Sports Nut

This Call to the Bullpen Is Eroding My Stomach Lining

The cruel torture of watching the New York Mets’ relief pitchers.

Mets relief pitcher Luis Ayala 

On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman reported that National League scouts aren’t fond of the New York Mets relief corps. To put it in the words of one NL talent evaluator: “Their bullpen is bleeping brutal.” The bullpen wasn’t the biggest villain in New York’s latest loss, a spectacularly awful 9-6 defeat to the Chicago Cubs that left New York tied for the NL wild card—starting pitcher Oliver Perez couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead, and the offense stranded seven runners between the seventh and ninth innings. Nevertheless, closer-by-process-of-elimination Luis Ayala threw gasoline on the Mets’ funeral pyre by giving up three runs in the 10th. At least that wasn’t as bad as Sunday, when three relievers gave up four runs in the eighth to cost the Mets a win against Atlanta. Or the Sunday before that, when the pen gave up five runs in the ninth to blow a two-run lead. Or the day before that, when they squandered a potential Johan Santana shutout. All in all, Ayala and his comrades-in-noodle-arms have blown 29 save opportunities in 2008, the most of any playoff contender. Now that’s bleeping brutal.

Rooting for an otherwise-decent baseball team with a horrendous bullpen is like cheering on a soccer team that uses an armless goalie to defend against penalty kicks. Sure, you might get a few thrills along the way, but eventually you come to realize that the game was lost before it began. Or perhaps a better analogy is a basketball team that can’t make free throws. In both cases, you’re carried through the first two-thirds of the game by the excitement of building up a lead and spend the last one-third chewing the fingernail off your foam finger. Phase 1: We’re going to win. Go team! Phase 2: Please. Please. Please. Not again. Why? Why? Phase 3: Come on, you’re supposed to be a professional athlete! This is unbelievable. Phase 4: Deep, choking sobs.

But the best comparison I can think of comes in football. For four quarters, running backs and defensive linemen break one another’s bones to give their teams a chance to win. With a few seconds to go, a specialist shuffles onto the field and pushes the ball wide right—three hours of hard work undone by a guy who looks like the Great Gazoo.

The big difference between a lousy kicker and a lousy bullpen: An NFL team in need can always ring up Morten Andersen. Fixing a subpar collection of relievers is trickier. With closer Billy Wagner out (and eventually lost for the season) with an elbow injury, the Mets were left with the baseball equivalent of chewed-up bubble gum: a sorry collection of meatballers, castoffs, and should-be minor leaguers. None of the team’s quick fixes—trading for Ayala, calling up various overmatched fellows from AAA—has made things any better. As a Mets fan, it’s tempting to blame someone—say, General Manager Omar Minaya—for this debacle. But the reality is that the chewed-up bubblegum strategy often works and that it would’ve been impossible to predict in spring training that every single Mets reliever would either underperform, get hurt, or both. When a bullpen can’t do anything right, the best strategy is also the most frustrating one: wait till next year.

For a case study in the unpredictability of major league bullpens, consider the Tampa Bay Rays. To go along with the best record in the American League, the Miracle Rays have the circuit’s second-best bullpen ERA at 3.46. In 2007, the Rays finished with 66 wins and a bullpen ERA of 6.16, the worst in the majors since at least the 1950s. This season’s dramatic turnaround isn’t the result of a philosophical change on the part of Tampa’s front office. In both seasons, the Rays threw together a collection of low-paid, hard-throwing retreads and never-weres. The 2007 group—led by Al Reyes, Brian Stokes, Shawn Camp, Gary Glover, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler (a midseason acquisition)—was historically awful. The 2008 group—led by Troy Percival, Trever Miller, Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell (a converted starter who had a 7.59 ERA in 2007), Glover, Balfour, and Wheeler—has been stupendous. (Baseball Prospectus’ Nate Silver argues that the Rays’ bullpen has been helped by the team’s improved defense, but the Tampa fielders would have to be toting 90-foot-wide gloves to account for a nearly three-run improvement in ERA.)

The Cleveland Indians are the Rays’ evil twin. After losing a tight AL Championship Series to the Red Sox last season, the Indians were a trendy World Series pick this year. Instead, the Indians started so poorly that, unlike the Mets, they never had the chance to disappoint their fans with a late-season collapse. One cause of the Cleveland cave-in: a bullpen that’s gone from sixth in the majors in ERA in 2007 to 29th in 2008. (The Mets rank 22nd.) The Indians, perhaps the best-run team in baseball since Mark Shapiro took over as general manager in 2001, seemed to do everything right. The team dumped its perpetually disappointing closer Joe Borowski this year and gave more responsibility to a trio of up-and-comers (Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and Rafael Perez) who’d blitzed through the American League in 2007. All three have performed worse this season than last, and the rest of the Indians’ pen has been even worse.

The Mets didn’t come into the 2008 season nearly as prepared as the Indians. As Chris Park wrote in Slate last year, “Clubs can reduce their risk of crushing bullpen failures by stockpiling young or undervalued arms and relying on whoever happens to be hot that year.” New York had no relievers as talented as any member of the Cleveland trio, having used minor league fireballers like Heath Bell and Matt Lindstrom as trade bait in recent years. The team’s major league roster was also cluttered with not-even-mediocrities like Scott Schoeneweis and Matt Wise. Even so, considering the year-to-year unpredictability of middle relievers, the Mets could be commended for refusing to patch their biggest hole with lots of money. Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez and even Jorge Sosa had all experienced bouts of goodness in recent years. Who’s to say they couldn’t do it again? After all, a similar patchwork strategy worked wonders for the Mets in 2006. That year, the team finished second in MLB in bullpen ERA thanks to a bunch of players with short résumés—Heilman and Feliciano and Sanchez, to name a few.

Of course, this type of dispassionate reasoning isn’t particularly comforting when you’re watching a succession of Schoeneweises fritter away the season. At this point, only something as ludicrous as installing Santana as the closer could change the Mets’ late-inning fortunes. (Sorry, John Maine, I have a feeling you’re just going to make things worse.) For Mets fans, one small point of comfort is that the one thing worse than suffering through a bad bullpen is going overboard to fix it. The 1997 Seattle Mariners were an offensive juggernaut (Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner) with a bullpen that makes the 2008 Mets look like a bunch of Mariano Riveras (closer Norm Charlton’s ERA: 7.27). At the trade deadline, Seattle traded Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to the Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb. The Mariners made the playoffs and lost the division series in four games; Varitek and Lowe became key members of Boston first’s World Series winner in 86 years. The Curse of the Bambino? That’s nothing compared with the Curse of the Bleeping Brutal Bullpen.