Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Edwin Diaz Dilemma

Prized by who
exactly?
I'm going to start this off with a confession. Watching Edwin Díaz attempting to hold the lead in the ninth inning makes me very nervous. (I know, I know, that's a shocking revelation.) I spent a good chunk of time this winter hoping the Mets would sign Brad HandLiam HendriksTrevor Rosenthal, Justin Wilson, and several other guys to bolster their late-inning relief and provide some Díaz insurance for the season. They did sign Trevor May early on, and he is certainly an option to close games if Díaz reverts back to his 2019 form, but the Mets didn't sign any other big-ticket bullpen guys. They pursued Brad Hand pretty hard and kicked the tires on some other closer types. Ultimately, however, they elected to spend money to fill other needs.

If that wasn't already enough insecurity for my fragile psyche to handle, the news that Seth Lugo will miss at least the first month of the season further deepened my anxiety. As of now, the Díaz insurance beyond Trevor May consists of hoping a Jeurys Familia or Dellin Betances can bounce back or the Mets catch lightning in a bottle with one or more of the other guys they assembled to compete for a bullpen spot. Really, if you had to bet on who would be closing games for the Mets this season, you'd have to go with Díaz.

Even if Edwin Díaz starts off pitching great this season, I know I'm never going to feel great about him as closer. Then again, when I think back over the years, I realize that I never feel great about a Mets closer. Even when I started following the Mets and Ron Taylor, Danny Frisella, and Tug McGraw were doing the job that we didn't even call closing back then, the final outs of any close game involved a good amount of white-knuckled anxiety. 

The years went by, and the names changed, but the stress remained about the same. Whether it was Bob ApodacaSkip Lockwood, Neil AllenJesse Orosco, Doug Sisk, Roger McDowellRandy MyersJohn FrancoArmando Benitez, Braden Looper, Billy WagnerFrankie RodriguezJenrry MejiaBobby Parnell, or the immortal Frank Francisco, my dreams are still haunted by the memories of all these guys blowing saves. Obviously, some of them were much better than others, but there was no such thing as a sure thing when any of these guys were trying to secure a win. Just looking at a few of those names threatens to trigger a panic attack.

Jeurys Familia was our closer before Díaz. He had 94 saves in 2015-2016. I know this isn't true, but it honestly felt like the tying and winning runs were on base when he recorded the final out in every single one of those games. I always spent the next couple of minutes after a Familia save using biofeedback techniques to bring my pulse rate and blood pressure back down to safe levels. One thing I'll say for Familia, he almost always actually did get that last out, no matter how ugly it looked.

So here we are in the present day, and there's a guy closing games who gives me agita. That's just business as usual for someone who's been rooting for the Mets as long as I've been. However, what makes it more troubling is that a poor season by Edwin Díaz might derail the Mets' playoff hopes this season.

For the first time since it went on air, I've been watching a lot of Baseball Night in New York this winter. I blame Steve Cohen for that completely. I'm so psyched about Mets baseball in 2021 that I DVR the show and watch it while I'm drinking my morning coffee. According to several people on that show, Sal Licata and WFAN's Maggie Gray, particularly, it's not a question of if Díaz derails the Mets season; they assure me that he will.

That's a bit pessimistic for my blood. Of course, you never know how it will go with a closer. We've seen two radically different sides of Edwin Díaz since he came over in Brodie Van Wagenen's "masterpiece" trade. He was genuinely terrible in his first year in New York. He allowed 58 hits in 58 innings while yielding 15 home runs. He blew 7 saves in 33 chances. The minor consolations were that his strikeout numbers were strong at 15.4/9 IP, and his walks weren't bad at 3.4/9. 

Last year, after a rough start, Díaz was pretty effective. He still wound up with 4 blown saves, but his hits/9 went down to 6.3, and his home run rate dropped to 0.7/9. If there was a concern, it's that his walk rate went up to 4.9/9. Small sample size alert: he only pitched 25.2 innings over the 60 game schedule.

So what to make of all of this? Edwin Díaz had some great numbers in Seattle over three seasons before coming here. In 191 innings over 188 appearances, he allowed 6.1 H/9 and 0.9 HR/9. He struck out 14.2/9 while walking 3.0/9. Those are dominant numbers. He saved quite a few games, 109 over those 3 campaigns. He only blew 12 games over that stretch, which is solid for a closer. Everyone is going to blow a few.

The eye test from a couple of seasons watching him confirmed for me that his stuff is dominant. On the other hand, if you watch where the catcher sets up and where the pitch goes, Edwin Díaz can be quite erratic. I've watched him strike out the side without hitting his target once. He gets a ton of movement and velocity, and he can get away with missing a lot, but occasionally it's what causes a blown save. Because he's so tough to hit, he can get away with how he pitches, especially if he's limiting home runs. He must get the walk rate back down to around 3. If he accomplishes that along with being stingier with the longball, he'll probably have a pretty good season. If he can't, they'll need to look elsewhere for a closer.

