Thursday, June 18, 2020

A Pyromaniac's Delight

As I've written other posts in my look back at the 2005 season it continually strikes me just how bad and chaotic the Mets bullpen was that year. Any starter who departed the game with a lead, even a pretty big one, did well not to count on that win until after the last out was recorded. Indeed, closer Braden Looper blew a save for Pedro Martinez on Opening Day, a deflating loss that would set the Mets on a 5-game losing streak before they finally notched their first "W".

What fascinates me the most about the 2005 'pen was that it could probably serve as a primer on how not to build a solid Major League bullpen. In all, 17 pitchers pitched relief innings for that club, and the vast majority were awful. Basically, the Mets would give any pitcher with a pulse and a working arm a chance to pitch out of their bullpen in 2005, and the vast majority only proved that they didn't belong in any major league bullpen. What follows is the story of the individuals who made up what was, with few exceptions, a bullpen that undoubtedly took years off the life of those of us unlucky enough to root for the 2005 New York Mets.

The Good

While the bullpen was pretty awful almost across the board, there were three guys who managed to do a good job over a period of time for the Mets that season, and one other that made this category on the strength of one legendary day.

Aaron Heilman
I've already done a post on Heilman for this series, mostly concentrating on his terrific 1-hit shutout of the Marlins. After 7 early season start, Heilman moved to the bullpen for the rest of 2005. His numbers as a reliever were quite good, the best of his career, in fact. He appeared in 46 games in relief, accumulating 66 innings with an ERA of 2.18. Hitters slashed a paltry .207/.293/.249 against him in that role, and he notched 5 saves after Braden Looper was shut down for the season.

Thanks to his excellent changeup, Heilman's numbers were actually slightly better against lefties, .208/.313/290 vs. .236/.286/.308 against righties. Since the 2005 Mets lacked an effective loogy, Heilman was often used in an inning where left-handed batters were due up.

Roberto Hernández
Hernández came to the Mets as a 40-year-old former closer who had fallen on hard times. Pitching Coach Rick Peterson worked with Hernández to pitch down in the zone, as his velocity had dipped some over the years. The work paid of as Roberto put together a really solid season for the Mets, their second best setup man after Aaron Heilman. He pitched 69.2 innings over 67 appearances, with a 2.58 ERA and 4 saves. 

Hernández was particularly effective against righties, holding them to a .213/.296/.268 line, while lefties slashed .244/.321/.390 against him. Hernández still threw pretty hard for a 40-year-old, but lost velocity dramatically if he pitched too often.

The Mets chose not to resign Hernández, despite his effective pitching in 2005. This was a mild surprise. He was heading into his age-41 season in 2006, but he was one of very few success stories in the bullpen. Apparently the Pirates offered more money than the Mets were willing to pay.

When Duaner Sanchez took his ill-fated taxi ride in August, 2006, the Mets were forced to give up RF Xavier Nady to regain Hernández from the Pirates along with Ollie Perez. Hernández wasn't quite as good for the Mets in August and September of 2006 as he had been the previous year, but he did stabilize the bullpen. The Mets once again elected not to keep him, and Hernández spent the 2007 season - his last in the majors - pitching ineffectively for the Indians and the Dodgers.

Juan Padilla
I already wrote about Padilla in Part 1 of my Flash in the Pan post. His biggest claim to fame before his season with the Mets was the Player to be Named Later when the Yankees dealt former Mets hero Jesse Orosco to Minnesota in 2003. It must have stung a little to be traded for a 46-year-old washed up pitcher.

Padilla was pretty bad in his first two MLB stops with the Yankees and Reds, but quite solid in roughly half a season with the Mets in 2005. He pitched to a 1.49 ERA over 36.1 IP. He only allowed 5.9 H/9 and 3.2 BB/9, and not a single home run. There was probably quite a bit of luck involved in those final numbers, particularly not giving up a HR. Still, his 2005 success would have given the 28-year-old righty at least the right to compete for a bullpen job in 2006, but he needed Tommy John surgery that March and Juan Padilla never pitched in the majors again.

