The New York Mets have a history of a volatile and underwhelming bullpen. So what did they do to address this glaring issue in 2019? They traded a player package including top-notch prospect Jarred Kelenic for veteran Robinson Cano and the 2018 league leader in saves Edwin Diaz. How did it turn out? Mets relievers posted a 4.99 ERA (25th in MLB) and blew 27 saves (tied for 22nd in MLB) in 2019. Despite the theoretical improvement with Diaz, both marks worsened from the 4.96 ERA and 17 blown saves belonging to the Mets bullpen in 2018.
The Mets will be looking to rebound in 2020 with a bounce-back year from Diaz and continuing performance from Seth Lugo, the Mets’ best reliever in 2019. If these two can perform to their potential next season, the Mets could have a sneaky eighth- and ninth-inning duo. Justin Wilson, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman, and Daniel Zamora headline the rest of the shaky bullpen, that while highly unlikely, have a long shot to stumble across save opportunities in 2020.
|New York Mets Bullpen|
|Edwin Diaz||Seth Lugo||Jeurys Familia||Justin Wilson||Robert Gsellman||Daniel Zamora|
Closer – Edwin Diaz
Relief pitchers are among the most volatile in baseball in terms of year over year performance. Edwin Diaz is the epitome of such volatility. The two-pitch shut down closer finished 2018 as the undisputed top relief pitcher in the MLB followed by a 2019 campaign headlined by seven blown saves and a 5.59 ERA. At the very least, you could have expected a slight advantage in 2019 compared to 2018 with the loss of the DH as a result of the switch from the American League to the National League. This was not the case.
|SV||BS||ERA||WHIP||FIP||HR/FB%||K%||B%||Hard Hit %|
Most pitchers susceptible to fly balls experienced a down year due to 2019’s juiced baseballs, but Diaz got crushed. He allowed 2.33 HR per nine innings as compared to 0.61 in the 2018 campaign. This was the WORST rate among eligible relief pitchers in 2019 and a .377 BABIP was the second worst in the league. These metrics are a product of the 48.8% hard hit rate, ranking third worst in the MLB. I expect Diaz to positively regress out of the bottom five in these categories in 2020, but not necessarily back to his 2018 levels. Diaz’s fly ball rate jumped to 44% in 2019 from 35% in 2018, as hitters were able to keep the ball off the ground. This issue was exacerbated due to the universally elevated home run rate. If the balls are back to normal next year, the increase in fly ball rate should be less of a concern.
The continued ability to record strikeouts at an elite level suggests optimism for 2020. Diaz ranked fifth among eligible relief pitchers with a 39.0% strikeout rate. Diaz added 1.4 inches of horizontal movement above the average to his four seam fastball up to 3.9 inches in 2019 from 2.5 inches in 2018. Velocity has remained impressive at 97.4 mph in 2019. Diaz should continue to be one of the most elite strikeout closers in 2020. The Steamer projection system is suggesting a bounce back in 2020 on the heels of a 2.9 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. I side with the projections. If the MLB eliminates the juiced baseballs in 2019 as many are expecting, Diaz will continue to strikeout opponents at an elite level and the home run challenges should subside, creating an environment more similar to the 2018 campaign as he settles into his second year in New York.
Setup – Seth Lugo
Seth Lugo is good. Actually, he’s really good. Unfortunately, Lugo is blocked by Diaz for save opportunities, but nonetheless carries quite a bit of upside. Lugo was the sole bright spot in an otherwise gloomy Mets bullpen. The 3o-year-old veteran carries a five pitch arsenal and a curveball that is among the most lethal weapons across the MLB. Lugo’s curve touted a spin rate in the 100th percentile and .189 xBA in 2019. There’s no reason to believe he can’t duplicate the shiny 2019 campaign highlighted by 2.7 ERA, 0.9 WHIP and 11.7 K/9. Lugo carries stand alone value due to his elite ratios and strikeout rate but if Diaz were to get injured or lose the closing role, Lugo could evolve into one of the most elite closers in MLB.
Setup – Justin Wilson
The 32-year-old left-hander Justin Wilson found some stability with a full year in New York in 2019 after spending the majority of his career hopping from team to team. Wilson is by no means a poor reliever, but given his age and track record, it is more likely to expect deterioration in future campaigns. The lefty veteran managed a 2.45 ERA and 4 saves last year over 39 innings of work. While the ERA pops, a 3.91 FIP and 4.06 SIERA suggest some luck. Wilson certainly got lucky with a 87% left-on-base rate as compared to his career 77% mark. There were also some positive developments in 2019, such as a more effective cutter. Wilson added movement to the pitch and upped its usage to 39% in 2019 from 15% in 2018. Along with the added movement came a .197 batting average against versus .372 in 2018. Given the effectiveness of the pitch change, I expect a more similar mix into 2020 but Wilson will negatively regress as the left-on-base rate normalizes. Don’t expect many saves or a sub-3.00 ERA again this year.
Middle – Jeurys Familia
The Mets shipped Familia to Oakland in 2018 for the A’s playoff run, but the righty would return as a free agent in 2019. The long-time Met was once a beloved closer, posting some of the most dominant relief numbers in the league in 2015 and 2016, but the days of 50 saves and a sub 2.00 ERA are long gone. Familia’s primary claim to fame is infuriating New York Mets baseball fans by walking the bases loaded on a regular basis in the final inning of competitive baseball games. Last year, the 30 year old posted a 5.7 ERA across 60 innings. The righty still demonstrated his strikeout ability with a 9.45 K/9, but the 15.3% walk rate caused his WHIP to blow up to a 1.73, the worst in the MLB among eligible relievers. There’s not much reason for optimism in 2020. I expect the walk rate to regress closer to Familia’s 4 BB/9 career mark rather than the 6.3 BB/9 in 2019, but that is not enough to turn Familia around. The days of dominance are gone, save chances have dried and Familia is a below average relief pitcher for 2020 with significant downside risk.