If Díaz does all of the above, completely dominates, and saves 30 of his first 30 chances, I'm still going to worry when he comes into games. If the Mets find a time machine and manage to bring back Mariano Rivera in his absolute prime, I'll still be nervous at the end of games. I'm always going to sweat the ninth inning.

I think there's a mentality among fans, myself included, that the Devil you don't know can't possibly be as bad as the Devil you do. You look at a Trevor Rosenthal, ignore all of the questions that surround him, and imagine you'd be happier with him as the closer. Or maybe it's Liam Hendriks, who's been really good for a couple of years after being not so good previously. Closers are always a volatile commodity, and there's no guarantee the guy who was awesome yesterday will be awesome today. I think back to Brad Lidge, who was as dominant in his prime as any closer. It all fell apart for him in the 2005 postseason, and Lidge never really was the same dominating pitcher again. But he actually did get the job done most of the time, even when he was no longer awesome.

The Dodgers won a World Series this year despite the falling performance of closer Kenley Jansen. They did it by not being afraid to use someone else besides Jansen when the situation called for it. They had a pretty deep bullpen without signing high-priced closer types to be setup men. Tampa Bay had a strong bullpen, despite spending less on it than I invested in the rust heap that was my first vehicle.

I'm just not going to go all that crazy over Edwin Díaz — at least not any crazier than I've gone over any of the names from Mets seasons past listed above. I'm not going to try to convince my readers or myself that he'll be great this year. I have no freaking idea. I do have a certain level of confidence that Díaz will not singlehandedly sink the 2021 Mets' season. I don't think that Sandy Alderson and Zack Scott would allow that to happen, nor do I believe that Steve Cohen would sit back and allow them to do that even if they were so inclined.

As much as possible, however, I'd like to see the Mets diversify away from the 1-inning-at-a-time, unpredictable fireballer that can't handle coming into a game with men on base that has dominated closer ranks over the last couple of decades. I liked the piece by Greg Joyce in the New York Post last week about new Mets reliever Trevor May. He quoted May on the reliever's willingness to be flexible about his role:

"In terms of role, I've been very, very fluid in my mindset. I feel like in this day and age, it's really important to widen the situations that you think you might be in. I know that’s the way that I’m used."

"...But at the end of the day, I'm one of those guys that just looks you in the eyes and says, 'Give me the ball, let’s get the job done.' So if that manifests itself in a different way than I'm thinking now, I'll adjust. That's how it works."

I have to believe, as the importance of starting pitching continues to lessen, the importance of relief pitchers like May, able to pitch in different roles as needed, is going to shoot way up. If you were around in 2006, one of the true unsung heroes of that team was Darren Oliver, a former starting pitcher who enjoyed a long second act in his career as a successful "long man." That Mets team was so starting pitching-poor that the sub-5 inning starts so common today were a fairly regular occurrence. Oliver could come into a game where the starter faltered and keep the Mets in it long enough for their high-powered offense to come back and win the game.

The Mets failed to resign Oliver after the season, allowing the Angels to outbid them for the valuable southpaw. They tried to replace him with Aaron Sele, who failed miserably in that role. There were many reasons for the 2007 collapse, for my money that was one of them.

If you're a Major League team, there are ways to win ballgames that don't involve putting big money and all of your hopes into one guy you've designated as closer. In the piece I quoted above, Greg Joyce noted that manager Luis Rojas mentioned that he hoped to have most of his bullpen pieces able to go two innings by the end of spring training. Given the trend of starters often pitching 5 innings or less, that strikes me as a good strategy to maintain maximum flexibility with your bullpen. The traditional closer who only comes in at the start of an inning in a save situation likely won't be going away any time soon. Still, I believe the relative value of that type will continue to diminish — particularly as teams enjoy success with more fluid approaches.

As for the upcoming season, I'll never be confident in Edwin Díaz, but I am confident that he won't be the reason why it goes down the tubes. There's too much at stake for the brain trust to allow that.

I'm out for today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

6 comments:

  1. Edwin Diaz reminds me of the short-term and oft-injured Jack Leathersich. He can blow the ball by anyone but you never knew how many would get free passes when they didn't strike out. I hope he remains solid and replicates what his 60-game metrics showed in 2020.

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  2. Actually, for a guy with bad command, Diaz' walk rate is fairly low. They always seem to come at the worst possible time, though, don't they?

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  3. Is there ever a good time to walk someone not named Babe Ruth?

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  4. Fans of EVERY team hold their breaths when their closer is in, unless his name is Rivera.

    We've got a lot of interesting names besides May who might close if Diaz implodes, and I'm going to keep a close eye on Castro and Smith. Both are on the verge of putting their game together, and are worth watching.

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  5. Reese - don't forget post-steroid Barry Bonds

    Bill - agree with you on both of those guys. I'm curious to see what Tommy Hunter looks like, too

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  6. The best solution is to not have save opportunities at all. Score lots of runs early and take a 6 run lead to the ninth!

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