Dae-Sung Koo
By the numbers alone, Mr. Koo was not a good reliever. 13 walks in 23 innings pitched was pretty bad for a specialist brought in primarily to get lefties out. I give him a bit of a pass because an injury contributed to making his stat line look a little worse than they might have been. He gets bumped up to the "Good" category on the strength of one awesome game that elevated him from mediocre LOOGY who walked too many batters all the way up to Mets Legend.

The Kind of Good, Small Sample Size

The pitchers in the following section managed to put up numbers that weren't awful, but mostly because they didn't have enough time to demonstrate just how bad they really were.

Victor Zambrano
Just by the stat line, the much-maligned Zambrano was one of the better relievers the Mets had in 2005. Big caveat here, though. He only pitched 5 innings over 4 relief appearances, the vast majority of his work in 2005 was as a starter. Still, he only allows a single earned run, and struck out 8.

Felix Heredia
Another guy who makes the "Good" category based on very limited numbers. Heredia came to the Mets in a trade for the dried-up husk of a pitcher formally named Mike Stanton. There was nothing in the erratic lefty's past that predicted it would go all that well with the Mets. He pitched in 3 games for the Metropolitans without allowing a run. He was diagnosed with an aneurism in his pitching shoulder in June and never pitched for the Mets again.

José Santiago
The 30-year old righty had some success with the Royals early in his career, but was at the tail end of his career in the bigs when he signed with the Mets in March 2005. He was sent down to Triple-A where he was used primarily as a starter. Santiago got a brief callup to the Mets in late July, and pitched in 4 games, allowing 2 ER over 5.2 IP. Luck was involved, as he scattered 10 hits, 2 walks and hit a batter. Somehow only 2 of those 13 baserunners crossed the plate.

The Mets sent him back down to Triple-A in early August. José Santiago would pitch 2 more seasons at Triple-A Norfolk for the Mets, but would never get called up to the majors again.

Shingo Takatsu
Takatsu was right-handed sidearmer whose best fastball only clocked in the mid-80s. He spent most of his time in Japan as a closer before signing with the White Sox as a 35-year-old in 2004. He pitched effectively in his first go-round with the Sox, saving 19 games with an ERA of 2.31 and a WHIP of only 0.98. In 2005 he was unable to repeat that fine performance, with his ERA ballooning to 5.97 and his WHIP jumping to 1.61. He was demoted to the minors and eventually cut by the White Sox.

The Mets were willing to give anybody a shot in their revolving door 2005 bullpen, so they signed Shingo and sent him down to Norfolk. He came up to the Mets in September, appearing in 9 games. He pitched 7.2 innings, allowing only 2 ER, but was kind of lucky, He allowed 11 hits and 3 walks, but the only runners who scored were on 2 solo home runs. The Mets cut him loose after the season and he went back to Japan to finish out his career.

The Bad

Now we get down to the guys who really stunk the joint out in 2005.

Braden Looper
It all started with the "closer". Braden Looper was bad enough for the 2005 Mets to earn his own post in this series. He pitched better than most fans remember in 2004, although you always had to sweat his save attempts. However, it started badly with Looper in 2005 and went down the toilet from there. Looper was handed a 2-run lead in the ninth on Opening Day in Cincinnati, blew the save for Pedro Martinez and lost the game. After allowing only 5 HR all year in 2004, Looper allowed 2 in that inning. The Mets lost 4 more in a row after that and 2005 was threatening to go bad fast.

The Mets caught a second wind and managed to be a contender until a late August/Early September swoon, but Looper never did right his season. He struggled all year, his season ending early after blowing his last 3 save attempts in September. He had a shoulder injury that required surgery. No one was sorry to see him go.

