There is no excuse for Seth Lugo to be pitching in relief down four runs.
The Mets are in a freefall due to their failures regarding RISP and starting pitching. Last weekend’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia “with Zack Wheeler” Phillies was not pretty, in part, due to weakness of starting pitching by the names of Walker Lockett (Why?), Steven Matz (What?), and Rick Porcello (How Much?). Despite many, many questions – Jacob deGrom, did you need a new mattress? – there has been a staunch refusal from the team to start Lugo as he is considered too important to the bullpen.
To reiterate, Lugo was pitching in relief down four runs in the eighth inning. Why, if he’s so important to the bullpen in high-leverage situations, why? Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez took some guesses because they thought it was weird when they saw Lugo warming up late in the game on Sunday. They wondered that if like Edwin Diaz before him, Lugo asked for more work as he had failed in his last outing Friday night (AKA the “Wilson Ramos hates Mets fans” game). It was the only realistic guestimate, because otherwise it felt punitive and/or stupid.
Punitive to let it hit home with Lugo that starting was as out of reach as the moon for him and the Mets organization were sick of getting questions on Lugo starting every time a starting pitcher coughed up the lead or put up a five spot before Nimmo walked for the 909th time. Stupid because Robert Gsellman was starting the next day and if Lugo really needed work, he could have followed Gsellman for 1-2 innings. While possibly a low-leverage situation, the Mets actually would need Lugo the next day because Gsellman was not fully stretched out yet and would need some help. If you’re a Mets fan, you know Lugo has been vocal about wanting to start for years now, that the bullpen is almost full go, Diaz has improved as of late (still not closing though), and the starting rotation is the opposite of good right now. So, why, was this oh so important bullpen cog warming and then pitching in the eighth inning in a game his team was down by four?
I think knowing Lugo’s history with the Mets is relevant. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
In 2016, Lugo and Gsellman came up to save the Mets. This is not hyperbole as the Mets lost Matt Harvey, deGrom, and Matz to injury. Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon weren’t enough to get the Mets to the postseason once again. After losing to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series despite screams for Harvey to finish that ninth inning (don’t cry, everyone), the Mets wanted that back to back postseason appearance that is so elusive to them. Lugo and Gsellman were crucial to the Mets making their 2016 Wild Card appearance. While Lugo started the season in the bullpen, his starts down the stretch were part of the reason they made it in.
Unfortunately for Lugo, 2017 was a different story with injury (partial UCL tear), inconsistency in the rotation, and an appearance versus the Houston Astros in Texas in which he questioned his own stuff (whisper: because the Astros were cheating if you hadn’t heard). Shortly thereafter, Lugo was informed he was going back to the bullpen.
In Spring Training 2018, Lugo earned a starting rotation sport when Wheeler failed and ended up in AAA for a bit. Unfortunately for Lugo (sensing a theme?), he was the fifth starter and his turn got skipped due to snow in April. Wheeler came back and, again, Lugo was directed to the bullpen. Lugo was successful, but when Syndergaard got hurt, he got his chance to start again. He made five starts in 2018 and was okay other than one stellar start against the Yankees, with six scoreless innings. When Syndergaard was back, rinse and repeat for Lugo.
In 2019, Lugo, for the first time, spent the entire season in the bullpen and was brilliant. His 2-innings appearances became lore as was his taking on the slack of Diaz and Jeurys Familia who were terrible.
In 2020, Brodie Van Wagenen noted that Lugo was starting pitch depth along with Gsellman, but they were really bullpen pieces, arms, whatever non-human word teams use to describe MLB athletes. This was after signing the likes of Porcello and Michael Wacha, basically telling Lugo, “no, not you.” Unfortunately for all of us, COVID-19 happened and the season was in question. Eventually, MLB decided on a 60-game “sprint” season and the Mets subsequently failed again and again out the shoot with RISP and their starting pitching.
So, why, was Lugo pitching that eighth inning down four runs?
One can only guess. However, if true that Lugo needed work, it appears the Mets are incapable of properly managing his usage in the bullpen considering his non-traditional status as a relief pitcher. That is a little scary considering they’re adamant about leaving him in the bullpen. You’d think with the analytical nature of baseball today, at the very least, the Mets would have a chart, many, many, many charts, indicating when they should use Lugo. For example, pitch him every 2-3 days, no matter the score, so he gets his work in, and will possibly appear in high leverage situations. With the bullpen having other pitchers that can go two innings (e.g. Jared Hughes) and the likes of three possible closers in Familia, Diaz, and Dellin Betances, Lugo is not alone out there.
The fact that the Mets used Lugo in the eighth inning in a game down four runs demonstrates his worth to the bullpen is questionable, especially considering the team’s current record (five games below 500 as of this writing), relative strength of bullpen, and extreme weakness of starting rotation.
Therefore, the Mets should look to the rotation where he belongs. The man wants to start, he has a starter’s pitching arsenal, and he has missed his chance to start for many external reasons, let it be April snow, Astros cheating, and/or Diaz failing. Merit should mean something, especially when your starting rotation is lost somewhere between Matz’s HR hangdog face and Porcello’s hanging slider to a former MVP named Andrew McCutchen.
Dear Mets: take a chance, trust your bullpen, and gather some intelligence in this 60-game sprint for 2021 by putting Seth Lugo in the rotation…starting now.