Sport News Articles- The Mets’ Stretched Bullpen Nears the Breaking Point
Mike Marshall led the majors in appearances in 1973, with 92 for the Montreal Expos. The next spring, having joined the Los Angeles Dodgers, Marshall met his new manager, Walter Alston.
“He said, ‘If you’re ever tired, you let me know; otherwise, I’ll use you,’” Marshall said in an interview last summer. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you right now: I will never tell you that I’m tired.’”
That season Marshall worked in a record 106 games. No pitcher has come within 12 of that number ever since, but we just might witness history at Citi Field this season: Jerry Blevins, the veteran Mets left-hander, is on pace to make 96 appearances after Wednesday’s dreary 6-5 loss to San Diego.
Blevins did not pitch this time, because Manager Terry Collins told him he would have the night off. Collins freely offered that tidbit in his postgame news conference, but was less forthcoming beforehand with the more mundane status of Jay Bruce’s stiff back. Collins said he was “not at liberty to discuss” injuries, another twist in the organization’s slapstick approach to medical issues.
Their approach to the bullpen merits scrutiny of its own. While Blevins may not break Marshall’s record, he could challenge the mark for appearances by a left-hander: 92, by the Mets’ Pedro Feliciano in 2010. Feliciano soon blew out his shoulder, missed the next two seasons and was effectively finished after that.
Blevins, whose career high is 73 games, does not aspire to break any records.
“It’s not like a goal of mine to throw that much,” he said. “But the season has ups and downs. As long as I feel like I’m ready to pitch, I’ll be available. If I’m not, I won’t throw that day.”
Usually Blevins is ready; he asked to work on Tuesday to stay sharp, which effectively kept him out of a close game Wednesday. Without him, the Mets used five other relievers and are now averaging four relievers per game, which would break the record set by the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Dodgers — who averaged 3.74 relief appearances (606 overall) — ended up in the National League Championship Series.
These Mets, battered by injuries and slumps, are just trying to sniff .500, at 19-25. Three of Wednesday’s relievers — Fernando Salas, Neil Ramirez and Josh Smoker — combined to turn a two-run lead into a discouraging defeat.
Collins’s reliance on so many relievers is largely due to the woeful performance of his starters, whose 5.15 earned run average ranked 28th of 30 teams before Robert Gsellman’s six credible innings on Wednesday. It also reflects a trend: With starters going fewer and fewer innings, managers are slicing the remaining workload thinly among relievers.
According to Elias, there were 15,303 relief appearances in the majors last season, the most ever. That came to 6.3 a game (both teams combined), and through Tuesday, this year’s figure was 6.24, which would be the second-highest ever. The number will likely rise when rosters expand in September; the Mets and the Padres did their part Wednesday, using 10 relievers overall.
“Everybody’s concerned about workloads and pitch counts,” Collins said. “In certain situations, you’ve got to protect those starting pitchers, and we’re certainly the team that’s exposed more than anything. With the injuries that have caused problems with our rotation, hey, we’ve got to be very careful with the ones that we still have here, because if they have issues, we don’t have a lot behind them.”
Sometimes, Collins added, teams seek only five or six innings from their starters because they have better bullpen options for the last few innings. That is largely because of the volume of hard-throwing relievers flooding the game. The new 10-day disabled list also makes it easier for teams to shuffle in new relievers to replace tired ones.
“High-octane arms are in overabundance now, compared to what you saw before,” Padres Manager Andy Green said. “Sixth-inning guys now are a lot better than sixth-inning guys used to be. Managers have that type of choice, the ability to go to that arm and cycle through options. With the 10-day D.L., there’s teams that are operating under a much larger roster than a 25-man roster right now. So it keeps arms fresh.”
Some teams, like the Mets and the Yankees, carry eight relievers. A typical eight-man group, Green said, often has not only hard throwers, but one or two others who might throw from an unusual angle. Managers often prefer one of those pitchers to a starter already familiar to the hitters.
“Analytics are more ubiquitous in the game now — anywhere you look, people know that the third time through the order, numbers for starters tend to go up,” Green said, meaning E.R.A. and opponents’ average. “So you’ve got decisions made, in conjunction with front offices, that this is the way we want to manage going through the season.”
Just three years ago, in 2014, teams averaged six innings per game from their starters. Through Tuesday, only four teams — San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington and Arizona — were averaging at least six inning a game this season.
“It’s a plan,” Green said. “If you’ve got three guys that are top-of-the rotation starters, then I think it could reverse. But I do see it kind of trending this way.”
The Mets were supposed to have three elite starters. But while Jacob deGrom has been solid, Noah Syndergaard is hurt and the struggling Matt Harvey has gone more than a month since he last worked six innings in a game. The Mets’ average of 5.4 innings a start was tied for 23rd in the majors.
“It’s a combination of many things — it’s starter health, and trust in the talent in the bullpen is a lot stronger now,” Blevins said, speaking generally. “They see matchups a little bit different than they did in years past. The game’s kind of evolving to appreciate what we do down in the bullpen a little bit more.”
All that work has suited Blevins, whose 1.72 E.R.A. was the best on the Mets. The E.R.A. for rest of the relievers, though, is 5.44. Chasing the team appearances record — with that group — is no relief at all for the Mets.
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