Since 2006 the Mets have been plagued by a recurrent theme, the second half collapse. The extent to which organizational depth, or a lack thereof, has contributed to these collapses has been the subject of more than a few discussions in Met circles. I would argue, however, that the problem goes back even before the disastrous 2007 stretch run.
2005 was a pivotal year because at it’s conclusion the focus of management shifted to obtaining those perceived few pieces that they needed to become a championship team, but the 2005 team was already showing the effects of a broader organizational depth problem. Willie Randolph, then manager, said of that team:
“We’ve matured and grown, and we’ve learned a lot of things about ourselves as a team, and the bottom line is we played hard all year. We didn’t stop playing, and that’s something I’m most proud of. When you have young players who are some of the core of your team, you can look to the future. When you add some pieces, that can be really special.”
The 2005 Mets were by most accounts contenders and stayed in the thick of the playoff picture until a second half stretch from August 27th to September 17th when they lost 16 of 20. In spite of a wealth of talent, the bullpen wore down, lacking the depth to sustain a playoff drive. 2006 saw the addition of Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner instantly bolstering expectations, but even that team slumped in September, having lost a key bullpen cog to a taxi-cab accident, and then saw both it’s ace and his replacement go down to calf injuries in the run-up to the playoffs. While they were able to steamroll the Dodgers in the opening round, they were beaten in the NLCS by a Cardinal team that came in with a bullpen that hadn’t allowed a run in 13 1/3 post-season innings and which featured a young Adam Wainwright.
The pattern of the late season fade was already in place by 2007 when it became clear that the penny-wise pound-foolish approach to building a contender created a top heavy roster that neglected to address the dearth of quality replacements. To be fair, the 2006 Mets were a different team, a team that was tantalizingly close, so the temptation to focus on select free agent acquisitions rather than fortifying the minor leagues was not without precedent, it is the standard approach when you are on the brink of the post season. What went unnoticed however was that like a great boulder eroding at it’s foundation from the repeated crashing of waves, the 2006 and 2007 Mets were aging and eventually crumbled not just from the weight of their veteran presence, but from the organization’s failure to develop supplemental, even league average replacements, particularly in the bullpen.
As recently as 2012 the Mets were still featuring a version of their late season collapse with their second half record looking about as gruesome as day-old roadkill on a desert highway. Remarkably they were still in the pennant race leading up to the All-Star break, which is half a season of good baseball, so you can’t really argue sample size … no, the Mets in actuality were pretty darned competitive up until that point. The popular perception was that they stopped scoring runs, but initially in July this was not the case at all — it was the pitching that went south with a whopping 5.25 team ERA for the month, and as in every previous collapse, it was the bullpen that shouldered a hefty portion of the blame. The failure to stock and restock an effective bullpen has plagued this organization for almost a decade now.
Fast forward to 2013 with the Mets trouncing the Padres on opening day. The Mets look like the better team, but the 2012 Padres didn’t suffer a second half collapse. Quite the contrary they were 2 wins better on the season and enjoyed something of a second half surge going 42 and 33. Now there are two things that come to mind when you think Padres, their farm system and their bullpen. The Braves? Again, terrific farm, excellent bullpen. Oakland? Tampa Bay? Arizona? Do we see a pattern? Below is a chart detailing bullpen ranking by ERA, Minor League System Rankings, and win totals.
In looking at the above, the positive correlation between bullpen era and minor league system rankings (MLSR) stands out — 6 of the top 11 teams in bullpen ERA also feature minor league systems ranked in the top third. Clearly teams with strong farm systems seem to have a better shot at building strong bullpens. There also appears to be a broader correlation between MLSR and bullpen performance in general. Lower quadrant teams (the Cubs, Rockies and Astros) more or less track a parallel trajectory across bullpen ERA and MLSR (and win totals for that matter).
There are a few exceptions, the Orioles had a relatively depleted farm system yet were able to construct an upper echelon bullpen, while the Cardinals and the Blue Jays, with relatively strong farm systems, featured ineffective relief pitching in 2012. But notably, no team that placed in the top ten for wins appeared in the bottom third for either bullpen ERA or MLSR. The takeaway? There is indeed a correlation between a good farm system and an effective bullpen, and there is a very strong negative correlation between placing in the bottom third for bullpen ERA or MLSR and a winning record. In simpler terms, if you want to win you need a good bullpen, and if you want a good bullpen you need a good farm.
The positive slope of the spread in the above graph demonstrates the aforementioned correlation between MLSR and Bullpen ERA. The data points are the intersections of bullpen ERA and MLSR for all 30 MLB teams. Of the outliers, Toronto (the lone data point in the bottom left corner) was perhaps the biggest with the second best farm system in baseball for 2012 and one of the worst Bullpen ERA’s. The Mets themselves were an outlier, next to last in bullpen ERA with a farm system ranked 16th … based on the above, the Mets should have had a better bullpen in 2012. Nevertheless it is clear that as your farm system improves, your bullpen’s ERA declines.
If there was one constant in the “collapse” years, it was the propensity to focus on the 25 man roster without making provisions for the naturally occurring attrition that unfolds over a 162 game schedule. Below are three organizational depth charts for the 2013 Mets showing position players, bullpen, and starting rotation. There is some solid infield depth with Justin Turner, Jordany Valdespin, Zach Lutz, and Omar Quintanilla and passable outfield depth — largely the result of a somewhat successful cattle-call of outfield candidates during spring training. Mike Baxter, Valdespin, Nieuwenhuis, Den Dekker, and Brown, can certainly step up in a pinch. I particularly like Lutz and Brown who look like they can hold their own with the bat. The bullpen looks improved as well with three home grown relievers (four when Mejia returns) which is an encouraging indicator in light of the notable correlation above.
Depth on the other hand, for both the Met bullpen the rotation is worrisome. Outside of Carson and a (hopefully) healthy Mejia there isn’t much else in reserve. The Met rotation, already down to four starters with Santana gone and Marcum suffering another setback, is also thin. After Wheeler, the Mets are looking at Laffey, McHugh and Schwinden. Granted, by mid season Wheeler, Harvey, and Niese may be enough to keep the ship afloat, but bullpen depth is another story — one that has historically been far more horrific.
This lack of depth may be the unfortunate artifact of a minor league farm that is not yet up to the task of acting as a true feeder system. The 2013 Mets will need some luck, and a good dose of health. They are better to be sure, they are generally deeper and more balanced than they’ve been in a while, and they are poised to bolster their roster with two prospects that have the look of impact players in D’Arnaud and Wheeler, but the Mets have yet to establish the sort of organizational pitching depth that a top 5 farm system might provide.
It is a tall and expensive order to rebuild a bullpen from free agency alone. Relievers are notoriously fickle and good ones are increasingly more scarce. The bulk of Met pitching talent — the capybara moving through the python — will begin reaching AA Binghampton sometime this season. That perk is at least another year away. The Mets may surprise if things break right, but until the critical mass of pitching talent they’ve been carefully accumulating reaches maturity they will continue to be vulnerable to the second half fade.
*Players in bold are on the 40 man roster.