The Mets’ bullpen will have difficulties next year, too, without a shakeup

Right after the season ended, I set out to figure out what caused the losses and how to fix some of those situations. The Mets had 76 losses, and mostly broken down below. Of those losses, 29 were the starting pitcher not pitching well. It’s hard to believe that the Mets, with the third best starter ERA in the National League had so many, but after all, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler didn’t have ERAs at 4.00 or higher by accident. With regard to addressing the fill-ins, Chris Flexen, Walker Lockett, and Wilmer Font only started 8 games, or 5% of the schedule, so there is no reason to bother with their mostly terrible performances.

Category April May June July August September Total
Offense Shut out 2 4 1 0 2 0 9
SP ERA 7+ 9 6 5 3 3 3 29
Opp. Tacks on in last 3 innings 2 1 2 1 2 1 9
Bullpen loses game 1 4 8 4 3 6 26

As I was looking for the data to understand the weaknesses, I saw that there were two problems: One was fixed and one never was. The problem that was fixed was the starting pitchers’ slow start to the season. The slow start taxed the bullpen and led to a mini bullpen meltdown for about a month and led to injuries to key pieces in the bullpen like Justin Wilson and Robert Gsellman.

The starting pitchers’ ERA by month:

April May June July August September
Jacob deGrom 4.85 2.92 2.70 1.09 2.18 1.29
Noah Syndergaard 6.35 3.70 3.55 2.70 4.34 4.93
Zack Wheeler 5.05 4.35 4.11 5.94 3.41 1.85
Steven Matz 3.68 3.38 7.36 1.80 3.21 5.06
Jason Vargas 5.75 2.81 2.70 4.82
Marcus Stroman 4.91 2.90

The Mets ended April with a 15-14 record, a 5.29 team ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

However, the bigger problem that wasn’t fixed was the bullpen, and the one constant I found when looking at the Mets relievers was their inability to miss bats and get opponents to swing at pitches outside the zone. The Mets relievers had the lowest rate of getting swings on pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing%) in the National League with just 29.7% (average was 31.8%) and the highest contact rate on pitches outside the zone at 63.8%. This means that the Mets relievers weren’t getting hitters to chase for soft contact, weren’t putting hitters away and their pitches were the easiest to track so even the stuff off the plate was being hit.

For reference, the starters’ overall rate was 33.0%, 3rd in the National League: DeGrom 37.9%, Wheeler 34.1%, Syndergaard 33.5%, Vargas 31.4%, Stroman 31.1%, Matz 28.0%. In 2018, Matz’ chase rate was 23.4% when every other Mets starter was over 32%. [An article by Ben Clemens in Fangraphs on November 7th highlighting the Zack Wheeler’s inability to close is something of a parallel to this topic.]

Let’s look at other teams’ relievers’ O Swing% as compared to the Mets (the average pitcher in MLB was 31.8%):

Mets   Cardinals   Dodgers   Yankees   Nationals  
Edwin Diaz 35.0 Dominic Leone 38.1 Julio Urias 38.3 Tommy Kahnle 35.1 Sean Doolittle 39.5
Luis Avilan 31.6 Giovanny Gallegos 36.2 Kenley Jansen 38.1 Luis Cessa 34.3 Daniel Hudson 39.0
Robert Gsellman 31.0 Carlos Martinez 35.0 Pedro Baez 35.6 Aroldis Chapman 32.9 Javy Guerra 35.2
Jeurys Familia 30.1 John Brebbia 33.0 Dylan Florio 32.8 Zack Britton 31.9 Fernando Rodney 34.4
Justin Wilson 28.8 Tyler Webb 31.2 Yimi Garcia 30.6 Chad Greene 31.9 Hunter Strickland 33.3
Seth Lugo 28.2 Andrew Miller 30.4 Joe Kelly 27.9 Nestor Cortes 29.5 Matt Grace 33.0
Tyler Bashlor 25.9 John Gant 29.4 Caleb Ferguson 27.4 Adam Ottavino 24.9 Wander Suero 30.3

In summary, we see that the bullpen failures early on were due to starters not going deep into games thus taxing the relievers, then as the starting pitchers were doing better, the relievers’ inability to create deception and compel hitters to expand the zone forced the Mets relievers to put pitches more in the hitting zone and result in louder contact. The troubling aspect is a pitcher’s numbers don’t vary much from year to year if they don’t add another pitch, and Brodie Van Wagenen has already claimed that the bullpen will not be shuffled too much this winter. Mets fans need to prepare themselves for the reality that there will be blown saves next year too, and hopefully the Mets relievers are able to change speeds often enough to keep hitters a bit more off balance.

Takeaways
1. In the first month, the Mets starters’ slow start to the year caused an early overuse to the bullpen that had survived the first month pretty well but started showing fatigue in mid-May.
2. The Mets relievers were the worst in the National League at getting the opposition to chase out of the strike zone due to lack of pitch deception or movement, and that stat is pretty consistent from year to year for each individual pitcher.
3. Years of drafting and signing based on velocity, and a lack of analytical emphasis on movement, have left the Mets with a pitching staff that lacks deception and movement leading to opposition hitters being able to track Mets pitches easier and not chase pitches outside the zone.