Generally, my opinion of Sandy Alderson is higher than a lot of the people reading this. But one of the things that’s important to do, regardless of where you stand on a player, coach or executive, is to try and acknowledge both their strengths and weaknesses. In my view, Alderson is smart, disciplined and not afraid to pull the trigger on all types of deals when he thinks the moment is right. Even his biggest detractors will acknowledge the terrific job he did during the 2015 season.

On the flip side, during his previous Mets tenure, he was too often passive when it came to making moves to improve the roster, relegated defense to a back-burner issue and generally assembled rotten bullpens.

For the latter, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. There was the year he sunk all of his limited funds into the bullpen and signed Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, in addition to trading for Ramon Ramirez. And there was also the trade deadline where he tried to stockpile as many hard throwing righty relievers that he could. To be fair, he also made key trades to bring in Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed in 2015. But his track record in bullpen acquisitions on the whole was not good.

It’s tough to rate bullpens, especially by just one metric. But for simplicity, here is how the Mets’ bullpen ranked among NL teams in ERA the last 10 years:

2011 – 15th
2012 – 15th
2013 – 12th
2014 – 4th
2015 – 7th
2016 – 3rd
2017 – 15th
2018 – 14th
2019 – 13th
2020 – 10th

That’s two good years, one average year and seven years where they were in the bottom third of the league. And it’s hard not to notice that the two years where they had a good bullpen ERA that they made the postseason. Now, the 2019 Nationals certainly proved you don’t need a good bullpen to win it all. But it sure would be nice to see the Mets make improvements in this area.

It’s always important to figure out why things worked out the way they did. Once you know that, you can move on to see if there’s anything you can do to make things turn out differently.

For the Mets and the bullpen, the biggest issue was that they used their pen to maximize the output of their lefty relievers, bending over backwards to give those lefties the most advantageous matchups they possibly could. They were extremely successful in getting the platoon advantage for their lefties. Scott Rice faced a LHB a whopping 68% of the time and did outstanding in those PA, limiting lefties to a .536 OPS. But all of the good he did was negated by the few times he had to face a RHB, who absolutely destroyed him. And by emphasizing getting Rice favorable matchups, it put extra pressure on the rest of the pen. And it made no difference if the lefty was Rice or Tim Byrdak or Jerry Blevins or anyone else who threw with their left hand.

The LOOGY strategy was a dismal failure for the Mets; yet, they acted like it was the key to success.

Blevins got hurt early in the 2015 season and the Mets spent most of the year without a lefty specialist. Sure, they tried – boy did they try – to revive Eric O’Flaherty’s career late in the season but that was a colossal failure. Even the Mets gave up on the LOOGY in 2015 and somehow that’s the year they made the World Series.

Last year we saw the rule change that cut down significantly on the number of times teams could employ the LOOGY gambit. And instead of filling their roster with lefty relievers, they emphasized relievers who could get batters out regardless of which side of the plate they hit from.

The Mets moved up the bullpen ERA rankings last year but still not enough to make a huge difference. For once, we had to look at the righty relievers. There were 11 relievers with an ERA of 4.00 or greater and 10 of them were righties. We had higher hopes with Dellin Betances and Brad Brach and they certainly deserve a lot of blame for the year the relievers turned in.

But six of the 10 righty relievers that had bloated ERAs were not on the Opening Day roster. And that brings up the other issue with the Mets’ pen throughout the years. Whether by trade or by minor league promotion, the Mets generally do not get much help from mid-year additions to the pen.

Grant Dayton joins the Braves last year and gives them 27.1 IP out of the pen with a 2.30 ERA and Chris Martin throws 18 IP and posts a 1.00 ERA. And these weren’t top prospects pitching out of the pen to get acclimated to the majors. Dayton was 32 and Martin was 34. The two best additions to the Mets pen last year were Erasmo Ramirez (14.1 IP, 0.63 ERA) and Miguel Castro (9 IP, 4.00 ERA) – and they usually don’t have anything remotely like what Ramirez gave them.

It would be nice to have good relievers in Triple-A to promote – what Alderson was trying to accomplish with those deadline deals back in 2017 – and the Mets should absolutely be docked for not having those guys in the system. But, is it so much to ask for a few more success stories going dumpster diving or with trade acquisitions?

In 2019 the two best additions to the pen were Wilmer Font (20.2 IP, 3.48 ERA) and Brad Brach (14.2 IP, 3.68 ERA) – and they traded away Font for a bag of broken bats. In 2018 it was Daniel Zamora (9 IP, 3.00 ERA) and Drew Smith (28 IP, 3.54 ERA). Smith was so unusual that we were treating him like he was a future cornerstone of the pen, rather than a guy who simply didn’t stink in a short sample.

