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The Formula for Bullpen Success Runs Deeper than Two Guys

Mike SteffanosSaturday, March 28, 2009
By Mike Steffanos

One of the perks of doing a blog is the opportunity to develop friendships with my fellow bloggers. One of those was with Mets Today's Joe Janish. Joe and I have had interesting email exchanges, because while we agree on many things we don't completely agree on anything. More than once during a really interesting exchange of emails I thought it was a shame that it was only Joe and I that were reading them.

I thought it might be fun to have some back and forth with Joe this season on topics where we represent opposing viewpoints.

A couple of days ago Joe sent me a link to this piece on Joe's thoughts that Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz might not make the difference as most of us think they will.

I would be doing both Joe and you guys a disservice if I tried to present his case just by pulling a couple of quotes out of his piece. Please take the time to read it and the excellent comments, too.

I think Joe was a little tough on Rodriguez, who blew 7 saves in 69 opportunities. To put this in perspective, in Billy Wagner's best year with the Mets, 2006, he saved 40 of 45 opportunities. That translates to a slightly lower percentage (88.9) than Rodriguez' (89.9) last season. Frankie will simply not have 69 save opportunities with the Mets, who do not play as many close games as the Angels.

Now Putz, on the other hand, blew 8 saves in only 23 opportunities last season. Certainly a repeat of that sort of thing would not bode well for the Mets.

Putz spent time on the DL last season with rib cage and elbow issues, so he has some excuse. The season before he saved 40 of 42, and was generally terrific. What to expect from him this season would depend on just how healthy he can stay, and there is just no way to predict that now. He did have a strong September, so that could be taken as a good sign.

One thing I think Joe might be on to is the reaction of the fans when K-Rod and Putz fail, as they inevitably will. To some extent the fans are being sold a scenario where any lead going into the eighth inning is a sure win. When a couple of those games slip away a few of the natives are going to get quite restless.

I made a point in my bullpen preview earlier in the week that both Rodriguez and Putz are coming to New York after playing their whole career on the much more laid back west coast. Just as you can't predict how healthy they will be, it's also impossible to predict how they will react when they hit an inevitable rough spot and get booed off the field.

That's not to say that I am anywhere near as pessimistic as Joe, but there are valid points here even if you are much more optimistic than my "glass half empty" colleague.

Where I really depart from Joe, however, is the thought that somehow Rodriguez and Putz represent the entire improvement of the Mets bullpen. What I see top to bottom is a bullpen that will miss more bats, get more ground balls and keep the Mets in games -- even when the starter doesn't have a strong outing.

As much attention as the closer and setup man get, the meat of a successful bullpen runs deeper. I'd argue that having a deep 'pen combined with a closer and setup man who were solid would lead to more success than having 2 great pitchers in those roles and not much else.

I see a bullpen more like 2006 than what we saw the last two seasons. As with any year the pieces have to come together, but I like the pieces a lot better.

Other than Wagner, the Mets lacked a power arm in the 'pen for most of the season. Both Rodriguez and Putz are pitchers that average more than a strikeout per inning, and there are other arms backing them up.

I've been impressed with Sean Green so far, and understand why other teams were looking to pick him up this off-season. 62 strikeouts in 79 last season wasn't bad for a guy who also induced ground balls 64% of the time last year.

I think it's reasonable to hope for Pedro Feliciano to return closer to his 2006-2007 form. If he could do that, I imagine he will spot into late innings with Green.

Brian Stokes and Bobby Parnell are both hard throwers who have a chance of being really solid middle innings guys.

I don't think it's a given that the Mets will have a great bullpen this season. I think they do have some really intriguing pieces which, if they come together, can do the job of protecting leads that wasn't done last season.

The biggest question to me will be Dan Warthen's ability to get these guys to throw strikes. As much as it hurts when someone comes into a game and gets torched for a few hits, history teaches us that it's the bullpens which get ahead of hitters and don't issue more than their share of walks that are the most successful.

Whether they get off to a good or a bad start, I think it will take time to judge this bullpen. A lot is also going to hinge on whether Pelfrey, Maine and Perez can hold their own, and if Livan Hernandez can recover enough old form to keep them in games.

I'm generally optimistic about the bullpen and the team as a whole. I think both have a good chance of succeeding. Even under my most optimistic hopes, though, I understand that this isn't going to be some sort of 162 game victory parade.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (5)

Assuming Putz and K-Rod remain healthy, I don't doubt that the 8th and 9th *should* be better handled compared to 2008. Like you, I think it will be the management of the 6th and 7th innings that will make the difference. Unlike you, I'm not confident that the new middle relievers will be any better than last year's.

