Something did not seem right about last night’s rain-shortened win against the Braves. Yes, it was odd to see the Mets sweep the Braves after dropping 13 of 18 games to them last season. But what was really unusual was that the bullpen threw just one pitch. The Mets lead the majors with 67 calls to the bullpen this year. And no pitcher is being worked harder than Fernando Nieve.
So far this season, Nieve has appeared in 12 games and is on pace to pitch 102 times, which would shatter the club’s single-season record for appearances, set last year by Pedro Feliciano, when he appeared in 88 games. Mike Marshall holds the all-time record for most games by a pitcher in a season with 106 back in 1974. Marshall won the Cy Young Award that season, as he won 15 games and saved 21 more, as he logged 208.1 innings for the National League champion Dodgers.
Of course, Marshall was a veteran, in his seventh season in the majors. He had appeared in 308 games in the majors prior to 1974, all but 13 of those coming in relief. Marshall had appeared in 92 games the season before and was well prepared for the rigors of pitching nearly every day.
Meanwhile, Nieve has appeared in 59 games in the majors prior to this season. Last year, between the majors and the minors, Nieve pitched in 17 games, 15 of those as a starter. His 2009 season ended early due to a strained quad muscle. After pitching in 40 games with the Astros in 2006, Nieve had Tommy John surgery on his elbow the following season. Between 2007 and 2008, Nieve pitched a total of 103.2 innings, with all but 10.2 of those coming in the minors.
If you were to pick a pitcher that was ill-suited to pitch in 100 games in the majors, you would have to try hard to come up with a worse pick than Nieve. Sure, Jenrry Mejia would be worse, since he has never pitched in the majors before and is not used to being a reliever at all. I guess that is why Jerry Manuel has him on a pace to appear in just 77 games.
Hopefully when the weather warms up, the Mets’ starters will pitch deeper into games, allowing Manuel to avoid burning out his bullpen by June 1st. But even if the starters do not improve much in this respect, Manuel has to be more judicious in his use of Nieve.
If you want a cautionary tale for Nieve look no further than Aaron Heilman, who did not have the injury history of Nieve and also was more accustomed to pitching out of the pen. Still that did not help him carry the burden of being used so often.
A starter throughout his professional career, Heilman transitioned to the bullpen in 2005 and was a very effective reliever in both 2006 and 2007 for the Mets. But after appearing in 155 games over that two-year span, including 81 games in the latter season, Heilman fell apart. His walk rate collapsed, both his hit and HR rate went up and his ERA ballooned from 3.03 to 5.21. Heilman was essentially booed out of town.
At least Heilman gave the Mets three good years as a set-up man. One can make the heartless argument that it is worth shredding the arm of a mediocre starter to get three good seasons of relief. But Manuel seems bent on not even getting the three good seasons before blowing out the arm. And there is still the question if Nieve could be more than a mediocre starter. Last year in the minors, he had 42 Ks and 16 BBs in 42.2 IP. Yes, his K/BB of 1.21 in the majors was poor but perhaps further time in the rotation could have improved those numbers.
But that ship has apparently sailed. While the Mets could have used Nelson Figueroa or Pat Misch as bullpen arms on the big league club while Nieve further honed his craft as a starter in the minors, Manuel opted to make him a reliever. And what production has he received?
Nieve has a 4.66 ERA, one that is being propped up by not allowing a single home run so far this season. His xFIP checks in at 5.83. Nieve’s walk rate is even worse this year for the Mets than it was in 2009, as he has a 6.52 BB/9. He has done well with a 7.45 K/9 but overall Nieve has not been close to a lights-out option out of the pen, despite Manuel’s seeming insistence to use him every game.
Manuel and Omar Minaya are making a bunch of gambles this year in an effort to save their jobs. They are gambling that a stint in the majors as a reliever at age 20 will not retard the growth of Mejia, their top pitching prospect. They are gambling that Ike Davis needed only 275 PA above A-ball to be ready to star in the majors.
And they are gambling that Nieve had no future as a starter and that he can handle a workload that puts him on pace to become just the second pitcher in major league history to appear in over 100 games in a season.
Through the first three weeks of the season, none of these gambles have blown up in the team’s face, which is something, I guess. It remains to be seen if the same thing can be said by the end of the year. What we do know is that winners write the history books. If Manuel’s bets pay off and the Mets make the playoffs, he will be viewed as a hero by the masses.
But odds are that all three of these moves will not pay off. And even if they bear fruit in 2010, it does not mean it was the correct thing for the long-term health of the franchise. While it is true that sometimes long shots pay off, no one survives for long by consistently making bad bets.
Good luck Nieve, you will need it.