You have to go back to 2015, when Erik Goeddel pitched 33.1 IP and had a 2.43 ERA to find a Mets reliever who wasn’t on the Opening Day roster who gave the club 30 IP and a sub 3.00 ERA. Here’s how long it’s been since the rest of the teams in the division had someone reach these standards, with a near miss in parentheses:

Braves: 2019 – Jacob Webb, 32.1 IP, 1.39 ERA (2020, Martin 27.1, 2.30)
Nationals: 2017 – Matt Albers, 61 IP, 1.62 ERA & Sean Doolittle, 30 IP, 2.40 ERA (2019, Daniel Hudson 25.0, 1.44)
Phillies: 2018 – Seranthony Dominguez, 58 IP, 2.95 ERA
Marlins: 2018 – Nick Wittgren, 33.2 IP, 2.94 ERA (2019, Jarlin Garcia 50.2, 3.02)

Obviously, you’d like the guys who make the Opening Day roster to be good. But it would be nice if you could call someone up or trade for a guy and have him be a productive member. We can argue how much of this is talent/depth and how much is luck. What we can’t argue is that the other teams in the division have done much better in this regard than the Mets the last five years.

Alderson is certainly trying to build bullpen depth. On Wednesday in the Open Thread, 17 relievers were mentioned and that was before the club signed Aaron Loup. Hopefully, that gives the team the courage to cut Betances, Brach or any other reliever who’s stinking up the joint.

With the addition of James McCann and Francisco Lindor, the Mets should be better defensively than they were a season ago. It’s fun to imagine a Mets team that isn’t lousy either defensively or in the bullpen. If that comes to pass, it seems like a lot of people will jump on the Alderson bandwagon, as two of his biggest weaknesses will be addressed.

8 comments on “Sandy Alderson and breaking the trend of bad bullpens

  • Bob P

    At the time in 2017 I thought that the strategy of stockpiling all those young relievers wasn’t a bad one. I would have thought at least one or two would have had some sustained success but for whatever reason they didn’t pan out so well. I feel pretty good about this years pen but it would be nice to have someone unexpected step up and be effective.

    Also Brian I was surprised to see you actually mention O’Flaherty’s name!

    • Brian Joura

      I forgave fat Mickey Lolich and I forgave Richie Hebner so it seemed weird to still hold a grudge against O’Flaherty.

      • BobP

        You’re a better man than me. I still haven’t forgiven Lolich. Rusty was my guy back then.

  • Woodrow

    Hand would have been a big get.

  • Metsense

    The bullpen is Alderson’s Achilles heel. Is it better than last year’s bullpen? Diaz had a 1.64 ERA in his first 22 innings in 2019 and ended up at 5.59. He pitched 26 innings in 2020.
    Lugo was a very good reliever but not so good as a starter. Wilson has a better career ERA than May and Loup. Familia and Castro remain and are better than average in ERA. The average ERA for a reliever is 4.44. The others were sub average in 2020 and the above average Shreve and Ramirez were cut loose. Alderson should have taken a “Hand” to cure his heel.

    • Brian Joura

      My opinion is that Diaz was better in 2020 than he was in the first 22 innings of 2019. Now, that doesn’t mean that I had complete confidence when he entered a game last year. But his final 2019 line wasn’t a big surprise to me. It would have been a bigger shock if 2020 was a normal year and his final line was what he did in 2019.

      As for Hand – he wanted to be a closer and the Mets couldn’t guarantee that he would get that shot.

  • T.J.

    It seems pretty clear that Lugo will go back to the pen. Diaz-May-Lugo is pretty formidable. The Betances Familia Castro group concerns me. Hand would have been nice, but there are still some quality arms out there that could strengthen the group. However, the 40 man is getting crowded, and they have already committed to a bunch of guaranteed contracts in the pen, so barring a deal, I don’t see another significant addition. Betances interests me and could make a big difference. Based on how he looked last year, he could be shot for sure. On top of that, he is a guy that historically starts slow and doesn’t get velocity up until late. But, if he could find some more life in his fastball, and even be a partial facsimile of his old self, the pen could be nasty. Lastly, we know they aren’t finished with the rotation, and if they can add another quality arm, the pen could be required to pitch less innings. Rotating to backend power arms, and needing less high leverage innings, both usually help pen performance.

  • JohnFromAlbany

    TJ – I agree better starters make for a better pen. Hopefully the recent acquisitions help make that happen.

    Diaz still gave up some killer HRs last year (Ozuna in game 2) and Game 1 in that Double Header Yankee loss. He is not a sure thing for me when he comes into the game.

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