The Mets Bullpen Has Been the League’s Best

The Mets bullpen is off to a great start in 2016. Just how good has it been, and is it for real? The answers: 1) very good, and 2) yes. 

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It feels like a lifetime since the Mets bullpen was a strength in a year that mattered but, believe it or not, the Mets bullpen was 2nd best in baseball in 2006, at least according to WAR. The bullpen that year was headlined by Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman, both of whom had fantastic years, but it was also deep, including Chad Bradford, Pedro Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez.

But aside from 2006 — and even that bullpen faltered a bit down the stretch — Mets fans are justified in feeling like the bullpen has been a weakness on most of the Mets recent competitive teams.

In 2000, the Mets bullpen was in the bottom-half, ranking 18th in ERA despite a monster year from Armando Benitez (who did not have a good reputation for performance in the clutch). In 2007, the bullpen ranked 14th in ERA, but also struggled in the second half (ranking 18th in ERA after the All Star Break). I don’t think I need to remind anyone about the Luis Ayala Closer Experience but, suffice to say, there was a reason that bullpen ranked 24th in ERA in 2008.

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Last year, the bullpen ranked 13th in WAR thanks to the herculean efforts of Jeurys Familia (1.6 WAR) and Sean Gilmartin (0.9 WAR) with minor contributions from several other players (such as Erik Goeddel and waiver-trade addition Addison Reed). Nonetheless, the Mets spent most of the year looking for a reliable set-up man in front of Familia, trying out Buddy Carlyle, Carlos Torres, and the ghost of Bobby Parnell after Jenrry Mejia was lost for the season to suspension.

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Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs posted an article this morning about the surprisingly good Phillies bullpen. He is absolutely right to point out what a pleasant surprise they have been, leading MLB in Win Probability Added, but I have to take issue with Mr. Sullivan calling them the “best”. That title belongs to the Mets bullpen so far this year.

So far this season, the Mets bullpen is 2nd in ERA, 1st in FIP and 3rd in xFIP. Their collective strikeout rate of 10.32 K/9 is 2nd in the majors, and their gap between strikeouts and walks (K-BB%) is 3rd. They’ve been good across the board, inducing swinging strikes (6th in MLB) and preventing home runs (1st in MLB).

Overall, the Mets pitching staff had performed amazingly well in “high leverage” situations. They have allowed the league’s lowest wOBA against in such situations, with a league leading .244 slugging against. Their ERA in those situations is 2nd in baseball and is almost less than half the league average.

The peripherals support the performance and they’ve been clutch when it matters. In fact, if there was anything limiting the Mets bullpen’s ability to lead the majors in WAR, it’s opportunity: they’ve pitched the fourth fewest innings this season, presumably thanks to our strong starting pitching.

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So who and what is to thank for the Mets emergence as one of the top bullpens in the league so far this year?

I’ll begin with “what” is to thank: the fastball. According to Fangraphs, the run value for the Mets bullpen fastballs is a mind-boggling +20.3, nearly twice the value of the second-place Athletics. Take a look at this custom table sorted by reliever fastball value:

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There’s nobody even in the Mets area code when it comes to the fastball. So, “who” to thank? Aside from Sandy Alderson, who assembled the team, and Dan Warthen, who made all of these players into monsters, of course.

Addison Reed is 10th in MLB and leads the Mets with a 1.74 FIP. This is supported by his career-high 12.71 K/9 and 13.9 swinging strike percentage. Jim Henderson has been a revelation so far this year, striking out a whopping 13.5 batters per nine innings so far and posting a 3.21 ERA while working with Jerry Blevins (2.53 ERA) and Antonio Bastardo (3.12 ERA) to lock down the 6th and 7th innings this year.

robles.JPGHansel Robles is one of only seven relievers with an ERA and FIP less than 2.25, K/9 above 10 and BB/9 less than 3. He’s with good company, on a list comprised mostly of superstars and closers.

Of course, we have yet to mention Mets closer Jeurys Familia who is among the league’s best. Familia pairs a 96 mph sinker with a hellacious split and slider in order to torment National League hitters. Among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched over the last calendar year, Familia ranks 13th in ERA, 11th in GB%, 10th in fastball velocity, 15th in swinging strike rate, and 10th in inducing soft contact. Like I wrote for MetsMerized last year, he excels because he can do everything you want a pitcher to do and does them all very well.

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Quite frankly, aside from Henderson, there isn’t a single Mets reliever who you look at and think, “this performance is unlikely to continue.” It would be possible, if not overwhelmingly likely, for Reed and Robles to return to Earth somewhat, but even performances in line with their updated projections (for instance, Robles is projected to a 3.19 ERA for the rest of the year) would be welcome additions to the bullpen.

The Mets bullpen has been fantastic so far this year, and deserving of their high ranking on the MLB leaderboards. Most of the individuals who have contributed to that are the real deal, and will hopefully continue to contribute all year long.

Most fans are excited with the Mets flamethrowing young starters, and rightly so. But let’s not forget the men out beyond the wall who keep things uninteresting.