Why the New York Mets must improve their bullpen

Aug 16, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Trevor May (65) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Mets first major signing of the Steve Cohen Era was a two-year deal for Twins reliever Trevor May. Analysts had pegged May as a likely target of the Mets due to his high strikeout rates and heavy fastball, and he’ll be a welcome addition to a bullpen that lacks dependable arms behind Edwin Diaz (and Seth Lugo if he’s not a starter).

But it’s also eerily reminiscent of Alderson’s first go at fixing the bullpen, way back in 2012. After having traded Francisco Rodriguez aka “K-Rod” mid-year, that winter the Mets signed or traded for veterans Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez and one-time chair thrower Frank Francisco, who was set to be the closer. Together they combined for -0.5 WAR and Francisco was a disaster, combining for just 48.2 innings and a 5.36 ERA during his two years with the team—the latter mark was 30 percent below the league average.

New York Mets history of struggles in the bullpen 

During his tenure as Mets general manager from 2011-2018, Sandy Alderson did a tremendous job of establishing a pipeline of homegrown talent. Even pitching injuries and Brodie Van Wagenen’s aggressive trades couldn’t erode the strong foundation that he put together. Pete Alonso, Jacob Degrom and Michael Conforto form a strong foundation for a contender.

However, while Alderson oversaw some successful drafts and put together a pennant winner in 2015, constructing a bullpen was his Achilles’ heel. Outside of the emergence of Jeurys Familia and Seth Lugo, the Mets have failed to produce dependable bullpen arms, or acquire them from outside the organization.

New York Mets stats: Bullpen rankings over the years

Here are the Mets bullpen rankings by WAR—a better marker than ERA due to differences in home stadium context—out of all 30 teams each of Alderson’s years as Mets GM, courtesy of Fangraphs:

2018- 28th

2017- 28th

2016- 5th

2015- 17th

2014- 26th

2013- 20th

2012- 29th

2011- 21st

2016 is a clear outlier here. That year, the Mets had a strong tandem of Jeurys Familia, who saved over 50 games, and Addison Reed, who the Mets got on the cheap from Arizona and found another gear. His subsequent performance is to the Mets’ credit. That said, none of the three reliever prospects the Mets acquired for him in 2017 have made an impact (only one, Steve Nogosek, is still with the team).

It’s also worth noting that the New Yotk Mets bullpen ERA was a solid-seeming 3.14 in 2014, good for eighth in MLB, despite the low WAR. That discrepancy can be explained by the pitching friendly context of CitiField, a large amount of low-leverage innings (pitching in blowouts) and lucky performances not backed up by underlying metrics like strikeout rate.

It’s not clear if there is one specific reason why Alderson couldn’t put together good bullpens. Alderson’s staff was certainly hampered by budget constraints. And relief pitchers as a whole are fairly volatile bunch overall. But the Mets have attempted to acquire relief prospects in trades with little success, and several failed relievers have gone on to have more success elsewhere, such as Hansel Robles and Rafael Montero. The recent Mets have had a mixed record identifying reclamation projects or bounce-back candidates.

Brodie Van Wagenen’s leadership only exacerbated this problem, trading away too many prospects—including blue chip centerfielder Jered Kelenic—for both established relievers and depth guys like Wilmer Font, and signing Jeurys Familia for a three-year homecoming that’s gone horribly wrong. Some prospects, like the Astro’s Blake Taylor, have gone on to establish themselves as major league assets in the bullpen. Worse, Van Wagenen attached misguided 2021 player options to the contracts of Dellin Betances and Brad Brach, both of whom looked awful last year.

Solving the New York Mets bullpen problems

New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz
Luis Rojas walks to the mound to take out pitcher Edwin Diaz in the eighth inning. The New York Yankees came to Citi Field on July 18, 2020 to play the New York Mets in an exhibition game, a prelude to the opening game of the shortened season. The New York Yankees Came To Citi Field On July 18 2020 To Play The New York Mets In An Exhibition Game A Prelude To The Opening Game Of The Shortened Season

What’s the solution? It’s hard to say exactly what the coaching staff is doing right or wrong, particularly since their starters have often been successful. Sandy Alderson has already indicated building organizational depth is an important priority. Many teams adopt a strategy of scooping up borderline arms or washed up veteran relivers on minor league contracts and seeing what sticks in spring training—the teams that do best with this strategy tend to have superior analytics departments, something the Mets have lacked.

A commitment to winning and/or spending can also entice more interesting lottery tickets: the Mets gave a major league contract to right-hander Sam McWilliams last month, whose brief run in AAA was a disaster but throws very hard and looked good at Tampa Bay’s training camp this summer. That move didn’t break the bank but it also shows a commitment to outbidding other teams for that type of under-the-radar player.

Right now, with so many teams focused on cutting payroll, there is an opportunity for the Mets to acquire arms without giving up anything significant in return, or to sign free agents on short-term deals that might not have been tenable in years past. With Diaz, May and Lugo, the Mets don’t look to be in terrible shape, but good teams prepare for high attrition rates in the bullpen during the year—players get injured, players lose miles on their fastball, etc—and the Mets’ immediate competitors, the Nationals and Phillies, both struggled to find adequate relievers last year, so there is an opportunity to separate themselves with the right moves.

NameContract TermsResult
Anthony SwarzakTwo years, $14 million6.15 ERA in 29 games, contract offloaded during Cano trade
Antonio BastardoTwo years, $12 million4.74 ERA in 41 games, traded mid-season to Pirates for Jon Niese
Frank FranciscoTwo years, $12 million5.53 ERA and 23 saves in 2012, pitched in only 6 games the following year
Jerry BlevinsOne Year, $5.5 million with a $7 million option2.94 ERA and 12.7 K/9 over 75 games in 2017, Mets exercised option, Blevins fell to 4.85 ERA in 64 games in 2018.
Multi-year Free Agent contracts given out during the Alderson era, 2011-2018