When the New York Mets signed right-handed reliever Trevor May to a two-year, $15.5 million contract last December, I was thrilled to see the new ownership appear to swiftly address what has long been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses: the bullpen. In today’s game, with starters rarely throwing much over 100 pitches and the designated hitter still not permanently employed in National League baseball, pinch hitters are common and relievers are a crucial part of a team’s success.
Last year, the Mets bullpen ranked 18th in Major League Baseball with a 4.60 ERA, but this figure was actually a marked improvement from years past. In 2019, their 4.99 bullpen ERA was 26th in baseball. In 2018, their 4.96 bullpen ERA was 28th out of the 30 MLB teams. In 2017, their bullpen ERA of 4.82 was the second-worst in all of baseball. I’m sure most Mets fans are aware that the team has made zero playoff appearances during that time. The last time the Amazins did make the postseason in 2016, their bullpen pitched to a 3.51 ERA which was the sixth-best in all of baseball.
It’s no secret that, most of the time, the baseball teams with the best bullpens go the furthest in the postseason. Putting aside the anomaly of the 2019 Washington Nationals, who won the World Series despite fielding the second-worst bullpen in baseball, the teams consistently near the top of the “best bullpen ERA” list over the past few years are who we would expect. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Indians frequently appear near the top of this ranking.
All of those teams, unlike the Mets, have made the playoffs multiple times since 2016.
Every baseball team has some relievers that are more trustworthy and pitch in more high-leverage situations than others, but for the best teams, there is very little “dead weight” among the relief corps. Mets fans have become used to having their “one great reliever” out of the bullpen over the past few years that is the only pitcher they can rely on in tight spots late in games. Generally, this name has been Seth Lugo, who is currently on the injured list and will remain there for at least a few more weeks.
For playoff teams, there is no one single “one great reliever” that the team can rely upon to get crucial outs. There are multiple “great relievers,” and very few “strictly mop-up guys,” in the bullpens of perennial playoff contenders. The Yankees have, for a few years now, relied upon the trifecta of Chad Green, Zack Britton (who is currently injured), and Aroldis Chapman to hold down the fort late in games, with the rest of their bullpen generally serving as a strong supporting act.
The Dodgers deployed Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Kenley Jansen, Jake McGee, Adam Kolarek, and Dylan Floro to get key outs out of the bullpen during the regular season. Every one of those relievers pitched to an ERA under 3.90 during the regular season, and in the postseason, adding Julío Urias and Dustin May to the bullpen mix was an even more effective strategy.
The Tampa Bay Rays, as I wrote about a while ago, had a whole “stable of guys who throw 98 mph” in their 2020 bullpen, which brought them to within two games of a World Series title despite fielding a team batting average of just .238 that was in the bottom third of baseball.
Heading into 2021, the Mets brought in two main relievers in May and Aaron Loup, a lefty whose most recent stop was with the “stable of guys” in the Rays bullpen last year. Loup effectively replaced Justin Wilson, the main lefty out of the Mets ‘pen over the past two seasons. Beyond that, many of the same ineffective names returned to the major league roster this April, including Robert Gsellman, Dellin Betances, and Jeurys Familia. After Lugo went down with an arm injury in mid-February, there have been no notable bullpen signings made, despite the fact that Shane Greene, who has been one of the top relievers in baseball over the past two years, is still a free agent.
So essentially, May and Loup are currently filling the spots previously held by Lugo and Wilson, with no additional big name pickups surrounding them. Jordan Yamamoto, who pitched very well in spring training, is currently at the alternate site instead of serving as a long man or possible spot starter at the major league level. Fan favorite Jerry Blevins, one of the few lefty relievers in the organization with any major league track record, is also at the alternate site. The Mets do have some depth in their system, with Drew Smith (currently injured), Thomas Szapucki, Sam McWilliams, and Trevor Hildenberger (recently called up to replace an injured Betances) as other bullpen options, but none of these names have proven success against major league lineups in the past couple of seasons.
If the Mets are serious about contending with the bullpen they currently field, it is hard to justify carrying three relievers in Gsellman, Betances, and Familia that cannot be counted on in in key moments. Gsellman and Betances, in particular, did not impress at all in spring training. The fact that Gsellman has not been called upon once this season clearly means that the Mets do not trust him to get big outs. So why even have him in the bullpen at all?
Not every reliever the Mets don’t sign becomes a huge miss. Trevor Rosenthal, who many Mets fans (including myself) strongly courted in the offseason, will miss all of 2021 with thoracic outlet syndrome. But in order to convince me that they are truly serious about winning this year, the Mets must have a very quick hook with guys like Gsellman, Betances, and Familia if they pitch ineffectively and must prioritize improving the bullpen throughout the season if there are issues.
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As it currently stands, the Mets bullpen is clearly not a strength of the team. But playoff-caliber teams, 99 times out of 100, do not have huge, obvious weaknesses. Mets fans deserve to root for a team without a gaping hole on its roster and to trust that all parts of their team will work in tandem, not despite each other, to win games. The state of the 2021 Mets bullpen must be treated with as much urgency as the long-term state of who will play shortstop if they want to build a well-oiled postseason machine in Queens.