Lefty reliever Tim Byrdak underwent successful arthroscopic knee surgery to repair his torn meniscus and will be out for a minimum of six weeks. Last season, his first year with the Mets, Byrdak posted a 3.82 ERA and a 1.407 WHIP. That performance so overwhelmed the team’s brass that they rushed out and signed the 38 year old to a contract for 2012. Now the team is scrambling to find his replacement.
Let’s get one thing stated up front – Byrdak’s performance last year was nothing special and it was amassed in a trivial amount of innings. The average ERA for an NL pitcher last year was 3.81 and it was 3.59 for league relievers. So from a quality standpoint, we are talking about a below-average reliever. Then you add in that he pitched just 37.2 innings, which equals 2.6 percent of the Mets’ 1448 IP, and you see what an insignificant loss this is. Last year Byrdak had a bWAR of 0.2, meaning he was essentially a replacement-level pitcher.
To make matters worse, what success Byrdak did enjoy last year was a direct result of how Terry Collins utilized him. Byrdak’s role was lefty specialist, the guy brought on to get out the tough lefty batters. But there are only a handful of players that managers will not pinch-hit for in these circumstances, which means that your lefty specialist will frequently face as many RHB as he will LHB. After misusing him early in the season, Collins reversed course and did a fabulous job limiting Byrdak’s exposure to RHB. For the season, Byrdak had 65 percent of his plate appearances versus a lefty.
Now, that might not jump out at you, but that is an outstanding job of managing your LOOGY. I sense that some of you still don’t believe how amazing this is, so let’s run some numbers. Here are the other LOOGY relievers in the NL East. I did not include Jonny Venters, who was more of an 8th inning man than a true lefty specialist. Here are their percentage of PAs versus LHB, followed by the raw numbers:
It should be noted that Bastardo’s numbers are skewed somewhat, as he spent time last year as the Phillies’ closer, so if you want to throw him out of the mix that is fine. Still, when you enjoy an 11 percent edge over your closest competitor – that’s a pretty significant difference. I’m sure O’Flaherty wishes he faced twice as many lefty batters as he ultimately did.
Byrdak limited LHB to a .604 OPS last year, while RHB knocked him around to the tune of an .857 OPS against, which is actually better than his .884 lifetime mark allowed to righties. So, again let’s restate this for emphasis: Byrdak’s success last year was due to Collins. We could pluck any lefty reliever off the street and if he got to face a LHB 65 percent of the time, he would come close to matching Byrdak’s performance in 2011.
For our random guy off the street, let’s use Danny Herrera, since he has the advantage of being in the Mets’ system already. In his career in the majors, Herrera has a .949 OPS versus RHB and a .588 OPS versus LHB. The problem is that Herrera has faced a RHB 56 percent of the time, which has led to a 3.72 ERA (still better than Byrdak’s 2011 numbers with the Mets). But what would happen if he faced LHB 65 percent of the time, rather than 44 percent of the time? His numbers would drop significantly. Last year with the Mets, Herrera had a 1.13 ERA and a 1.125 WHIP.
That fact made the decision to spend anything more than minimum wage on a LOOGY so puzzling for the cash-strapped Mets this offseason.
The Mets currently have several LHP in camp who can fill Byrdak’s spot and are negotiating to bring in C.J. Nitkowski, a deal that may already be done by the time you read this. This is the same Nitkowski who is 39 years old and who has not pitched in the majors since 2005. Can you imagine any other spot on a baseball roster where a guy who hasn’t played in the majors in six-plus years is a viable alternative?
I wish Byrdak a speedy recovery from his injury. He seems to be a good guy and I thoroughly enjoyed his Hulk Hogan imitation earlier in camp. But as a ballplayer on my favorite team, his absence will not make one bit of difference. I am perfectly fine with Herrera or Robert Carson or Josh Edgin or Garrett Olson taking his spot. I’m even okay with using a RHP in his absence. In his two years with the Mets, Manny Acosta has limited LHB to a .217 AVG (27-124).
Considering that outside of R.A. Dickey, no starter on the Mets is likely to go seven-plus innings on a regular basis, the Mets would be better served by taking the best relievers, rather than the ones who throw with their left hand. If one of the lefties steps up – that is great. But if, say, Pedro Beato has a great camp, bring him as Byrdak’s replacement. I would rather have a pitcher who could throw 70 innings and face LHB and RHB than a guy who has to be micro managed and throw fewer than 40 innings.