Fixing the Mets’ bullpen with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard

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.

13 comments for “Fixing the Mets’ bullpen with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard

  1. 1999
    November 4, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    Why does it seem that closers cannot last the way they used to? From 95-04 there was a constant set of dominant closers around the league (they all evaded the Mets, of course) that were regarded as some of the best pitchers in the game. Now even many of the best closers are simply decent pitchers who are not good enough to be starters and still have a lifespan that is a fraction of what was once expected.

    Has bullpen usage really changed so much in 20 years? Is there greater demand being placed on this position that cuts their lifespan or was MLB unusually fortunate by having players like Hoffman, Rivera, Wagner, etc. playing at the same time?

    • November 4, 2019 at 1:08 pm

      From 95-04
      7 seasons with 50 or more Saves
      61 seasons with 40 or more Saves
      3 players recorded 300 or more Saves in this span
      11 players recorded 200 or more Saves

      From 05-14
      4 seasons with 50 or more Saves
      64 seasons with 40 or more Saves
      4 players recorded 300 or more Saves in this span
      11 players recorded 200 or more Saves

      Seems pretty stable to me

      • 1999
        November 4, 2019 at 3:48 pm

        Selective memory I guess. It seems like the previous generation of closers were so much more dominant. I wonder would the data look like if you itemize the individuals with with 40+ saves in each time span. Could it be that in the 95-04 group there are more repeaters?

  2. November 4, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    It’s nice to see your byline, Chris!

    To me, until you can tie this in with something else, I don’t see it as an improvement on pitch counts and/or inning pitched. It’s got to be more than the raw number.

    Maybe the changes with PPO within a game is more important than the overall PPO. A guy with a 4.0 PPO the first four innings and an 8.0 PPO the next two innings is done at 96 pitches, while a guy with an 8.00 PPO the first two innings and a 4.0 PPO the next four innings can go out for the seventh.

    • Chris F
      November 4, 2019 at 3:01 pm

      Yep! Must link with outs per game to have real info.

  3. TJ
    November 4, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Without all the number crunching, high end starting pitching should reduce the strain on the pen by recording more outs. But, the pen still needs high end options to convert late leads to wins. deGrom has been dominant, so a drop off to some degree may be in line. It’s reasonable to expect some improvement in Syndergaard. Ditto for Wheeler, although it is unlikely he’ll return. In any event, Wilson and Lugo at the back end are not enough, and counting on anything from Familia and Diaz is unwise. Brodie needs to add at least one high end arm to the back end of the pen, and the Mets need to find a way to get Familia and Diaz back to being contributors, not necessarily closers, but contributors. At this point, I’d be thrilled with Wheeler or a close comp, a quality late inning guy addition, and one solid positional upgrade and either 3B, CF, or C.

  4. TexasGusCC
    November 5, 2019 at 1:21 am

    Very intriguing Chris. I like the thought process, but for that to happen the kid gloves need to come off. Whether it was Callaway or someone upstairs, 100 was the magic number. It may be that every ten games the pitchers threw an extra game, but, I’d like to know how many pitches other top starters averaged.

    Secondly, MLBTR – for whatever it’s worth – predicted Wheeler to get 5/$100 from the Phillies. I don’t know if the Mets should or would make that offer, but if Wheeler takes 5/$90, the Mets should jump at it. I just feel like he’s gone.

    Lastly, Metsblog today had an article about putting both Lugo and Gsellman in the rotation (kind of like I said two weeks ago, BVW must read 360 ;-)) but do Lugo’s or Gsellman’s PPO show that they can be quality starters assuming their stamina holds up throughout the game?

    Nice job buddy!

    • Chris F
      November 5, 2019 at 11:56 am

      Thanks Gus! Yes, its time to raise the pitch limit. I think even modest workloads, like say 10-15 pitches per game solves a bunch of problems. Is 10-15 pitches a huge reach?

      • TexasGusCC
        November 5, 2019 at 1:26 pm

        Well, obviously it’s an extra game pitched every ten starts. Then, the duress factor must accounted for. That’s why I asked how many pitches did other top starters throw per outing. We know that Verlander, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Kershaw, and those guys that throw alot and can do 110 regularly. However, Nolan Ryan preached that a pitcher must throw alot to make the muscles stronger. So, why isn’t anyone listening to him?

  5. NYM6986
    November 6, 2019 at 7:47 am

    Nicely stated. When deGrom had his masterpiece 2018 season there were comparisons with a Bob Gibson, who for younger fans was someone on a baseball card, but for us old timers was a god on the mound. The comparison year saw Gibson with something like 18 complete games. In today’s game 18 complete games from a starter is probably an unattainable career number not one season’s work. The great pitchers went deep into each of their starts, or at least many of their starts. Most relievers used to be washed up starters with very few dominant closers sitting on rosters. Now a days there is an industry of young pitchers getting paid millions to get out of a 7th inning jam, let alone tasked with pitching an inning or less in the 9th. Lengthening the starters day is an excellent idea if we stop coddling these young arms and remove that OMG they are approaching 100 pitches fear. They get 4 days off in between starts. Perhaps they should take less than 8 warmup pitches between innings as a start. It’s a lot like golf where a player, even the pros, take a swing or two before they approach their ball. The extra swings, aka extra warmup pitches, takes its toll adding 56 pitches to the count if they throw 7 innings. Do they really need that to stay loose or would some in between inning stretches work just fine? Bartolo Colon is an interesting study in that he was not overwhelming but threw a lot of innings, enough to often overcome a rough start because statistically he threw too many hit table strikes early. That’s what the Mets need to pick up – an innings eater starter to compliment the group.
    In the meantime your analysis showed that our top three basically did their job and our pen lost the season for us, leaving us a little short of the playoff mix. Can’t wait for the season to start.

    • Eraff
      November 6, 2019 at 8:00 am

      “….our pen lost the season for us…” ,,,that and The Lack of Billy Hamilton?

  6. Metsense
    November 6, 2019 at 5:39 pm

    I support Analytics and I support increasing pitch counts for starters but I don’t support 1 size fits all. It pisses me off when a starter who is dominating a game gets pulled because of a hundred pitch count limit. It is the job of the manager and the pitching coach to observe and determine when a pitcher is fatigued should be pulled. It should be based on the history of the individual pitcher and the experience of the coaching staff. The article’s writer presents a good argument about the capabilities of the Mets pitching rotation as a base starting point.

  7. Eraff
    November 6, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    I’ve always felt that adding “Pitcher Count” meant that I’d need to be correct more times in a Row to avoid failure.

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