(Heilman, earlier in 2008 before Joe Strummer’s estate requested that “London Calling” be replaced on the Shea tannoy with “Straight To Hell”)
Though there was no shortage of blame to go around following the Mets’ 9-6, 10 inning home loss to the Cubs Wednesday night (neither Oliver Perez nor Luis Ayala can be held responsible for squandering a Danny Murphy 9th inning lead off triple), it’s beyond obvious the extent to which the Mets have been victimized by baseball’s worst bullpen. “That the Mets remain in the hunt for a postseason berth despite Billy Wagner’s injury is something short of a miracle” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Jay Jaffe, his hopeful tone tempered by the reminder, “they have lost 28 games in which they were either ahead or tied after six innings, the most in the majors.”
A quick peek at the individual numbers informs us that it’s not hard to recognize a systemic combination of overuse and ineffectiveness. Of the six relievers whom Jerry Manuel has called upon most frequently, five have second-half ERAs above 4.90: Ayala (5.54, including his Washington stint), Pedro Feliciano (6.38), Aaron Heilman (6.75), Duaner Sanchez (6.00), and Joe Smith (4.91); Scott Schoeneweis (4.50) is the exception. Excluding the late-arriving Ayala, that bunch has combined for 152 appearances in 63 games since the break, a breakneck 78-game pace for each over the course of a season. Feliciano (83 games), Ayala (80) and Smith (79) represent three of the six major league pitchers stretched to that exhausting plateau over the full season, with Heilman (77) not far behind. Overall the Mets rank second in the league since the break with 227 relief appearances, an average of 3.6 per game.
Driving such a frenetic pace is a massive platoon split that has Jerry Manuel chasing the “right” matchups, following a single-minded La Russa-style tactical orthodoxy at the expense of more important strategic imperatives such as conserving bullpen arms over the course of the long season. When they have the platoon advantage (righty on righty or lefty on lefty), Mets relievers have limited hitters to just .225/.299/.325; ranked by OPS, that’s an impressive fourth in the majors. However, when they don’t have the platoon advantage, they’ve been tagged at a .294/.375/.479 clip, worst in the majors. The 227-point OPS difference between situations is the highest by a wide margin; second-highest are the Brewers at 188 points, and they just whacked a manager over his platoon-related shenanigans and bullpen mismanagement. The take-home message is yet another reminder that chasing matchups can easily backfire on a skipper, either by exposing lefty specialists such as Schoeneweis (.333/.421/.509 versus righties) or Feliciano (.357/.453/.561) to the point where they face more righties than lefties, or by shunting a heavier workload to the second- or third-tier pitchers in a bullpen.