Ask Adam Ottavino, the wise old man of the Mets’ bullpen, veteran of 12 major-league seasons and the past four postseasons with three different teams, what he thinks about this group of relievers and whether it is ready for a pennant chase and playoff run, and the first parts of his first answer may be most telling: Yes, he feels good about it, but . . .
“I think our starters are going to be pitching a little deeper than a lot of the teams I’ve been on in the playoffs. That’ll be my guess. Not as much is going to be asked of us probably,” he said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to get big outs, but I don’t think it’s going to be like five innings every night. If we’re in that situation, it’s probably not a good sign. I think Buck [Showalter] is going to ride his starters.”
The Mets indeed are set up for a bit of an old-school playoff pitching arrangement, especially with a manager like Showalter, doubly especially if aces Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom stay healthy and available.
The bullpen nonetheless is a source of intrigue and maybe concern. And the numbers — the facts — can say whatever you want them to say.
Consider: Since the All-Star break, Edwin Diaz has a 0.75 ERA, 0.58 WHIP and 7.33 strikeouts per walk. That is incredible.
All of the Mets’ other relievers (minus DH/first baseman Darin Ruf) have a 4.91 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 2.73 strikeouts per walk. That is terrible.
But in addition to Diaz, arguably the best reliever in baseball this year, the Mets have others who have been very good. Ottavino (2.17 ERA) hasn’t allowed multiple runs in a game since early May. Seth Lugo has a 1.98 ERA in the second half.
The Mets still don’t have an effective lefthander — Joely Rodriguez’s ERA is back up to 5.11 — but they might have the beginnings of a good October ‘pen. If Drew Smith can return from the IL to his early-season form? Or if Tylor Megill’s transition to relieving goes well? Or if Trevor May can figure it out? It’s a lot of ifs, but one or two of them turning into reliable options might change the whole dynamic.
“It’s going to get a little crowded at some point,” Ottavino said. “Every team is scared of their bullpen. That’s nothing new. Every fan base. There’s no fan base that feels great about their bullpen going into the playoffs, because they’ve all seen guys give up runs that cost them games. That’s just the nature of the job.
“I’ve given up a handful of runs in the last few months and they’ve cost us games. So, I get it. But it’s irrational . . . Our job is to keep our head screwed on correctly and evaluate these things honestly and not emotionally.”
Ottavino pointed to the bullpens of recent famous postseason teams as examples of how quickly the external perception can change. Last year, Atlanta’s relief corps was good-not-great until it mattered most on the way to a World Series title. The 2019 Yankees’ “supposed strength” were the late innings until “we got overexposed,” he said. The 2018 champion Red Sox had huge question marks but pieced it together on the fly, including with relief appearances from starting pitchers.
“Nobody was touting the Braves’ bullpen until the playoffs, then all of a sudden it was lights out and they got a nickname and it became cool,” Ottavino said.
Showalter and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner have gone to great lengths to keep from pitching the top relievers too frequently. The team’s leaders are Ottavino and Mychal Givens (trade-deadline addition from the Cubs), who have 50 appearances each — tied for 33rd most in the majors.
“Our team leader is going to have in the low-to-mid-60s in appearances,” Ottavino said. “I’ve gone over 70 three times. That’s usually what it takes to lead a team in appearances, but that’s not the way we’re built. It’s been nice. We haven’t had to panic. It’s a big thing for the regular season, and hopefully it pays off later.”