Heath Bell
The Mets never saw Heath Bell as a viable relief option. I'm not sure why. He first came up as a 26-year-old rookie in 2004, giving the Mets 24 solid innings out of the 'pen. Yet 2005 and 2006 saw Bell bouncing up and down between the Mets and Triple-A Norfolk. Finally Bell was shipped out after the 2006 season to the Padres for virtually nothing, and became a solid closer for San Diego.

Bell's 2005 season with the Mets was nothing to write home about when he was allowed to pitch. In 46.2 innings he allowed 56 hits and 3 HR, pitching to a 5.59 ERA. Bell was given chances, but anytime he faltered the Mets were quick to back off him. He threw pretty hard and seemed to have the right temperament for the 'pen, which he proved in 5 solid seasons in San Diego after he was shipped out.

Rick Peterson was a good pitching coach, and managed to help some guys like Roberto Hernández turn their careers around. But, for whatever reason, he didn't seem to like Bell, and that eventually cost the Mets the services of a pitcher that could have helped them. According to this article, Bell was told by coaches in the Mets Minor League system that "he needed to get out of the organization because other people didn’t believe in him." The sad part is that the Mets could have really used Bell in 2007 and 2008.

Kazuhisa Ishii
The walking man had only 3 September mop-up appearances as a reliever, long after he failed his way out of the starting rotation. He pitched 1-2/3 innings and allowed 2 runs. The Mets were long out of any playoff chance by that point, so it hardly mattered. He actually pitched a couple of times without allowing a run, but his last-ever MLB appearance was truly bad: in 1/3 of an inning vs. the Phillies he allowed 2 runs on 2 hits and a walk. He threw 11 pitches, only 5 of them were strikes. A fitting swan song for his MLB career.

The Ugly

Our final group was more than just bad, their efforts were an affront to the game itself as they took being bad and lowered it to an artform that was truly excruciating to watch.

Danny Graves
Danny Graves began his career with the Indians, then became a pretty decent closer after being traded to the Reds. From 1999-2002 he averaged 30 saves a year while putting up respectable numbers. His strikeout rate of 5.4/9 was quite low for a closer, but he generally got the job done. He made an impression with the bat, too, hitting home runs in 2000 and 2001 as his only hit in both seasons.

For some reason Graves was converted to a starting pitcher in September 2002 at age 27, even though he never started a game in 7+ major league seasons or in the minors before that. He continued starting in 2003, and it did not go well. He went 4-15 with a 5.33 ERA, and was moved back to the bullpen the following season. He managed 41 saves, a career high, in 2004, but his numbers were down across the board. He allowed more than a hit per inning and a total of 12 HR in only 68.1 innings pitched. He only walked 13 batters, 6 intentional, which allowed him to overcome the high hit total.

In 2005, the 30-year-old Graves got off to a bad start, earning boos from the Cincinnati fans. After being removed from another poor pitching performance, a fan called the half-Vietnamese Graves a "gook" as he was leaving the game. He replied with a one-fingered salute, and was immediately cut loose by the Reds. The Mets were desperate enough to take a shot at Graves for their bullpen, with predictable results.

The Reds' ill-conceived decision to move Graves to the rotation left its mark. Graves' velocity dropped from the 90s before the move down into the high 80s. Why the Mets thought he had something left boggles the mind, but when you look at some of the other guys they pushed through their bullpen in 2005 it was clear that anyone with a track record and a pulse would get a shot.

Needless to say, it didn't go well. Graves appeared in 20 games for the 2005 Mets, pitching 20.1 innings and allowing 29 hits, 17 R (13 ER), 5 HR, 8 BB and 3 HBP. In a season full of ugly bullpen performances, Graves' WHIP of 1.82 was almost criminally bad. Watching him pitch was like watching the Bugs Bunny baseball cartoon where runners continually circle the bases.

The Mets finally gave up on Graves and sent him down to the minors. He resurfaced late in September, and appeared in 13 games for the Indians in 2006. After that he was done as a major leaguer, his career likely cut short by the strange decision by the Reds to make him a starter for a season.

