Even if you’re not handed the best of bullpen bulls to work with, there’s a judicious and an injudicious way to manage those bulls. Mets manager Mickey Callaway seems more and more to be the injudicious type. For any manager that’s a yellow flag. For a former pitching coach, that’s red alert.
Callaway didn’t build this bullpen. That was freshman general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s work. But given that, Callaway’s management of this less-than-solid pen this year could yet prove fateful, if not fatal, for a manager who was all but wired into the electric chair almost two weeks ago.
The talk of the tomb—er, town—Friday morning was apparent disconnect between Callaway and his closing ace Edwin Diaz. Diaz apparently told Callaway he wouldn’t be an available option Thursday in Los Angeles, but Callaway apparently made public that Diaz would be available—despite pitching eight times in twelve days including Thursday night.
Diaz may be known as a swift warmup when he gets the call but even a swift warmup is liable to have thrown a full inning’s worth of pitches before he’s brought into the game. Doing that math should suggest that he pitched sixteen innings or better worth of pitches in those eight gigs. And one notices soon enough that Mets relief pitchers are throwing a lot more bullpen warmups than might be healthy for them.
Early in the season Callaway vetoed any thought of handing the ball to Diaz before the ninth inning even if he needed a stopper like five minutes ago. In due course he and the Mets changed that position. Smartly enough, assuming his work load’s been handled smartly otherwise.
“It’s impossible to climb inside Callaway’s mind, but it’s reasonable to believe that this added pressure could influence the in-game decision-making process,” writes Elite Sports NY‘s Danny Small. “Whether that means leaving his starter in for longer than anticipated or going to a reliever who probably needs a day off, a manager in win-at-all-costs-mode before June hits is a bad look.”
One dumb part: Diaz had a travel day off . . . from New York to Los Angeles, not exactly the most restful of journeys, before Callaway went to him Tuesday night, when the Mets had a fat 7-3 lead against the Dodgers going to the bottom of the ninth. He threw sixteen pitches, shaking off a leadoff double by Alex Verdugo to get a strikeout and two line outs to end the game.
On Wednesday, though, Diaz may have had a temporarily empty tank when Callaway brought him in with the Mets leading 8-5. A save situation by the rule, but disaster when Joc Pederson and Max Muncy homered back-to-back, Pederson on a full count. You could call it Dodger vengeance for the Mets’ seventh, when Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith opened by taking reliever Julio Urias over the center field fence back-to-back.
Then Diaz suffered back-to-back doubles and another Dodger run, followed by putting Corey Seager on to work to Matt Beatty, who singled to load the pads for Verdugo. The good news was Diaz got Verdugo out. The bad news is that is was the sacrifice fly that won the game for the Dodgers, 9-8.
Diaz didn’t poke his nose out of his hole Thursday as the Mets lost comparatively quietly, 2-0. And the trip from Los Angeles to Arizona, where the Mets open a weekend set with the Diamondbacks Friday night, isn’t even an eighth as draining as a coast-to-coast jaunt.
The Mets’ lack of bullpen depth behind Diaz hurts. Their arguable best setup man, Seth Lugo, was reported returning to the team from the disabled list Friday after a spell of shoulder tendinitis. Right now it’s even money how long it takes Lugo to return to his groove.
Jeurys Familia, their returning former closer, is described best as shaky. Robert Gsellman can be an effective pitcher but his inconsistency is an issue. Drew Gagnon is pitching better than his 4.96 ERA (his fielding-independent pitching is a healthy 2.96) but he’s still walk prone and doesn’t miss bats that effectively.
You understand to an extent why Callaway wants to lean on Diaz as heavily as he does, but you have to wonder about moments such as going to him when the lead is big enough not to really need him as acutely as you wondered about not going to him earlier than the ninth when the Mets needed an immediate stopper.
Callaway’s hardly the first manager to mishandle any bullpen, however well built. You could assemble a remarkable banquet populated by skippers who think relief pitchers are impervious to drainage.
When Pete Rose managed the Reds in the 1980s, he wasn’t especially judicious about his bullpens but in particular he warmed up one lefthanded late-innings reliever, Rob Murphy, more than 200 times one season. Murphy averaged 71 innings a season per 162 games and topped out at 105 innings for 1989, the year Rose was banished for violating Rule 21(d).
Two hundred warmup sessions in a 105-inning season would be bad enough, especially when you figure Murphy had to have been warmed up more than once in a game without coming in. If Rose warmed him up that often for his 84.2 inning 1988, it was to wonder that Murphy’s ERA wasn’t higher than the 3.08 he did post. And, that his arm didn’t amputate itself.
Come to think of it, except for his first season with the Red Sox in 1989, Murphy would never again be half as effective as he’d once been despite of misuse in Cincinnati. “Some managers think, if a guy’s not actually in a game, he’s not pitching,” wrote Whitey Herzog in You’re Missin’ a Great Game. “But if he’s tossing on the sidelines, man, he’s getting hot.”
If the Mets’ relievers are indeed warming up more often or with more pitches than might be healthy before they’re brought into games, that’s an overdue red alert, too. (It’s also a good reason to dispense with the traditional eight warmups on the game mound the moment the reliever’s brought in.)
A former pitching coach should know better. A team hoping to stay the course to the postseason can’t afford to burn their best relief pitcher out before the stretch. Which is very much what’s in danger of happening to Diaz, and maybe one or two others.
And, it could help turn the Mets’ season from all-in to all-gone, and maybe all-rebuild, before the non-waiver trade deadline passes.