Middle – Robert Gsellman
Gsellman was a once highly-regarded prospect with a 70-grade fastball. Now, the 26 year old enters 2020 as a failed starter. There are rumors that the Mets may move Gsellman into the rotation for 2020, but for now, I am assuming he remains in the same role as 2019, where the righty threw nearly 64 innings of relief. Gsellman came through the minors as a starting pitcher, but last started an MLB game in 2017, where he posted a 5.19 ERA and merely a 6.17 BB/9. The converted reliever has added 2 mph to his fastball since moving into the bullpen, but this hasn’t had a meaningful impact to his performance. Strikeouts per nine innings reached a career high of roughly 8.5 in 2019, but this remains less than elite. Throughout 2018, the Mets flirted with Gsellman as the closer, as he recorded 13 saves, but they have yet to demonstrate that level of trust ever since. He doesn’t seem to take well to the ninth inning pressure. Gsellman blew 4 saves in 2019 as compared to only successfully completing 1 save. I would be shocked if the Mets gave Gsellman a meaningful amount of save opportunities in 2020. If Gsellman remains in the bullpen, expect a multi-inning role of an ERA above 4 and mediocre strikeout numbers.
Middle – Daniel Zamora
Zamora is a 6′ 3” lefty who only logged 8.2 innings in 2019. RosterResource per fangraphs.com currently has the 26-year old listed as the third middle reliever for the Mets in 2020. Zamora is a former 40th round pick by the Pirates back in 2015 with only 17.2 MLB innings under his belt. Zamora relies heavily on his slider (72.4%) and also features a fastball (25%) and changeup (2.6%). 2019 was a forgettable year for the young lefty, as he posted a 5.19 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in his small sample. A 19.5% strikeout rate paired with a 12.2% walk rate don’t help his case. Zamora’s fastball also gets mashed at the major league level. The soft-tosser tops out at 89 mph on average with the heater along with a 20% walk rate and .375 batting average against. He essentially relies on the slider for any kind of effectiveness, only allowing a .174 batting average and .217 SLG. It is tough to be effective at the major league level with only a single pitch. I would expect this is the last time you hear about Daniel Zamora for 2020.
Paul Sewald: Sewald is entering his fourth season as a Met. His role was reduced in 2019 down to 19.2 innings from 56.1 innings in 2018. Sewald is able to find the strike zone with consistency with a 3.8% walk rate, helping to contribute to a solid 1.07 WHIP in 2019. The soft-tosser is primarily a three-pitch guy who tops out at 91 mph on the heater. He is a career 9.5 K/9 and 5.16 ERA pitcher. As another weaker spot in the Mets bullpen, I wouldn’t expect relevancy in 2020.
Chris Flexen: The 250-pound 25-year old spent the majority of 2019 in AAA, mixing in 14 starts among his 26 games pitched. Flexen flashed strikeout potential in AAA at a 10.5 K/9 pace, but MLB hitters weren’t fooled with his stuff, logging a 6.6 K/9 in the bigs. Over his 13.2 big league innings, Flexen struggled posting a 6.59 ERA and 5.56 FIP. He added 1.5 mph to his fastball, up to 94.5 mph, adding to his fastball-heavy five-pitch arsenal that could be tapped into sometime in the future, but it is yet to be seen what kind of role Flexen will undertake in 2020. I wouldn’t bet on Flexen breaking out in 2020, but wouldn’t be surprised if he logs 30 to 40 serviceable innings this year.
Drew Smith: Despite the rest of the relatively unappealing Mets bullpen, Smith sparks some interest. Unfortunately, Drew Smith underwent Tommy John in 2019 prior to throwing any MLB innings. The Mets have yet to release a firm timetable for Smith, but I wouldn’t bank on anything in 2020. Smith was a former 3rd round pick in 2015 and was acquired by New York in July 2017 from the Rays in the Lucas Duda trade. Smith flashed dominance as a reliever in the minors, always touting high strikeout rates and not allowing any runs and logging a 3.54 ERA and 1.43 WHIP across his first 28 major league relief innings in 2018. The hard-throwing righty carries a four-pitch arsenal, including both a four seamer and sinker that average over 96 mph. While the fastball posted a -2.2 pitch value in 2018, it ranked in the 93rd and 73rd percentile in velocity and spin rate respectively. Smith’s curve is his most effective pitch posting a .192 batting average against in 2018. While Smith won’t be around in 2020, he may be worth monitoring as he rehabs. If Smith comes back healthy and can bump his K rate up closer to his minor league levels, I wouldn’t be shocked if he fills a setup or possibly closer role in the future.
The Mets bullpen is one of the worst in the MLB, plain and simple. If the juiced baseballs are gone in 2020, I expect a significant bounce back for Edwin Diaz. If the balls are the same, I still expect an up season, but not to the elite levels of 2018. If Diaz were to get injured or lose the closer role, Seth Lugo could turn into a dominant closer. There is a SHOT the Mets end up with a lock down 8/9th inning duo, but, knowing the Mets, something will go wrong. Other than these two, the rest of the Mets bullpen is one you can forget about for 2020.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)