First, I'm not seeing supporting evidence re: a major contrast in regard to swings and misses. Aaron Heilman had a 9.5K/9IP last year and Pedro Feliciano was at 8.4. Joe Smith was at 7.4, compared to Sean Green's 7.1 (or Darren O'Day's 6.0). Duaner Sanchez was at 6.8. If Bobby Parnell makes the team and is as good as advertised, he might outperform Sanchez. Stokes certainly throws hard, and had a 7.0 ratio in limited innings, but his career K/9 is only in the 5's. Maybe he'll be better than Scott Schoeneweis' 5.4, but maybe not. Bottom line is, the 6th and 7th once again look to be a daily edge-of-your seat drama, with a manager who tends to overuse arms based on the implausible strategy of "playing the hot hand" (a concept borrowed from Joe Torre by Willie R.).

What I DO like is that it appears the Mets won't be married to their middle relievers, the way they had been going back to '06. With so many "4-A" arms in camp this year, and no expensive long-term contracts, we can hope that there will be a shuttle between Buffalo and Flushing, mixing and matching both to find the right combination and to keep arms fresh through the year. Other than maybe the Angels, few teams have had success using the same 5-6 arms from April through October.

Heilman had a 9.5/9 K rate last season, 1.6/9 over his MLB averages, but his walk rate jumped to 5.4/9 (+1.7), his hit rate to 8.9 (+.6), and his HR/9 to 1.2 (+.3). Putz also had a very bad year with comparable BB and H/9 totals, but his K rate was still better (10.9). I think it was over for Heilman in NY, who became the whipping boy of that segment of the fan base looking for scapegoats. I liked him, and would have liked to have seen him given a chance to be fifth starter here, but he needed to go somewhere else. I think he'll bounce back nicely with the Cubs and come back to haunt this team, but there was no sense at all in bringing him back here as a reliever.

By the way, I wasn't making a point based on some calculation where you line up lifetime strikeout stats, anyway. I don't want to get into one of those nickle and dime arguments based on parsing stats.

Joe, honestly, which team dominates middle innings to the extent that there are not ?????

My point is that when you line up the bullpen the Mets started with last April:

Rodriguez = Wagner
Putz > Heilman
Feliciano = Feliciano
Green > Sanchez

Then you get into the middle innings guys, and you have to see how it shakes out. The Mets will miss Smith, I think, but not Schoeneweis, Matt Wise or Jorge Sosa. They have younger guys with more upside and a chance to have a good bullpen. Again, I'm not simply looking to parse stats. My eyes tell me I'm looking at more talent and more potential with this group.

Middle relievers can be a crap shoot, but I like the fact that the Mets have decided not to go the route again of "safe" mediocre or worse veterans. I think there's a better mix, and both Parnell and Stokes certainly have more upside than the guys they're replacing. I like the fact that Ron Villone was sent packing rather than getting a job based simply on "experience".

I don't like leaning on stats, either, but I wanted to illustrate the fact that the Mets had just as many, if not more, "strikeout" guys and "power arms" last year. Few Mets fans will agree with my opinion that Heilman has similar skills to Putz -- Heilman's 96 MPH fastball is nothing to sneeze at, and when healthy, he has one of the nastiest change-ups in MLB. (Hmm ... Putz also had a bad year in '08, and also was injured ... go figure.) But, everyone hates Heilman so I know I'm fighting a losing battle on that one.

Green will start out strong, but I suspect Manuel will wear him out by late June. He's a guy who pitches best with one days' rest between outings, but Manuel doesn't pay attention to things like that -- every day it's Game 7 of the World Series.

To me, the keys to the Mets' bullpen are Darren O'Day and Parnell. O'Day is a groundball machine, and his submarine style allows him to pitch constantly. But will too many of those groundballs get through the infield is the question. Parnell's 97-MPH fastball could be devastating, if he can keep batters off balance with a second pitch. And we need to see if he can retain that velocity throwing several days a week. With a little luck, this bullpen could resemble '06 ... though, who's the long man?

I agree with Mike here. The big difference is that the Mets now have pitchers who will throw strikes- and throw them to both righties and lefties. The old bullpen couldn't do that effectively. There were too many specialists who couldn't go long into the game. That caused the Mets starters to have to pitch 6-7 innings even if they didn't have their best stuff.

I think this bullpen will resemble the 06 'pen better, simply because the game's now a 6-7 inning game. Between Green, Stokes, and Parnell, the Mets should have more than enough ammo to keep the game in their hands.

And Joe, Manuel's problem last year was that he had NOTHING in the pen other than Ayala, Smith, and Stokes last year. He had no choice but to go to them over and over because of that. He's got more options this year, and it'll show.

Bottom line is, is that if the bullpen blows 10 less saves than last year.......that gives them potentially 99 wins. That's what will make it more like the 06 team's 97 wins.

Best part of the bullpen is that Putz can backup K-Rod...

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