One of Brodie Van Wagenen’s greatest challenges in his first winter as Mets general manager is also one of the least sexy: building a winning bullpen.
Last season, Mets relievers were collectively awful. Their 4.96 ERA ranked 28th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the Royals and Marlins. Van Wagenen already has rebuilt the back end by trading for Edwin Diaz and signing Jeurys Familia, who will join Seth Lugo (2.30 ERA as a reliever in 2018) and Robert Gsellman (4.28 ERA) to create half of a bullpen.
Now comes the hard part. The Mets have about four more relief spots to fill. A large contingent of in-house arms and a to-be-decided lefthander or lefthanders will be going after those jobs.
It’s difficult because relievers can be so inconsistent from one season to the next. There are, of course, historic outliers such as Mariano Rivera and generational ones such as Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, but they’re the exceptions. Familia and perhaps Diaz, with larger bodies of work, could fit into those categories.
But with the more rank-and-file types, putting together a collection of five-plus relievers who are good bets to be good in a given season is a daunting task (never mind the need for depth arms who can be called up from and sent back to the minors). The Mets learned that the hard way after signing Anthony Swarzak at this time last year. He had a 2.33 ERA in 2017 and a 6.15 ERA in 2018. Same goes for AJ Ramos, whose 2.78 ERA with the Marlins for six seasons turned into 5.59 with the Mets for two seasons before he had major shoulder surgery.
“That’s one of the toughest markets, any executive will tell you, to find the guy that is consistent,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Those are hard to find. And it’s very volatile.”
Said Oakland’s Bob Melvin: “A lot of times I think it’s the hardest element to forecast.”
Or as Boston’s Alex Cora put it: “I don’t know, man.”
Why are relievers so volatile? It’s a problem that has plagued many a would-be playoff contender — and cost countless managers and general managers their jobs — but has no perfect answer.
We asked 10 major-league managers why that is at the winter meetings. Here are four theories:
If a pitcher is good at getting outs, the manager will want to ride the hot hand and use that pitcher more.
“That’s just the way the game is,” the Indians’ Terry Francona said.
The hot hand, though, is no good if the whole arm falls off.
To that end, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo spoke of Arizona doing what it can to help keep relievers and all pitchers healthy, something that every team attempts. The D-backs are particularly wary of using a pitcher more than two days in a row and “calculate everything to eliminate the idea of pitchers wearing down short term, which would be in August and September, the important months of the season, and long term, that they’re going to last more than three or four years,” Lovullo said.
Among other warnings are decreased velocity or spin rate, or a change in arm slot and other mechanics that can be red flags that a pitcher is fatigued.
But not everything is measurable. Truth and honesty also are important.
“The older generations of baseball, you would take a couple of Advil and say I’m good and you could never ever talk about not wanting the baseball,” Lovullo said. “I ask players to be honest with me from day one of me getting the job. So my relationships with them led me to get their best answer on a certain day.”
Cora, Roberts, the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and the Marlins’ Don Mattingly all shared the overuse sentiment. In addition to health problems, overuse can lead to overexposure, in which the league sees an effective reliever so much that he is figured out.
“The good side of that is that bullpens are easier to build on a year-to-year basis,” Mattingly said. “L.A. seems like they rebuild the bullpen every year. Maybe a couple of stalwarts in there, [but] you’re always finding pieces [in which] you don’t know the names or you haven’t seen the names.”
OTHER KINDS OF USE
If overuse leads to a seemingly good reliever turning bad, more appropriate use can do the opposite, helping to maximize a reliever’s production.
“You take a bullpen dude and you put him on the wrong guys all the time, he’s not going to pitch that well,” Maddon said. “So it’s a matter of how you set it up.”
Proper use includes both ensuring that a reliever rests as well as matching him up with batters who give him an advantage, an omnipresent piece of bullpen management in this era of big-data baseball. Lefty specialists probably are the oldest example, but these days, the secret formulas for why a certain pitcher should face a certain hitter vary by team and are treated as state secrets.
“Teams are doing an outstanding job preparing guys,” said Cora, whose World Series champion Red Sox leaned on their starters as late-inning relievers on non-start days in the postseason and had 31-year-old rookie Ryan Brasier come out of nowhere to post a 1.60 ERA in the regular season (1.04 in the postseason). “We believe in the hard throwers and spinning the ball and we recognize what they can do, their strength and weaknesses and analytics talk, how we can exploit these guys, maximize their ability.”
It can take time for a manager or front office to learn how best to use a particular reliever. Maddon called it “feel.”
“That’s hard to describe,” he said. “A lot of it is conversational. But there’s things that I believe in that you can’t necessarily mathematically indicate. It is feel. It is injury. It is ‘what’s this guy thinking,’ the look in his eyeballs, are you setting him up right.”
Luck is a significant part of baseball, even if those on the field and in the dugout might disagree with the word. Think of it as having things break your way (or not) for no other reason other than they happened to break your way (or didn’t). Luck swings both ways.
Craig Counsell, who managed the bullpen-reliant Brewers to Game 7 of the NLCS this past fall, said luck factors into a reliever’s numbers in a given season because the workload isn’t that large.
“The sample is not that big,” he said. “And so sometimes luck can play a little bit of a part of results. The luck shows up more for a reliever because there’s less innings [and] doesn’t even out as much some years.”
Said Astros manager A.J. Hinch: “I think a little bit of luck is involved in the bullpen; you don’t have as many innings to make up for a bad stretch. So as a reliever, if you have a bad stretch, you’re doomed for a while in order to get your numbers back to your norm.”
When the subject came up last season amid frequent turnover in the Mets’ relief corps, manager Mickey Callaway offered a different reason: talent. Maybe a lot of relievers just aren’t that good.
Relievers almost always are failed starters, pitchers who weren’t good enough or consistent enough to throw 180 to 200 innings in a season. Instead, they’re asked for about 60. They made that switch — or had it forced upon them — because they didn’t have enough high-quality pitches, got hurt a lot or were inconsistent in their mechanics, or some combination of those.
Perhaps this ties into the “luck” idea. If a reliever is good for a while, in many cases it’s only a matter of time before he regresses to his true abilities.
Callaway said this past week that leaning on intangibles is a good idea.
“You have to target the guys that prepare, that work hard. You can’t always predict performance, but you can predict preparation, leadership and work ethic,” he said. “And that’s what I think is important in a player. And then that gives you the best chance for them to have good numbers in the end, if you look at those traits in those pitchers.”
Ultimately, these ideas are interconnected and the real answer is some combination of the above.
Hence the appearance of it being a total crapshoot.
“Look, we don’t have an answer for it yet,” Counsell said. “And it’s something you’re always wary of.”
Mets’ bullpen in 2018
320 Runs (301 earned)