Heading into 2020, we are all aware of the list of items that have to be addressed by the front office and ownership in the off season, including more offense, much better defense, roster balance (everything from speed to players out of position), and the bullpen. Given the historically bad performances of Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia in 2019, fixing the bullpen is viewed as an essential part of the offseason. Most people envision some sort of rebound for Diaz and Familia, which seems reasonable, and should help the Mets record a few more wins. Given the mercurial nature of relief pitchers, we should be super skeptical that any adds the front office might make will be locks for success. Instead, the best way to fix the pen is with known talent, namely Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Wait what was that?
Yep, the best cure for the ailing pen is to take the seventh inning from relief pitchers to known quality arms. My preference would be either as tiring starters to finish seven innings rather than see the call to the pen for any reliever on the Mets. Across the past number of years, I have been tracking Mets pitchers, starters in particular, for pitch efficiency using the metric pitches per out (PPO) and outs per game along with the more common metrics we all use. It is my contention the Mets can add wins by keeping relief pitchers sitting out in the bullpen, while challenging the best starters to improve a little bit.
Let’s start this exercise by taking a look at Jacob deGrom, an “ace” by any standard now. Across the 2015-2019 time span, Jake has been a long-term model of consistency across a season. The team can bank on getting 3000 pitches per year and 200 innings pitched pretty much every year. Cy Young Award winners do things like that. In terms of PPO, deGrom sits at an elite level of just a shade over 5.0 (5.2 +/- 0.2), or 15 pitches per inning. In this PPO world, a value of 4.0 is phenomenal, 5.0 is awesome, 6.0 is so-so, and above 6.0 the alarm bells ring for a starter.
Of course, the PPO value only matters in the context of a starter for the total number of outs per game. In the past five years, deGrom has recorded a constant 19 outs per game (19.3 +/- 0.7) with almost an invariant 100 pitches per game (101 +/- 2.1). We don’t know how new skipper Carlos Beltran feels about pitchers or managing a pen, but let’s hope he sees the value in challenging deGrom to average 21 outs per game (7 IP). If deGrom can add about 10-12 reliable pitches per outing so that he averages 110 pitches per game, while maintaining his PPO score, that takes away about 60 outs from the pen over the course of a season. A pitcher of deGrom’s status should be able to do this.
The picture for Noah Syndergaard fascinates me. In running through the numbers, one thing surprised me right away: regardless of season (e.g., healthy v. injured), Syndergaard carries a consistent elite-level PPO score of a bit over 5 (5.2 +/- 0.2), just like deGrom. Syndergaard often comes under criticism for being messy on the mound, with failure to have a reliable out-pitch leading to a lot of spoiled pitches by foul balls. On average, this is a bad assessment of his efficiency.
Furthermore, in the ’15, ’16, ’18, and ’19 seasons Syndergaard provides a consistent 18.5 outs per game and hit about or more than 3000 pitches twice. The main difference between deGrom and Syndergaard in this look at the numbers is that Syndergaard is pitching about five fewer pitches per game. Again, the challenge should be brought to Syndergaard to increase his average to 21 outs per game. At his present PPO, that means adding 15 pitches per game to about 110 pitches per game.
If investing in starting pitching is a significant answer to the team’s pen nightmares, then that should make Wheeler’s future with the Mets worth a peek. Of course, Wheeler was idle in ’15 and ’16 with his recovery from surgery, making a longer look at the numbers impossible. He pitched half a season in ‘17 and full seasons the past two years. On top of injury leading to the broader “who is Wheeler?” question, we also witness in-season Jekyll and Hyde performances making every game a nail-biter to see which Wheeler shows up.
The season-long look, however, shows the past two years right on the mark with deGrom and Syndergaard with about 3000 pitches in the season, an average of a bit more than 5 (5.3) PPO, 19 outs per game, and 100 pitches per game. Funny how three pitchers with quite different game-by-game paths are pretty similar overall, the main difference (and it is huge) is deGrom has now done this five seasons running. Wheeler needs to add 12 solid pitches to his “per game” to hit 21 outs. If he could keep on the same path as the past two years and these pitches, then would signing him be money better spent than chasing a reliever? Forgetting all the things that limit FA additions to the team, keeping Wheeler on the team seems smart – that’s a pretty big change for me.
At the very least deGrom and Syndergaard could defer more than 100 bullpen outs by increasing quality workloads only a modest amount. If Wheeler leaves as seems likely, Marcus Stroman is a drop from the top, but has the capacity to add an average of one more out per game to get to 18 across 30 starts. Ideally, Brodie Van Wagenen and Beltran work closely with whomever is the pitching coach to challenge our best pitchers to continue to improve. For a team that considers itself “pitching first,” this could be one of the best ways to help the pen using the old addition by subtraction approach.
In case you are wondering in 2019, Familia and Diaz recorded 5.8 and 6.2 PPO, respectively.