Opening day against the Braves was exactly how Terry Collins would draw it up in his office if he had to. Johan Santana pitched five scoreless innings, and the bullpen built the bridge in the second half of the game to the eighth inning, where Jon Rauch pitched a 1-2-3 frame, followed by Frank Francisco doing the same in the ninth to secure their first win of the season. It’s been a bumpy road for Rauch since his strong April, but he’s back to his early season form.
In 12 appearances through April, the tall right-hander threw 10.2 innings, compiled a 2.53 ERA, and was on the long side three times. Once Francisco started to struggled towards the end of the month, there were plenty of people around (myself included) that wanted to see Rauch close some games. After all, he was Collins’ most consistent reliever. However, May and June were not fun times for him, as he appeared in 23 games (19.1 IP) and endured 7 straight losses, while compiling an ERA of 5.03. Rauch pitched so ineffectively, he lost his setup role, a job that seemed to be a lock after what he did in the season’s first month.
The end of June and July started the turnaround that we’ve enjoyed watching Rauch go through to get back to the type of pitcher he knew he could be for the Amazins. I think the turning point in his season was when he came in to a bases loaded, nobody out jam down in Tampa Bay against the Rays, and was able to get out of the inning without allowing a run, and striking out two hitters. The biggest thing I saw with Rauch while he was struggling was that he wasn’t using his fastball enough to establish himself early in counts. That late game situation against the Rays was the first time in a while I saw him use his fastball to get ahead, then put hitters away with his secondary pitches.
He’s become more of a two-pitch reliever this year with the Mets, as he’s only throwing his fastball 50.8% of the time in 2012, compared to 58.1% of the time last season. To combat that decrease, Rauch has gone to his slider with more regularity, throwing it at a 37.1% rate, 13% higher than his rate with the Blue Jays in 2011. Once he found confidence in his fastball again, he’s been able to get hitters out consistently. Since that performance against Tampa, he’s only given up runs in three of his last 19 appearances, with the only run he gave up in July coming on the 26th in Arizona (1.17 ERA, 0.65 WHIP in July). More importantly, his home run rate is down from 2011 (1.9 HR/9 in ’11 vs. 0.7 in ’12), as well as his walk rate (2.4 BB/9 in ’11 vs. 1.8 in ’12). Even though his strikeout rate has decreased slightly, his WHIP has decreased dramatically, going from 1.35 last year to 1.01 this season.
Rauch’s return to being dependable has given Collins confidence to put him in high pressure situations late in games. He’s a free agent after this season, finishing up a one-year/$3.5 million deal he signed last winter to join New York, and if he keeps up this consistent play through the end of the season, Sandy Alderson needs to seriously consider attempting to bring him back. The bullpen was consistently the weakest part of the 2012 Mets, but if you bring back Frank Francisco (last year of contract), Bobby Parnell, Josh Edgin, and Rauch, that’s a decent foundation to build off for the rest of the pitching staff.