Mike Dejean
The Mets originally picked up Dejean in a 2004 trade with the Orioles that shipped Karim Garcia out of New York. He pitched decently for the Mets in a small sample, but they cut him loose after the season, only to resign him as a free agent.  The veteran righty was 34 in 2005, entering his ninth MLB season. He had some experience as a closer in Milwaukee in 2002 and 2003.

Mike Dejean made the club out of spring training in 2005 and got a lot of chances to pitch early on, as manager Willie Randolph saw Dejean as a key man out of the 'pen. He took the mound 28 times for the Mets in April, May and part of June. He was awful, pitching to an ERA of 6.31. In 25.2 innings, he allowed 36 hits, 18 BB and 3 HR. The Mets finally cut ties with Dejean in June, releasing him outright. I remember watching Dejean pitch in 2005, he was so bad that it was shocking that he was given so many opportunities to help the Mets lose games.

Dejean wound up getting picked up by the Rockies, the team he broke in with. He pitched better for them, enough so that they resigned Dejean for 2006. However, he was injured and pitched only an inning and 2/3 for them that year. He pitched for Colorado's Triple-A team in 2007, but did not make it back to the majors.

Manny Aybar
Just seeing Aybar's name along with Dejean makes me cringe a little. These two teamed up to give the Mets a truly awful 1-2 punch in the early months of the 2005 season.

Aybar began his career with the Cardinals, who converted him from a shortstop to pitcher. He somehow managed to last for 8 seasons in the majors despite a lifetime ERA of  5.11. After being used primarily and ineffectively as a starter in 1997 and 1998, Aybar was moved to the bullpen in 1999 and still struggled.

Over the next 4 years, Aybar pitched for 5 major league teams. He also spent time each year in the minors. After pitching in the Mexican League in 2004, he signed a minor league contract with the Mets in 2005. He pitched quite well in Triple-A, and the Mets were hurting for bullpen arms, so he was elevated to the big club in July.

Aybar was almost as bad as Dejean had been. He took the mound 22 times for the Mets, pitching to a 6.04 ERA. He pitched in the Opening Day game that Looper eventually blew, contributing to that loss by allowing a run in his one inning of work. In all, Aybar pitched 25.1 innings, allowing 17 ER on 31 hits, 7 BB and 4 HR. What kept him with the Mets so long was a scoreless inning streak he put together over 8 appearances from mid-late April, The rest of the time he was pretty bad. The Mets finally cut bait with him after he gave up 5 ER in an inning in a 12-2 loss to the Angels on June 10.

The Mets were the last Major League stop for Aybar. He finished out his career in Korea and the Mexican League. His Wikipedia page notes that he worked for the Mets as a pitching coach for their Dominican Summer League team in 2015.

Royce Ring
Ring came over to the Mets in the 2003 fire sale in the trade that shipped Robbie Alomar to the White Sox. The lefty had been a first round pick by the Sox in the 2002 draft. The Mets were hoping to use Ring as a lefty specialist, but he never could consistently find the plate.

He bounced up and down with the Mets in 2005. In all, Ring appeared in 15 games, totaling 10.2 IP. He allowed 10 H, 6 ER and 10 BB. The best part of Ring's 2005 season was the Mets cut bait with him a lot sooner than guys like Graves, Dejean and Aybar.

Ring pitched a few games for the Mets in 2006, then wound up going to San Diego with Heath Bell in 2007. He got traded to the Braves that July, and had some appearances with them that year and in 2008. He never mastered the strike zone. A brief cameo with the Yankees in 2010 ended his major league career. In 68 total major league innings he walked 42 batters. He retired in 2014 and is currently a pitching coach in the Mets' farm system.

