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The 2021 Mets have opened their season in a bit of a Bizarro World, their heralded offense performing so poorly that it resulted in the firing of two coaches and their concerning defense scoring in the black as per the respected defensive-runs-saved metric.
Yet is there any more pleasant — and crucial — surprise about this club than its bullpen?
Contemplate how much trouble the Mets would face had their relief corps lived down to expectations rather than entering Friday’s work shift as a considerable strength.
“Those guys have been doing a really good job of closing the door and keeping us in games when we’re behind,” Pete Alonso said Friday at Citi Field, before the Mets opened their homestand with a tilt against the Diamondbacks. “They’ve been great. It’s fun watching them pitch every night.”
Like Alonso’s “Polar Burger,” which you can find on sale at Citi’s Section 102, the Mets’ bullpen features a plethora of ingredients, and much the way you can work around the burger’s caramelized onions if you don’t like them, Luis Rojas has maneuvered around subpar bullpen performances. Exhibit A was when the manager called upon Jeurys Familia to relieve the ailing and struggling Edwin Diaz last Sunday to go after the Phillies’ Bryce Harper for the final out of a nutty 8-7 victory at Citizens Bank Park.
The opponents’ OPS for the Mets’ relievers had dropped from .740, 10th-best in the National League last year, to .648, third best, and the bullpen’s ERA had declined from 4.60, ninth, to 3.45, third. Perhaps the biggest factor behind that improvement: The strikeouts-to-walks ratio jumped from 1.98, 12th, to 3.50, second.
“The walk rate in the past was high, and that was getting them in trouble,” Rojas said. “Having them tone that down, put that number of walks per inning down, has been a plus.”
Familia and Robert Gsellman best personify this bullpen, which has been more rehabilitated than remade. New Mets Aaron Loup and Trevor May both have rebounded from shaky Opening Night results (also in Philadelphia), but it’s Familia and Gsellman, who registered rough campaigns in both 2019 and 2020, who have rediscovered their best selves. Familia, with a combined 5.09 ERA the prior two seasons, owned a 1.13, while Gsellman, 5.56 in ’19 and ’20, stood at 3.12.
“Jeurys Familia has been throwing the ball really, really good,” Rojas said. “Throwing more strikes.”
After averaging 1.41 strikeouts for every walk in 2019-20, Familia put together a 2-to-1 Ks-to-BBs ratio in his first 10 games of this season.
As for Gsellman, Rojas said: “G is back to his old self. He got away from pitching north too often. He may show the four-seam [fastball], but it’s been more sinker-slider. That’s what got him to be a big league pitcher. As his manager in the minor league, that’s what he was. He used his sink, used the changeup. He had a curveball and a slider. He’s trusting his changeup right now. He’s mixing.”
As per Baseball Savant, Gsellman threw his four-seamer 19.1 percent of the time last year and just 6.1 percent of the time in 2021.
Throw in Miguel Castro, the improving Jacob Barnes (five straight scoreless outings) and the closer, Diaz (who has been solid if not approaching his elite 2018 with the Mariners), and the Mets find themselves with a pretty productive unit, able to shrug off the injury absence of veteran Dellin Betances.
“A lot of guys are throwing the ball really well,” Rojas said. “It keeps some stress off of some guys getting overused [when so many are coming through]. A lot of guys are going to get rest.”
The key, of course, will come in whether the Mets can raise their offense back to its ceiling without the bullpen falling toward its floor. Yet if you’re sweating out such a worst-case scenario, rather than regularly sweating out a late-inning lead, then you’re doing OK. You’re in a world, or at least part of one, you don’t want to depart.
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