 ER, posted a 0.643 WHIP and has held opposing hitters to a .429 OPS. Overall for the season, he has a 2.59 ERA and a 0.989 WHIP in 31.1 IP. He’s been great and the only question is: Have the Mets used him in the proper role?
Coming into the season, the Mets rotation looked to be a strength and the bullpen looked to be a problem spot. Which is why in my preseason predictions, my forecast was for Lugo to spend the entire year as a reliever. But the starters have been less than dominating here in the first half of 2019. Overall, Mets’ SP have a 4.24 ERA and rank 10th in the NL in that category.
Lugo likely could put up a mark around the team average if he was used in the rotation. Lifetime, he has a 4.06 ERA as a SP in 31 games. The problem is that the guy everyone thought would be the weak spot, Jason Vargas, has the best ERA as a starter, with a 2.84 mark. Both Zack Wheeler (4.61) and Noah Syndergaard (4.83) are dragging down the team marks. But both pitchers have been doing better recently. Wheeler has a 3.87 ERA in his last 11 games after allowing 11 ER in 9.2 IP in his first two starts of the year. Syndergaard has a 3.75 ERA in his last seven games. So a move to the rotation seems unlikely in the short run.
With no clear spot for him in the rotation, let’s look at bullpen options.
Edwin Diaz has not been as bulletproof as he was early in the season but he’s going to have to be even worse than he was in May (5.06 ERA, 3 HR in 10.2 IP) for him to lose the closer’s spot. Jeurys Familia has not inspired confidence as the primary setup man and in Saturday’s game, the Mets had him warming up in the sixth inning. From a results standpoint, Lugo would be the logical guy to replace Familia as the guy to get the game to Diaz. But the eighth inning guy has to be available to pitch semi-regularly in back-to-back games, something Lugo has done just one time this year.
The Mets have bent over backwards to keep from using Lugo in consecutive days. There has been concern about his elbow for several years now and earlier this season, he spent time on the IL with shoulder tendonitis. Since being activated, they gave him three days of rest after his first appearance and his last two outings each came after a day off.
Are they pitching him every other day to eventually move to back-to-back games so he can take over the eighth-inning role? That’s certainly a possibility. If his arm could handle the stress, Lugo would seem to be a fine bridge to Diaz. Still, the question remains if that’s the best role for him on the club. While it’s the highest-profile gig available right now on the team, it doesn’t mean that’s the optimal way to use him. In a way, it’s like holding your best reliever to pitch in the ninth inning with a three-run lead but refuse to use him in the seventh inning in a tie game. The ninth is the high-profile outing but the leverage is higher in the tie game.
My opinion is that Lugo is more valuable to the Mets pitching multiple innings at a time, like he did Saturday night when he came on with a one-run lead and hurled two perfect innings. That allowed them to bypass Familia and go straight to Diaz to close out the game. But how much recovery time does he require if he goes two or three innings in an appearance? It’s unlikely he can pitch every other day while giving multiple innings. Is two days off enough? Can the Mets afford to give either their best or second-best reliever that much time off?
That last question is the key. It’s easier to use a reliever for multiple innings if you have more than one guy you feel can handle the role. Robert Gsellman would be the obvious guy to put in this situation, except for the fact that he has a 4.91 ERA and has allowed runs in six of his last eight appearances. Interestingly, Gsellman has pitched more than an inning this year in 11 games and he has allowed 4 ER in 22.1 IP in those outings for a 1.61 ERA. But when he allows 5 ER in 0.1 IP, like he did against the Giants, it’s not likely they’re going to let him pitch three innings. From an endurance standpoint, Gsellman can do it. The question is if he can be counted on from a quality standpoint.
Put me in charge and you’d see a bullpen with Lugo, Gsellman and Wilmer Font regularly pitching multiple innings at a time, with the idea of giving them three full off days between appearances whenever possible to recuperate. That would be different from the way that the other 29 clubs run their bullpen. But when your bullpen ERA is 13th in the NL with a 5.12 mark – perhaps different would be a good thing.
Mickey Callaway comes under fire for his bullpen deployment – and justifiably so. However, here in the last week or so he’s asking his starters to go past the 100-pitch boogeyman, which is an overdue move. Hey, better late than never. Now it’s up to him to figure out how to run a pen with two reliable guys and five or six question marks. We know how he’s going to use Diaz. But is it better to use Lugo three-to-four times a week at one inning per game or two times a week at two-to-three innings per game? Which one leads to more wins and pitching in the highest leverage appearances? Which one keeps him healthier? Which one leads to a better all-around bullpen?
None of us know the answer to the second question. My opinion is that the other two questions are answered best by using Lugo and others for multiple innings. How Callaway answers those three questions will determine how the Mets do the remainder of 2019 and how much longer he remains as the team’s manager.