Sunday, June 8, 2014

Don't Blame The Bullpen, Blame The Bats

Don't worry, Jenrry.  It's not you or your armpit that stinks.  It's the team's hitters. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Saturday night, the Mets took a 4-3 lead against the Giants into the bottom of the ninth inning.  Closer Jenrry Mejia was called upon to protect the precarious lead, but he proceeded to allow two runs to San Francisco, turning what would have been a satisfying victory into an ugly defeat.

The loss was the 16th suffered by a Mets bullpen that has combined to record 15 saves.  The Mets are one of just four teams in baseball whose relievers have more losses than saves.  The other three are the Colorado Rockies (12 losses, 11 saves), Chicago Cubs (12 losses, 11 saves) and Tampa Bay Rays (12 losses, 9 saves).  Prior to last night's victory over the Dodgers, Colorado had lost eight straight games and 18 of their last 24.  As for the Cubs and Rays, no team in the National League has fewer wins than Chicago, and Tampa has the worst record in all of baseball.  But as unfortunate as the Rockies, Cubs and Rays have been with their bullpens, none of them can match the Mets' 16 relief losses, which are the most by any bullpen in the big leagues.

In addition, last night's game was the Mets' 17th one-run loss of the year.  That's 17 losses by the smallest margin out of their 34 overall defeats, or half of their losses.  The Mets lead all of baseball with their 17 one-run setbacks.  No other club has more than 14 losses by a single run.  And the team with exactly 14 one-run losses is Cincinnati, a team that made the postseason last year but is one of this year's biggest disappointments with a 28-32 record entering Sunday's game.  Another of baseball's most disappointing teams is the Boston Red Sox, who are also under .500 after winning the World Series in 2013.  Not by coincidence, the Red Sox have the most one-run losses (13) in the American League.  But neither Cincinnati, Boston nor any other major league team can say half of their losses have come by a single run.  Only the Mets can claim that.

Six different pitchers (Jenrry Mejia, Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Valverde, Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia, Daisuke Matsuzaka) have recorded at least one save for the Mets this year.  All six have also been saddled with at least one blown save in 2014.  And that's not including Bobby Parnell, the team's closer going into the season, who blew his only save opportunity before being lost for the year.

With all that negative statistical analysis, you'd think I'm blaming the bullpen for the Mets' inability to put up a few extra wins this year.  But it's the exact opposite.  It's not the bullpen I'm blaming, it's the bats.

Unlike recent seasons, the relievers are actually posting a lower ERA (3.51) than the starting pitchers (3.74).  And many of the relievers' losses this year have come when they've pitched beautifully.  For example, when the Mets lost to the Phillies in 14 innings a week ago, seven relievers combined to allow two runs (one earned) in 9⅓ innings.  But the bullpen got tagged with a loss in the Phillies' eventual triumph.  And yes, it was one of the Mets' MLB-leading 17 one-run losses.

Similarly, on May 9, when the Mets entertained the Phillies at Citi Field, the bullpen was stellar, allowing just one run on three hits in 6⅓ innings of work.  But that lone run was the decisive tally in the Mets' 11-inning loss to Philadelphia.  A one-run loss.  Again.

Those games are just two examples of how the Mets bullpen has been more than adequate this season even if the boxscore continues to show losses for the relievers and one-run defeats for the team.  The two losses to the Phillies have another thing in common.  The bats went to sleep after the starter was taken out of the game.  In the May 9 contest, New York scored one run on just four hits in the seven innings following the departure of starter Jenrry Mejia.  The team was 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position once Mejia was sent to the showers.  Similarly, in last week's 14-inning loss to Philadelphia, the Mets were shut out over the last nine innings, going 0-for-7 when they batted with runners in scoring position.

Last night's game was no different, as the Mets went 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position.  However, all three hits came when starter Bartolo Colon was still in the game.  Once the bullpen was called upon to protect the Mets' lead, the hitters decided to call it a night, going 0-for-9 over the last three innings.  As a result, the lack of an insurance run or two allowed the Giants to chip away at the Mets' lead.  And the end result was a loss by the bullpen and another one-run loss for the team.

Here is the Mets' recipe for playing baseball these days, a recipe that has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Mets fans.

  • Get an early lead.
  • Mix in a hit with a runner in scoring position.
  • Add a relatively strong effort by the bullpen.
  • Stop hitting when the lead appears safe.
  • Watch the bullpen allow no more than two runs in a one-run loss.
  • Repeat.

No team should have more losses from their bullpen than saves.  But the Mets can claim that dubious distinction.  Furthermore, no team should lose half of its games by just one run.  The Mets are alone in that regard.

New York's bullpen is not perfect.  No team's bullpen is.  But the relief corps shouldn't have to shoulder the blame for what the real problem is with the Mets this year.  The team is just not hitting.  They hit enough to put several men on base, then they hit the snooze button just as it appears they're putting a rally together.

Last night's loss and the two losses to the Phillies in May were microcosms of what's plagued the Mets all year.  The bullpen does its job, but the hitters don't do theirs.  It's the reason why players like Travis d'Arnaud (the only player in baseball with 125+ plate appearances who has yet to reach double digits in both runs scored and RBI) get sent down to the minors.  And it's the reason why the Mets are struggling to remain relevant in an otherwise mediocre NL East.

If the Mets were 14-11 in one-run games instead of 8-17, they'd be alone atop the division.  Instead, they're struggling to stay ahead of the Phillies for last place.  Batting .231 with runners in scoring position and having more strikeouts (143) than hits (129) in those situations have a lot to do with the Mets' shortcomings this year.  And don't get me started on the Mets' .159 batting average with the bases loaded or their .128 average with runners on second and third - a situation that is easier to score a run on because there is no force play at any base, unlike the bases loaded situation.

Don't blame the bullpen for the Mets' late-inning losses.  The relief pitchers have done their job better than you think.  Direct your vitriol straight at what passes for the Mets' offense these days.  The team's lack of timely hitting is leaving a bad taste in all of our mouths.  And that's most certainly a recipe for disaster.

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