UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Jack Weinberg famously uttered the phrase, “Don’t trust anybody over 30,” when he was being hounded by a reporter wanting to know who was behind these student protests. When assembling their pitching staff for 2023, the Mets turned that phrase on its head. In all, the Mets used 14 pitchers over the age of 30 and six others who were exactly 30 this past season. The expected starting rotation featured four guys 34 and up along with the pup of the group, Kodai Senga, who was 30.
Carlos Carrasco was terrible all year. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander missed time due to injury and took awhile to hit their stride. Jose Quintana missed 3.5 months. It’s pretty easy to make the case that relying on these old pitchers was a failure. But what about the bullpen?
Again, you’d have no trouble rattling off relievers on the wrong side of 30 who stunk up the joint, especially the option-reliever ones. But should we be surprised when the group of aged-30-and-above relievers, a gaggle that includes Jeff Brigham, Sam Coonrod, Jimmy Yacabonis and numerous others, who weren’t any good previously, continued to be lousy?
The only senior citizen reliever for the Mets last year who was once good but was lousy was Tommy Hunter. From 2013-2018, his age-26-to-31 seasons, Hunter had a 3.24 ERA with a 1.118 ERA in 364 IP. Hunter continued to be good after that span but he no longer was healthy enough to pitch very much in the majors. From 2019-2022, Hunter amassed 60.1 IP. Since he had a nifty 2.54 ERA in those innings, he was worth a flier in 2023. But he recorded a 6.85 ERA in 23.2 IP. Woops.
Which brings us to the big three.
The Mets assembled a trio of relievers with ages from 35-38 to act as the bridge to Edwin Diaz. Adam Ottavino (37) was brought back after a very successful year with the Mets in 2022. The team supported him with trade acquisition Brooks Raley (35) and free agent David Robertson (38). All three of those relievers were asked to fill more-important roles in the pen once Diaz was lost for the season. And all three of these super veterans came thru in 2023. Here are the numbers they turned in while members of the Mets:
AO – 61.2 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.216 WHIP, .660 OPS allowed
BR – 54.2 IP, 2.80 ERA, 1.262 WHIP, .649 OPS allowed
DR – 44.0 IP, 2.05 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, .602 OPS allowed
Did the Mets just get lucky with what these relievers gave them? Or is it a case where if a pitcher has been both healthy and good that you shouldn’t be overly concerned about his age? If those were the only two choices, my vote would be the latter. But it’s not exactly a whole-hearted agreement, which can be represented with the following hypothetical:
If both Ottavino and Raley were available to the Mets at their 2024 salary, would the Mets sign them?
Ottavino has a player option at $6.75 million, while Raley has a team option at $6.5 million with a $1.25 million buyout. My guess is that both are on the 2024 Mets. Most people have considered it a no-brainer for Ottavino to opt in, as he likes pitching in New York and it’s far from a slam dunk that he’d be able to match those dollars on the open market. And with Raley it seems like a bird in the hand is worth two on the street. Yeah, there are a few good LHP available in free agency. But are they likely to match what Raley gave the club last year?
But in our hypothetical world, where there is no current attachment to either reliever, would you pay Ottavino and Raley a combined $13.25 million in 2024? For me, the answer would be a pass on Ottavino, while considering Raley a fallback option.
All of Ottavino’s numbers were worse in 2023 than they were the previous season. Part of that is because his numbers were outstanding in 2022. But part of it was because his pitching wasn’t very good, as best portrayed by his peripherals, most notably by his 4.2 BB/9. In 2022, Ottavino had a 2.05 ERA and a 2.85 FIP. With a difference that great between his ERA and FIP, we’d expect Ottavino’s following season ERA to move in the direction of his FIP. And it did. His 2023 ERA was 3.21 and his FIP was 4.52, which is underwhelming, at best. We would expect Ottavino’s 2024 ERA move in the direction of his 2023 FIP. Now, that doesn’t mean it would be 4.52 or worse. Just that it’s likely to be above the 3.21 mark of this past season. And my opinion is that another year with a walk rate that high would likely result in an ERA in the 4s.
It’s more important for Ottavino to keep runners off base than most pitchers, because of his inability to keep baserunners from going wild. A few more hits with RISP and Ottavino’s numbers would crater. He has a lifetime .282 BABIP. Last year, that number was .252 – which helps explain why he was able to out-perform his FIP to the extent he did. Do you want to bank on a repeat of that particular good fortune?
Meanwhile, Raley also had a sizable difference between his ERA (2.80) and his FIP (3.68) last year, even if not as big as Ottavino’s difference in the two metrics. But perhaps more worrisome than his FIP was Raley’s L/R splits. Last year he was uncharacteristically worse against LHB than he had been previously, with a .728 OPS allowed to lefties, compared to a lifetime .563 mark against southpaws. Was this just a fluke or the beginning of him being nothing special against lefties?
Raley was able to turn in such a good season because he dominated RHB, who managed just a .583 OPS against him. Again, we have to ask if this is a fluke, as it went against his lifetime results. However, Raley was very good against righties in 2022, too. In 143 PA against RHB in 2022, Raley posted a .573 OPS allowed.
We saw that Buck Showalter would still protect Raley against facing top righty batters. It’s one thing not to let him face Ronald Acuna Jr. However, the hope is that the new manager will let Raley face a run-of-the-mill righty more than Showalter did, assuming he’s still on the club in 2024.
My preference is to run a bullpen by rest and leverage more so than by handedness. But few would argue that it’s not beneficial to have a LHP to face Bryce Harper. But if you’re going to have just one lefty in the pen, like the Mets did for large stretches of the 2023 season, shouldn’t they perform better against LHB than Raley did last year?
In something of a surprise, Raley is likely a more-valuable reliever if there’s a more-reliable lefty in the pen to use in big moments. My hope is that he has around 65 IP next year as he’s used for full innings rather than partial ones. But would the Mets be better off, in this theoretical exercise, hitching their wagon to a younger reliever, even if he cost more money? It would seem the club would have to at least survey what was available.
After what we experienced with the rotation in 2023, no one can be blamed for wanting the Mets to get younger with their starters going forward. But what we saw with the relievers can’t be answered so easily. Maybe the solution is to have Ottavino and Raley back again next year but to supplement them with a late-inning reliever with more tread left on the tire. Jordan Hicks is an obvious answer but he also comes with injury concerns. The bottom line is that relievers are notoriously fickle, which makes assembling a good pen a tough thing to do without internal options.
And sometimes you have to trust those players over 30.