If the Mets miss the playoffs this year, they’ll remember August 2 as the day their season irrevocably turned. In the ninth inning of a game against the Astros, interim manager Jerry Manuel summoned Billy Wagner to protect a 4-2 lead. Things quickly went awry, as the closer allowed four of the first five hitters to reach base, with Geoff Blum hitting a two-run single to knot the game. It was Wagner’s seventh blown save on the year, and it would be his last. Within a week, the 36-year-old lefty went onto the disabled list with what was reported as a recurrent strain in his forearm. A month later, just as he’d returned to throwing at full velocity, he was discovered to have a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery, which cost him the rest of 2008, and will also cost him most of 2009.

That the Mets remain in the hunt for a post-season berth despite Wagner’s injury is something short of a miracle, given the other obstacles they’ve had to overcome. Despite the drama of last year’s collapse, they entered 2008 with the league’s highest payroll and top PECOTA forecast, and they’ve largely lived up to their promise:

On the whole the Mets are third in the league in run differential and tied for third in wins. For them not to be in the playoff hunt would be an upset.

However, Wagner’s injury exposed the team’s Achilles heel, their bullpen, and if the Mets don’t make the playoffs, they can hang a good share of the blame on a unit that hasn’t come close to holding up its end of the deal. The Mets have lost 28 games in which they were either ahead or tied after six innings, the most in the majors. That’s partly a function of opportunity (they’ve played more games in which they were ahead or tied after six than any team) and partly a failure to execute (they’re 5-15 when tied after six). They rank dead last in the league and 25th in the majors in Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL), unsurprisingly the worst among the dozen teams that retain a mathematical chance of playing in October. Updating Joe Sheehan‘s chart from a week ago:

Rank Team       WXRL
  1  Rays       15.3
  2  Phillies   14.3
  4  Angels     13.1
  5  Dodgers    12.1
  7  Astros     11.0
 10  White Sox   9.6
 11  Cubs        9.0
 12  Twins       7.7
 13  Red Sox     7.4
 16  Brewers     7.2
 20  D'backs     5.8
 25  Mets        4.7

The ranking is by overall standings in the majors, and make no doubt about it where the Mets are concerned-that’s ugly. In fact, if the Mets reach the playoffs without much improvement from their bullpen, their WXRL total would rank among the 10 worst for a playoff team since 1988, a year chosen to represent the dawn of the one-inning closer era:

Year Team      WXRL  Rank  Won
1997 Mariners   0.3   14   Division
2005 Red Sox    0.5   14   Wild Card
2005 Braves     1.1   16   Division
1995 Yankees    1.8   13   Wild Card
1990 Red Sox    2.3   12   Division
2003 Red Sox    3.9   11   Wild Card, Division Series
1988 Red Sox    4.7    8   Division
1992 Braves     4.8    8   Division, Pennant
2002 D'backs    4.9   13   Division
1997 Astros     5.5    7   Division

Not surprisingly, the teams that made the playoffs despite such bullpen problems didn’t last long; only two out of 10 won a playoff series, and nobody won any championships. Limiting the discussion to teams like this year’s Mets who were in the bottom quartile of their respective leagues in WXRL-as I did in performing a recent postmortem of the Diamondbacks-narrows the list to seven, with one series win. This just in: a bad bullpen isn’t part of a winning recipe.

The sad fact is that through the first half of the season, even with Wagner performing at a level far below his peak, the Mets actually had one of the league’s better bullpens; their 6.1 WXRL through the All-Star break ranked third in the NL behind the Phillies and Dodgers. Since then, they’ve been a league-worst 1.4 wins below replacement level as a unit. Replacement closer Luis Ayala (-0.04 WXRL since coming over from the Nationals on August 17) is an obvious culprit, but he’s hardly the only offender.

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 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 the 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 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 ranks 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 like 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.