Mike Matthews
Mike Matthews was a journeyman reliever, originally drafted in the second round of the 1992 draft by the Cleveland Indians. He was still a minor leaguer in August 1999 when he was traded twice in a single month: first to the Red Sox for another minor leaguer, then on to the Cardinals with another minor leaguer for pitcher Kent Mercker. It was with St. Louis that Matthews first tasted the majors as a 26-year-old in 2000. He appeared in 51 games in 2001 for the Cards in 2001, 10 as a starter and the rest in relief. In 2002 Matthews pitched in 43 games, all in relief, before being traded to the Brewers that September as the player to be named later for SP Jamey Wright.

The Brewers waived Matthews the following March, he was picked up by San Diego but did not pitch very well for the Padres. They released him after the season, and he was signed by the Reds. He pitched poorly for Cincinnati in 2004, and they elected not to re-sign him for 2005.

There was a club, desperate enough for relief arms in 2005, that was willing to give a shot to the 31-year-old journeyman who hadn't pitched well in the majors since 2002. That team was, you guessed it, the New York Mets. He made 6 appearances in April, the last 2 of which sealed his fate. After Matthews allowed a pair of runs to the Marlins on April 20 and then gave up 3 runs in 2/3 of an inning to the Nats, he was handed his walking papers. The Mets would be the last Major League stop for Matthews, who must have realized that there was no place left to go for a pitcher who couldn't pitch for the 2005 Mets.

Tim Hamulack
Hamulack was a lefty pitcher, originally drafted by the Astros as a late round pick in 1995. He was a rule 5 pick by the Royals in 2000, who promptly sold him to the Marlins. Cut loose by them in 2002, he hooked up with the Mariners for 2003, but was released again after the season. He signed with the Red Sox for 2004, but was again released after the season.

At this point he was 28-years-old and had never pitched in the majors. He signed a minor league contract with the Mets in 2005, earning his first callup to the major leagues in September. The Mets used him as a LOOGY in 5 games that September. He was never used for more than 2/3 of an inning in any of them. He was touched up for a run his second time out, but didn't allow another run until his last appearance on September 28. The Phillies put a real hurting on him, scoring 5 runs in 2/3 of an inning on 4 H, 1 BB and 2 HR in a game the Mets lost 16-6.

After the season Hamulack was part of the trade that sent him and Jae Seo to the Dodgers for Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll. Hamulack actually appeared in 33 games for the Dodgers in 2006, but was pretty awful. He never pitched in the majors again, spending some more years in the minors and independent ball before calling it quits after the 2012 season.

And so you have it, the story of the motley crew of cast-offs, has-beens and rejects that made up one of the worst Met bullpens I ever had to watch, particularly since the team itself managed to contend until their late August/early September collapse. If they had been blessed with even an average bullpen they might have bettered their 83-win total and even managed to contend for a wild card spot. We'll never know, of course.

By 2006, the Mets managed to assemble enough pieces to put together a solid bullpen. That, and a potent offense, led them to their division win, an NLDS victory and within one heartbreaking game of going to the World Series. But that story, of course, belongs to a different season.

That's it for this look back to the memorable Mets season of 2005. Thanks for stopping by and allowing me the chance to share it with you. Please stay safe, stay well and take care.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

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  1. Great as always Mike. Heath Bell was lights out in AAA with a 0.00 ERA. Just couldn't fathom why the Mets never used him the same way in Flushing. He dominated for San Diego when he got the chance.

    With a mostly older staff in the Omar years (Pedro, El Duque, Trachsel, Glavine, etc.( the bullpen played a big part in the team's success and failures. The 2006 division win was in large part due to Chad Bradford, Darren Oliver, and Duaner Sanchez (before he got hurt). Not having those players were a big reason for the collapses in 2007 and 2008.

  2. The sad part was that they let Dan Wheeler go in 2004 and Bell in 2007. Those 2 guys might have been the difference in those 2 collapses

  3. The anniversary of the Dan Wheeler for Richard Hildago trade was just the other day.


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