John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
All eyes may be on Edwin Diaz in spring training, as a return to dominance by the young closer is widely considered crucial to the Mets' hopes of winning the NL East. But is he really the key to bullpen success in 2020?
Or is it Seth Lugo?
Four of five scouts/executives I polled say Lugo is the one reliever the Mets should build their late-inning plan around as often as possible, which is really another way of saying the right-hander has quietly become one of the very best relievers in baseball.
"Based on what he did last year," said one scout, "you have to put him up there with guys like (Josh) Hader and (Aroldis) Chapman. He's that good."
Lugo may not be perceived as quite that imposing, in part because his four-seam fastball averaged 93.7 mph last season, according to BrooksBaseball.net, a velocity that is practically pedestrian among top relievers these days.
And yet, rather remarkably, Lugo held hitters to a .148 batting average against his four-seamer last season, the lowest such average against any reliever in the majors.
With that in mind, one executive said, "When you dig into the numbers you really appreciate Lugo's impact. The Mets need to find a way to take full advantage of it. Some of that will depend on guys like Diaz and (Dellin) Betances, but if they're smart and creative, Lugo should be pitching in the highest-leverage situations more than anybody else."
The exec was quick to say the Mets could make that work even if Diaz pitches well enough to re-establish himself as the closer, as long as they're willing to be flexible.
"I mean, it wouldn't make sense to make Lugo your seventh-inning guy just because you have Betances and Diaz," the exec said. "He was great for them throwing two-inning saves at times last year, and that should continue to be an option when he's well-rested and he's dominating.
"It takes some conviction on the manager's part, and you need everybody to buy in, but Lugo is worth the effort to maximize your bullpen performance."
Suffice it to say the same exec does not think it would be smart to use Lugo as an opener, an idea the Mets are apparently considering, according a report in the New York Post by Joel Sherman.
"I like the opener as a strategy, depending on the depth of your rotation," the exec said, "but it's not a strategy based on using your best reliever in that role. And Lugo is their best reliever."
Reliever performance is notoriously volatile, as the Mets found out with Diaz and Jeurys Familia last season, but Lugo has been consistently effective out of the bullpen going back to 2016. And unlike most relievers, his success is based at least partly on his starter's repertoire, as he uses a slider and his trademark curveball, in addition to both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, to keep hitters guessing.
In fact, scouts think Lugo's curveball, ballyhooed for its high spin rate, is what helps make his four-seam fastball so effective, ever looming in the hitter's mind.
"You can't ever sit on the fastball," the scout said. "And when you watch from behind the plate, you see his curveball comes out of the same arm slot as the fastball, and with that high spin rate it's hard for hitters to tell the difference until the last second."
The proof is in that .148 average against the four-seamer, but Lugo's overall numbers were nearly as spectacular last season.
Over 80 innings he held hitters to a .192 batting average, or 15 points lower than Jacob deGrom did. And Lugo stacked up nicely against Hader and Chapman, the elite relievers the scout referenced earlier, in average-against and OPS-against.
Perhaps largely because of his curveball, Lugo was most effective against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .168 average -- vs. .209 against righties.
To fully appreciate his 2019 brilliance, however, you have to look mostly at the second half of the season. He put up a 1.95 ERA over 37 innings after the All-Star break, but even that number is skewed significantly by his only bad outing of the second half, in which he gave up five runs in 1/3 of an inning in Atlanta on Aug. 14.
And, as you may remember, that was the night Mickey Callaway made a hurried decision to bring Lugo into a game when the Mets rallied in the top of the seventh inning. Though Lugo didn't say so afterward, comments from other players indicated that Lugo didn't have sufficient time to warm up.
With that in mind, consider this: if you throw that appearance against the Braves out, then Lugo posted a 0.68 ERA over 39 2/3 innings in July, August, and September, allowing just three runs in 30 outings.
All of which makes for great intrigue going into the 2020 season. The potential depth in the Mets' pen, if Diaz and Familia bounce back, is the proverbial good problem to have, but it could also be a test for a first-year manager like Luis Rojas, as it could mean bruising some egos as to who gets to pitch when.
Basically the easy thing to do would be to go with a formula leading to Diaz in the ninth, if indeed he has a good spring training. But as the scouts suggest, with a little creativity Rojas and the Mets could and should do better than that.