Yet for all of those woes, things might be different if Wagner were still around. Despite a superficially tidy 2.30 ERA, the five-time All-Star had accumulated just 1.5 WXRL in about two-thirds of a season, after compiling 3.8 last year and 5.9 in 2006 (second in the league). Depending upon which model of Billy Wags you use as a benchmark, that’s anywhere from one to four wins missing from his ledger. Even at its lowest, that margin may easily be the difference between a club playing their way into October and adding another season like their now-infamous 2007 collapse to give them a matched pair of late-season meltdowns.

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As a lifelong Mets fan I can say that watching our manager pick through trash looking for treasure on a nightly basis is terribly frustrating. The second to last paragraph regarding chasing the right matchups in the main problem that I have with ther way Jerry Manuel uses his bullpen.
That\'s just Manuel\'s style. He does that with hitters as well, constantly juggling to try to find the perfect mix. I think the situation, though can best be summed up in a classic quote from BP 04 about the Red Sox bullpen woes, that was something along the lines of \"If you have Chad Fox you\'re stuck with him. No matter how brilliantly you use him he will remain Chad Fox\". There has been some overuse, but the real problem is that over than Wagner (oops the Mets don\'t really have any above average relievers.
I too am a lifelong Mets\' fan, frustrated beyond words over this team\'s seemingly endless ways to squander advantage. But the stats in the second-to-last paragraph actually exonerate Manuel\'s seeming overuse of his relievers: when he doesn\'t have the \"right\" matchup, his relievers get tattooed. He has no choice, given a bullpen filled almost exclusively with matchup specialists, but to try for the \"right\" matchup over and over and over. He has no reliable reliever who is remotely effective against both lefties and righties. Given the makeup of this bullpen (Minaya\'s job), what else could Manuel do? If Willie were manager, we\'d be screaming at him for leaving ineffective relievers in for too long.
To me, the problem is somewhat philosophical and has as much to do with Minaya as Manuel - you\'re right about this being something of a function of the personnel at his disposal. But how many rattlesnake bites does one need to conclude it\'s not a good idea to play with a rattlesnake? Try something else. If you build your bullpen around increasing specialization - such as the \"luxury\" of having sidearmers from each side who are hell on their same-side hitters but get smoked when they don\'t have the platoon advantage (Smith, Feliciano) - you become a slave to trying to create those matchups, micromanaging your way through the late innings and burning through your relievers in what\'s likely to be an expanded bullpen (12 pitchers, maybe) that compromises the rest of your roster. If I\'m Manuel dealt this admittedly less-than-stellar hand, I\'d try to focus on getting longer stints out of my relievers instead of breaking up innings. At some point, warming up a guy on three consecutive nights to face one or two hitters is less productive than letting him pitch full innings with a typical two on, one off schedule. I\'d ake advantage of that extended September roster and give Maine a shot, Parnell and Figueroa too. I\'d try to get any of my relievers the upper hand by bringing them in to start he inning with a clean slate and nobody on base (another split where the Mets relievers are terrible is with men on). I honestly don\'t know that it would be successful given the limitations of time and personnel, but I do know that the team\'s current system is broken and what\'s being tried isn\'t working.
It seems to me that the kind of bullpen that the Mets assembled would be a considerable asset with a strong closer. The problem is that with Wagner going down, relievers are being asked to do things they aren\'t very good at it. This type of bullpen construction is inherently risky. Many strong bullpens have a setup guy who can do a plausible job as a closer when called upon, such Scot Shields (or Mariano Rivera some time back). Like a lot of decisions with the Mets, I wonder about the GM\'s attention to detail. Minaya did a great job of bringing in front line talent, but seemed to miss the supporting cast.
Jay, maybe I am misreading the article, but what about Tristram\'s point that the platoon related states support Manuel\'s usage pattern? I understand that means the pitchers involved are having to appear in a higher number of games, but if all you have is situational types (which the stats seem to support), does Manuel really have another choice?
