Met-aphorically Speaking
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Over at Metsblog, the always-entertaining Joe Janish (also of Mets Today) wrote a brief but interesting opinion piece about how the Mets’ bullpen woes could be largely resolved by using the staff “in reverse.” It was written in response to Jerry Manuel’s claims of “anything goes” regarding his bullpen, and is mostly done in jest, but it did raise a few interesting points about why this could actually work.

Despite some stronger showings the last few games, it’s clear to everyone but your stubborn Uncle Al that the Mets’ bullpen is not only poor, but have actually redefined just how bad relief pitching can be.

So, because of this, and the fact that I no longer have much of a social life, I spent some additional time breaking down Joe’s idea a little further.

Indulge me…

1) Start with the Finisher
This idea has some promise.  What better way to get opponents off on the wrong foot than to throw Billy Wagner out there, hurling some gas for the first inning?  Knowing that he has a full bullpen and a “starter” waiting in the wings would alleviate a lot of late game pressure, allowing Wags to really let loose with his fastball. Batters would begin the game off guard, knowing that in the next inning, they would have to adjust to a completely different pitching style.

For the fans who are screaming, “What about saves?” — Well, I say “what about them?” I don’t believe the modern game would suffer one iota by neutering a statistic that has become pretty irrelevant since the advent of the one-inning closer, anyway.  If you can obtain a marketable (and potentially very profitable) statistic by throwing only three pitches, have you really earned it?  But this is a different topic for a different post, so let’s move on.

2) Redefine the term “Set-Up Man”
There is no MLB job more thankless than the role of set-up man.  He typically does the exact same job as the closer — minus the stats and healthy paycheck, of course — and often has the added bonus of inheriting bases full of runners.  But, by reversing the way we use pitchers, the set up man would now pave the way for the series of pitchers that follow.

Eddie Kunz or Joe Smith are good selections here, but Aaron Heilman would thrive in this role, as (again) the late inning pressure would be off, and he would be closer to his long-desired “starting” role on the staff.  Give him 1-2 innings to show his stuff, which should seem absolutely wicked following Wagner’s inning of 95+ fastballs and cutters.

3) Middle relief
Obviously, this area doesn’t change much, as guys like Schoeneweis, Smith and Feliciano are all-too-used to coming in around innings 3, 4 and 5 to stop the bleeding.

However, keeping them out of 8th inning cleanup work might promote healthier pitch selections from the boys, instead of being forced to throw low to keep the ball in the infield.  As bad as these two have been, a lot of the blame has to be placed on the situations they typically pitch in.

For example, Feliciano is most effective when his breaking stuff cuts hard across the plate to jam hitters.  When Pedro enters a game with runners on second and third in a tie game, he’s forced to try and induce nothing but ground ball outs — which he’s more than capable of, but all the same, it isn’t his bread and butter.  An earlier entrance might allow him (or any of the afore-mentioned middle relievers) to use more of a repertoire, in a more effective manner.

4) Enter the “Starter”
Okay, if all goes well with #’s 1-3, a guy like Johan or Perez will enter the game in the 4th or 5th inning, in hopes of going the rest of the way.  This is to be done regardless of how well any of the relief guys have been throwing up until this point.  By now, the starters have already seen the opposing lineup hit twice, and — if they’ve been paying attention — will use this knowledge to pitch these guys more strategically.

After four innings of gas and hard breaking stuff, Johan’s changeup is bound to be devastating, which in turn would allow his fastball to pop louder than usual.  Same goes for Petey, Perez, Pelf and Maine — all guys who benefit from surprising batters with velocity and/or late movement.

Now, you’re probably asking the obvious — what happens when the “starter” has a bad night?  If this reversal is done correctly, there should still be a decent array of arms available to use in a more traditional relief manner.  But given that the Mets’ starters average 5-6 innings, regardless of effectiveness, and the fact that they will be entering with better understanding of hitters’ and umpires’ tendencies, there is no reason to think that they couldn’t provide the same five innings of decent quality work.  This may even prove to help guys like Martinez and Maine, who become notably less effective as pitch counts rise above 90) improve the overall quality of their appearances.

Is this a likely scenario?  Of course not. Mostly because baseball isn’t played on paper, but also because it doesn’t suit the style and/or needs of 99% of the teams in the league.

However, a team like the Mets — one that is saddled with a fairly talented, but mentally fragile corps of relievers — remains an exception to the rule.  If baseball games were only six innings long, the Mets could theoretically have a single digit loss total this year.  But they’re not, and sadly the Mets’ late inning implosions have now become an unsurprising, and even expected part of the season.

By giving the starters a chance to inherit a game, and have more control over its outcome, the overall productivity and effectiveness of the pitching staff would likely improve dramatically.  And even though the Mets are playing well, and are currently sitting in a first place tie in the NL East, we all know that we’re a bullpen collapse away from dropping right back behind.

A first place team shouldn’t need fixing, but the 2008 Mets are no ordinary first place team.  A massive, game altering shakeup of this variety might be exactly what they need to stay on the ball.

——————

(A tip of the cap to Joe Janish and Metsblog for giving me a little food for thought.)

 

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