For starting pitchers, every trip through the batting order means a greater advantage for the hitters. By the third time around, the task is particularly treacherous, especially for those not blessed with the power of Noah Syndergaard or the precision of Jacob deGrom.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson calls the evidence “irrefutable.” And though he stops short of “preemptively” pulling starting pitchers, he advocates a quicker hook.
“If a guy has a bad track record going through the third time in the lineup and he starts an inning a third time through the lineup with a hit — now he walks somebody — how long are you going to wait?” Alderson said at the general managers’ meetings last week.
In various interviews during the week, however, new Mets manager Mickey Callaway insisted he has no firm rules about pulling his pitchers. Speaking separately, new pitching coach Dave Eiland had a similar viewpoint.
On the surface, those views sounded contradictory, setting up a classic battle between old and new.
So what gives? Only weeks into a new regime, did the Mets again reveal an inability to stay on the same page?
The answer appears far more nuanced, revealing a developing dynamic between the coaching staff and front office.
“It’s not that we don’t share the same philosophy,” Callaway told Newsday. “I think we just stated it in a different way.”
Despite differences in presentation, there is no debate about the primary mission facing the Mets: They must find a way to keep their pitchers healthy. And judging by their actions, there is no doubt that change is coming, even if it makes purists recoil.
From hiring a coaching staff more open to new forms of data, to targeting high-priced arms in an effort to bolster the bullpen, Alderson has put the Mets on track to fully embrace an idea that has spread throughout the game.
Said Alderson: “The general trend in baseball is for starters to go fewer and fewer innings.”
Putting that idea into practice will fall to Callaway and Eiland. They must earn support from the players. That effort appeared to begin last week, when the duo walked a fine line. Both acknowledged the importance of data but also established a sense of flexibility in their thinking, perhaps to allay fears of a blind allegiance to numbers.
“If they are showing us that they deserve to stay out there, then we continue to monitor what is going on and give them a chance,” Callaway said.
Eiland spoke of “dealing with human beings,” then espoused the value of trusting eyeballs and experience. But he would not dismiss the role of information.
“Is that saying once the third time in the order comes up, we’re automatically yanking him out of the game? No,” Eiland said. “And I don’t believe that’s what Sandy was saying. But you have to be mindful of the numbers and of the data.”
If that data says it’s time to act, there will be no hesitation.
Said Callaway: “We won’t let them struggle the third time through if we don’t have to.”
‘Decisions predicated on information’
That ultimate sense of agreement should come as no surprise. As Alderson began assembling the Mets’ new coaching staff, he made a priority out of collaboration. Now that concept will be put to the test as the Mets take on the challenge of parsing information.
For decades, the numbers have followed a consistent trend. Pitchers fade each turn they take through a starting lineup, and the 2017 season was no exception. When facing an order the first time, MLB starting pitchers allowed a .732 OPS. That number rose to .780 the second time. By the third time through, it jumped to a whopping .800.
But Alderson said technology has provided a more telling gauge of when pitchers begin to lose effectiveness. It goes beyond pitch counts or even facing lineups for a third time.
Through the use of Trackman data, Alderson said Mets coaches have real-time access to measures such as a pitcher’s spin rate or arm angle. That information could provide more accurate signs of fatigue.
“You can actually make decisions predicated on information,” Alderson said. “Ten years ago, five years ago, that information didn’t exist.”
But using the information gleaned from Trackman requires proper interpretation, another responsibility that will fall to the coaches. For instance, data has proved to be a highly individualized matter. A 20 percent drop in spin rate may be a surefire sign of fatigue for one pitcher but not necessarily for another.
Only through time do trends become apparent.
Assistant general manager John Ricco said that when the coaching staff was assembled, the hope was that new blood would bring a shift in the dynamic. Rather than pushing information on coaches, they hoped that coaches would seek it out for themselves.
In that regard, front-office officials said the early returns have been promising. Indeed, leveraging the power of data will be central to the Mets’ ambitions of keeping their starters healthy.
“Obviously, the numbers and the data that are out there now, you would be absolutely foolish not to have that information and look at it and use it,” Eiland said. “That’s the way this game has evolved. If you don’t evolve with it, you’re going to get left behind.”
‘You can’t wait too long’
For the Mets, righthander Seth Lugo emerged as the poster boy for the drawbacks that comes with pushing starters too far. Alderson recalled one September start in particular.
Lugo cruised through the first five innings against the Astros before getting caught in a familiar trap. He allowed a single to the first batter in the sixth, then followed that up with a walk. Nevertheless, he stayed in the game, only to allow a pair of run-scoring hits before being pulled. It was too late.
“It was bullpen capacity,” Alderson said. “We didn’t have the same bullpen capacity. So it wasn’t as easy for us to make that decision.”
Last season, the Mets’ bullpen ranked among the worst in baseball, a reality they can’t afford if they hope to ease the workload on their starters in 2018.
The work to bolster the bullpen began at the July 31 trade deadline. Alderson dealt a pair of prospects to the Marlins for an established reliever in AJ Ramos. He then pulled off a series of trades to bring back a group of controllable young arms that includes Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan. All have minor-league options, offering the Mets the flexibility required to cycle in fresh arms when the need arises.
Only quality depth will give the Mets a chance to execute their plan without burning out the bullpen.
“If you’re sending a guy out for the third time — and historically he struggles the third time through the order — you have to have the bullpen on red alert,” Eiland said. “You can’t wait too long to get him through the game.”
Still, work remains to be done.
Alderson has historically shied away from paying the premium for top relievers, but this offseason, the Mets have taken aim at a tier of arms they generally have considered too expensive. The group includes the likes of Brandon Morrow, Mike Minor, Bryan Shaw and Addison Reed.
Each is expected to command a multiyear deal, but sources say all remain on the team’s radar. It’s another indication of the Mets’ intent to change the way they deploy their pitchers.
Said Alderson: “If the numbers are telling you that guys can’t get through the third time in the lineup, then they shouldn’t be out there.”