In more ways than one, the 2017 season was a total disaster for the New York Mets. They went 70-92 and missed the postseason, and their vaunted pitching staff basically disintegrated. The Mets ranked 28th among the 30 teams with a 5.01 ERA, and their starters ranked 27th with a 5.14 ERA. Ouch.
As a result of their miserable 2017 season, the Mets will rethink the way they use their pitching staff going forward, reports Marc Carig of Newsday. They might prohibit their starters, aside from co-aces Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, from going through the lineup a third time. From Carig:
The Mets intend to rethink the way they use a pitching staff that disintegrated during a 92-loss season, sources have told Newsday. It's a philosophical shift that will shape their decisions as general manager Sandy Alderson begins a critical offseason reboot.
With the exception of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, Mets starters may be shielded from facing lineups more than twice in a game, mirroring an industry-wide trend, according to a source. The adjustment comes after a season in which team officials watched many of the Mets' starters fade badly as they pitched deeper into games.
If you watched the postseason at all, you heard an awful lot about the third time through the order penalty. Pitchers tend to perform worse each time through the lineup, so in the postseason, managers had a quick hook and turned the game over to their bullpens early. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in particular was very strict about pulling Rich Hill and Alex Wood before they went through the lineup a third time in October.
Here are the MLB averages in 2017:
- First time through lineup: .250/.315/.417
- Second time through lineup: .265/.331/.449
- Third time through lineup: .272/.337/.462
- Fourth time through lineup: .270/.337/.439
The numbers the fourth time through the lineup come in a much smaller sample size -- there were 19 times more plate appearances the third time through the lineup than the fourth time -- and also with some selection bias. In most cases a pitcher was only left in to face the lineup a fourth time because he was pitching extremely well.
On one hand, pulling your non-elite starters before they go through the lineup a third time makes perfect sense. On the other hand, that puts a lot of stress on the bullpen, and there aren't nearly as many off-days during the regular season as there are in the postseason. In the postseason managers knew the off-day was coming up, and their relievers would soon get a rest. That isn't always the case in the regular season.
It seems to me the best way to employ this strategy during the regular season is having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings. That way you can pull your starter before he goes through the lineup a third time, and use one reliever to soak up two or three innings rather than needing two or three relievers to do that. In theory, the Mets have the personnel to pull it off. Here is their rotation depth chart, via the team's official site:
Not listed are Rafael Montero and Chris Flexen, who made 18 starts and nine starts for the Mets in 2017, respectively. The Mets could pick their five starters, then use some (or all) of the other four guys as multi-inning relievers. Starter goes through the lineup twice, reliever gives you two or three innings, then the late-inning bullpen guys do their thing.
That sounds great in theory, though it's much more difficult to put into practice. Relievers will need multiple days of rest after going multiple innings, and because the Mets play in the NL, the pitcher's spot will come up and they'll need to pinch-hit more often than not. Leaving a reliever in to throw multiple innings isn't always doable in a close game, when you need to pinch-hit to generate offense.
Keep in mind this is not yet set in stone. The Mets are only tossing around the idea of limiting their starters other than deGrom and Syndergaard to two turns through the lineup. Here's what new manager Mickey Callaway had to say about things at the GM Meetings this week:
Mickey Callaway is keeping an open mind regarding plan to keep pitchers from facing lineup the 3rd time: "There are so many factors that will come into play you just can't simply say that you are going to leave guys in until a certain point or take them out in a certain point."— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) November 14, 2017
More Callaway: "We will not allow our guys to struggle the third time through the lineup if we can avoid it. We want them to be the best versions of themselves and have success."— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) November 14, 2017
Everything in baseball these days is trending toward using pitchers less and less. Starters don't pitch deep into games anymore -- only 15 pitches threw 200 innings in 2017, down from 31 five years ago -- and eight-man bullpens are becoming the norm. Should MLB and the MLBPA ever agree to add a 26th roster spot -- that was under discussion during the last round of collective bargaining agreement talks -- every single team would use it to carry an extra pitcher. No doubt about it.
The trend of not allowing a starter to face the lineup a third time is common practice in the postseason, and several teams have employed it with select pitchers during the regular season. More and more teams will jump on board in time. The Mets are at least considering it for next season, but talking about doing it and actually doing it successfully are two very different things.