Archive: August 19th, 2008

Bullpen Workload Comparison

Following up last week’s article on the Mets’ bullpen, today we compare the relief workloads of the top contending teams in the NL.

Stats are through 120 games, give or take, and are not up to today — this took a while to put together. What we’re looking at below are the combined innings of the top six most-frequently used relievers for each team.

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As you can see, the top six relievers for the Phillies and the Mets have logged far more innings than the top six relievers of other top teams. Take note of the percentages — which is the total innings of the top six relievers divided by the team’s total relief innings.

The numbers above for the Phillies and Mets look really scary when we introduce this next set, which shows the percentage of workload for the top SEVEN relievers for each team.

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It’s no surprise that the Phillies and Mets remain at the top. What’s alarming is half the other contenders have been using SEVEN relievers to shoulder the same — or lesser — load than the Mets and Phillies have put on SIX. And the other two teams, the Dodgers and Marlins, have put a load on seven relievers that is only a few percentage points over the Mets’ group of six.

In other words, it should be absolutely no surprise that the Mets bullpen is pitching poorly — their main relievers are worn out. Granted, the Phillies are pushing their top six harder than anyone, and they’re still sporting the second-best ERA among bullpens in the NL. However, I will be surprised if they keep it up through the last month and a half of the season — though, they’ve already added fresh arms for the stretch run. Those arms were needed, as Tom Gordon is on the DL, and Rudy Seanez has 16.88 ERA since the All-Star Break.

Why can’t the Mets expect their relievers to pitch at the same level of effectiveness as the Phillies, when the Phillies appear to have a harder workload? A few reasons. The main one is Duaner Sanchez, who has been asked to be a big-time setup man and log significant innings after not pitching for a year and a half. He might look like he’s in shape, but Duaner’s recent loss of velocity suggests that his arm and legs were not ready for the load of a 162-game season. When you are counting on only six pitchers to handle the bulk of the load, and one of them isn’t physically up to the task, the entire group suffers.

Secondly, we must take into consideration the frequency with which the top six pitchers are being used — or more to the point, the top five. To date, the Mets have three pitchers with at least 60 appearances, with a fourth only three games away. The Phillies have used one pitcher for 60 games (61 actually) — J.C. Romero. The Phillies top five most-used relievers, in fact, have appeared in a combined 264 ballgames. In contrast, the Mets’ five-man corps of Pedro Feliciano (66), Aaron Heilman (65), Joe Smith (62), Scott Schoeneweis (57), and Sanchez (54) totals 304. So although they haven’t logged the same percentage of innings, the Mets’ main middle / setup relievers have been used far more frequently.

There’s nothing that can be done about the past four and a half months of abuse — what’s done is done. You have to move forward and find a way to bolster the bullpen with fresh arms — which is what makes the Mets’ most recent moves so curious. First, they promote Eddie Kunz, and then give him the Aaron Sele treatment. Maybe they were concerned about Kunz’s workload in his first pro season. In any case, his presence did nothing to alleviate the workload on the “main five”. Their next move was to demote Kunz and acquire Luis Ayala. Let’s forget the fact I don’t love the move, and consider that Ayala is in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and his 62 appearances have him tied with Smith for 8th in the league. In other words, they’ve added another arm that may be worn out!

The Mets’ scouts recommended Ayala based on his velocity, and suggested that he would benefit from a changes in scenery and arm angle. The latter I cannot argue, but the former I will take issue with — based on the fact that Heilman, Feliciano, and Smith are all at their typical velocity yet still pitching poorly. A dropoff in velocity is indeed an obvious indicator of fatigue — such as in the case of Sanchez — but sustained velocity is not necessarily an indication of health. Pitchers can take pain killers or cortisone shots, alter their mechanics, or rely on adrenalin in order to keep their top velocity as a short-term solution.

Bottom line? We likely won’t need to worry about another September collapse by the Mets bullpen — it’s happening now. With the announcement of Billy Wagner’s elbow issue compounding the problem, the Mets absolutely must add new, fresh arms to their bullpen as soon as possible. Converting John Maine — who is already having shoulder problems — is not a very good idea in my opinion. Instead, the Mets need to acquire another free agent and/or reach down to the farm and promote pitchers who are not worn out — and USE THEM.

Kip Wells would have been a nice idea, but he was just picked up by the Royals (who apparently don’t realize they’re out of the race). Yes, Wells stinks but his arm is fairly fresh, and he’s pitched well out of the bullpen. Maybe there are other arms out there like Wells — starters with something left in the tank, who might transition to the ‘pen. The Mets are trying it with Brian Stokes, and may have to turn to Bobby Parnell and/or Jon Niese next. Any other ideas? Post them below.