The fact is that there are just too many role players and not enough guys that have a lot of talent to get righties and lefties out. Wagner\'s absence exposed the bullpen for what it really was/is. Sure, bullpen construction has to be the GM\'s job, but with the dearth of bullpen arms available at the deadline, what could Omar have done? Traded away a guy who could hit a lead off triple in the 9th inning of a \"must-win\" game for a(nother) has-been from a non-contender. Sure, it is easy to place the blame at the feet of Minaya, but his hands were tied; we would have been up in arms if bullpen-guy-de-jour walks away at the end of the year and Murphy is having a hot rookie season somewhere in the midwest. Such is life of a Mets fan. -DK, NYC
Amen to that. As another lifelong Mets fan on the thread, I was terrified that typically reactionary Minaya was going to have a Krivsky moment to shore up the bullpen at the deadline. As bad as things are, the decision to stand pat was still a good one.
Re: Omar Minaya\'s bullpen construction, the funny thing is that the Mets did have reason to think they had two relievers who could pitch to either side. That is, Heilman and Feliciano had never exhibited such extreme platoon splits prior to 2008 (Smith and Schoenweis were never anything but specialists though).
The Problem is that he does not have a choice. He has to play match-ups because no one can get guys out without pitch to the favorable side. I think Manuel would have went away from playing match-ups if only he had pitchers that could pitch to both lefties and righties. His \"style\" was born more out of necessity than anything else. Let me know if you know of any one in the bullpen that could have pitched to both sides. Scott Schoenwiess, and Heilman were supposed to be those guys, but Willy Randolph can now tell you the Scott can\'t, and even Aaron Heilman can tell you that he cant do it this. I would rather Jerry Manuel play match-ups with this bullpen. If you remember, Manuel tried to have set roles for his bullpen, i.e. man X is my 7th inning guy, Y is for the 8th and so on. As we all know, this did not work, so hence the desperate match-ups strategy. Hence the sprouting shock of gray hair and random spurts of crying fits at roughly 9:45pm ET every night for the past few months. Unlike Willy, Manuel has shown a willingess try anything to get out of late inning trouble. Mr. Randolph on the other hand did not know that he could use other guys in his bullpen. He might still have a job if he had paid attention to such things as Scott Shoewiess\' splits last year and not what his \"gut\" told.
One would think that with the roster expansion the Mets should have loaded up with even more relievers to chase the platoons in September. All of this is set into motion by not having starters who can get into the 7th inning (see Yankee experience the last two years). At least the Mets had Santana.
I didn\'t follow him with the ChiSox, so I don\'t know if Manuel would manage the bullpen differently if he began the season as Mets manager, but he inherited a bullpen that was fatigued from over-use, couldn\'t miss bats, and pitched away from contact--and I think the fatigue dictates the other two factors.
I don\'t doubt the statistics but if you listen or watch the Mets\' games, it is hard not to blame other aspects of the team besides the bullpen. Take last night\'s excruciating loss to the Cubs. Last night, Oliver Perez blows a 5 to 1 lead, pitching less than 5 innings. Perez\'s failure puts tremendous pressure on an already overused bunch. Nevertheless, the bullpen does a decent job, holding the Cubs to one run (given up by Brian Stokes) over 4 plus innings. Meanwhile, the Mets offense fails to cash in on numerous opportunities to take the lead. In the end, Luis Ayala, in his second inning of work, succumbs and the Mets lose. I realize this is one datapoint and it has no statistical significance. But, how many times have the Mets blown Johann Santana starts? Yes, the bullpen has coughed up those leads but most of the time the Mets have had opportunities to add to their lead and have not done so. I am curious to see a comparison of how many runs the Mets should have scored and how many they actually have scored. Yes, the bullpen is a disaster, especially since Billy Wagner went down, but this team also has other problems.
Life long Met fan? I am more a life shortened Met fan. Mr. Jaffe thank you for the excellent and timely analysis. I do give credit to Omar Minaya for making the franchise a consistent contender for postseason play. His roots are in scouting and he is an excellent evaluator of talent and potential but more so for position players. Since this is the second year in a row where essentially the same scenario has played out, I will remain skeptical of the value of the coming off season corrections, until the team actually wins a pennant/world series.