It has been argued (by me) that overcoming a bullpen as terrible as New York’s this season is a tribute to both the tremendous offensive talent and frontline starting pitching the Mets possess.
But as Sunday’s 7-6 loss to the Braves demonstrated, the reverse is also true. It takes a historically awful Mets bullpen to undo the great work by New York’s offense and starting pitching. If Sunday–which saw the bullpen allow four runs (and an inherited fifth runner) in just two innings—is any indication, the Met relievers are up to the task.
The basic horror is easy enough to document. Despite an offense that is second in the league in runs scored and a starting rotation with a second-half ERA of 3.76, the Mets are 1.5 games behind the Phillies in the National League East, and just 1.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card. The obvious culprit is the bullpen, which has a second-half ERA of 4.99.
Only once before have the Mets had a half-season ERA higher than 4.99—in 1962, New York’s first year, on a team that finished 40-120. For comparison, last year’s bullpen—widely and correctly blamed for much of New York’s second-half troubles—posted an ERA of 4.40, well over a half-run more effective. Put it this way—with 2007’s extremely flawed bullpen, this Mets team would likely find itself in first place.
But simple ERA doesn’t begin to do justice to the group’s limitations. Though he never seemed to realize it, then manager Willie Randolph had three pitchers in 2007 who could get both lefties and righties out—Billy Wagner, Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman. Jerry Manuel, by contrast, has zero pitchers who can do this. Wagner is out for all of 2008 and 2009, Feliciano mysteriously stopped getting righties out this year, and Aaron Heilman, as he showed on Sunday, can’t really get anyone out at this point.
And the rest of the bullpen is filled with one-side-only specialists. Scott Schoeneweis is terrific against lefties—but Manuel tried to nurse him past a righty, Omar Infante, on Sunday, and he gave up a double. When lefty Casey Kotchman followed with a check-swing single, the Mets lost the lead for good. That is the problem. Even the occasional lefty will get lucky against Schoeneweis—but righties always get good swings against him, since he has no weapon to retire them.
Brian Stokes the same, just in reverse. Righties hit .207 against him; lefties hit .320. Joe Smith is the same way: .189 against righties, .340 against lefties. Veteran Ricardo Rincon has been a lefty specialist for most of his career, and his brief tenure with the Mets is no different: lefties are 0-for-5, righties are 2-for-4. Current closer-by-default Luis Ayala has managed to strike a nice unimpressive balance—righties hit him at a .273 clip, lefties at .289.
Only Bobby Parnell, in his first 1 2/3 major-league innings, has managed to get both lefties and righties out—and despite the ludicrously small sample, expect to see him more. Whether he can continue to dominate remains to be seen—he had a very ordinary strikeout rate in the minor leagues, but that was as a starting pitcher. Regardless, complete unknown trumps known failures.
Manuel’s decision to leave Schoeneweis in against Infante was a rarity for him—he’s been, to the largest extent possible, matching up with nearly every hitter. That’s right—Manuel is, believe it or not, getting the absolute most he can out of this bullpen. But the only way he can really get away with such micro-managing is to have a relatively small number of hitters to get through.
Even more astounding is what could charitably be called the bullpen’s propensity for the big inning. Offenses are like crash dieters binging when the Mets relievers offer them a bite to eat. Only three times in the past 11 games has the bullpen allowed zero runs; five times, the relievers have given up three runs or more. Considering the relatively small number of innings involved, that is nearly unbelievable.
This in no way takes away from the fact that nearly every position on the Mets is occupied by a terrific defender. The Mets have four players with reasonable MVP cases: Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran have had huge Septembers, and both Jose Reyes and David Wright did their part this week. Johan Santana seems to keep getting better, and both Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey have been consistently excellent for the Mets.
It takes some doing to negate those considerable strengths. But this bullpen is managing it.