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A dozen thoughts on the Mets and their bullpen after the trade deadline

WASHINGTON — In the fifth inning of the Mets’ 9-2 win over the Nationals on Wednesday, with Aníbal Sánchez tiring and the Mets threatening in a tight game with the bases loaded, Davey Martínez went to his bullpen. With Daniel Vogelbach due up for the Mets, Martínez opted for … another right-hander. He had to; Washington doesn’t have a lefty in its bullpen to face a hitter like Vogelbach.

New York’s DH greeted Jordan Weems with a grand slam that broke the game open.

It was a pivotal moment that pointed out a positive and a negative of the Mets’ trade deadline activity. A pair of thoughts on that moment, plus 10 others centered on the bullpen in the aftermath of Tuesday’s trade deadline:

1. The positive? Even if Washington did have a capable left-hander in that moment, the Mets would have been prepared to gain the platoon advantage with Darin Ruf, the other half of their newly acquired DH duo. Even the addition of Tyler Naquin plays into this: You can imagine a situation like Wednesday’s in which the Mets hit Ruf for Vogelbach against a lefty in the middle innings, then have Naquin to hit for Ruf if his spot comes up against a righty in the late innings.

They can do the same in games started by a lefty, as well. If Vogelbach hits for Ruf in the middle innings once a right-handed reliever comes in the game, Eduardo Escobar could be the bench bat in case a lefty counters Vogelbach later.

2. The negative? This is kind of how the Mets’ bullpen looks to other teams, who don’t have to worry too much about what a left-hander might do later in games.

There’s certainly an argument that, at a time when a reliever must face three batters, a left-handed reliever is less intrinsically valuable than a few years back. But each day of this series at Nationals Park served up a reminder of what a competent lefty can do for a bullpen.

It was Vogelbach’s grand slam against a righty reliever Wednesday.

On Tuesday, with the Nationals’ roster in chaos because of the Juan Soto trade, Mets manager Buck Showalter was scrambling to find out one thing: Was Washington adding a lefty to its bullpen? Showalter was concerned about this because the Mets’ initial lineup for the night featured a stack of four left-handed hitters in the bottom half — something he’d done only twice previously this season. (The first was also against Washington, the night after the Nats had used both their lefty relievers; the second was against Houston, which didn’t have a lefty in the bullpen either.)

So the presence (or lack thereof) of a left-handed reliever can change how an opposing team constructs its starting lineup.

Second, Showalter and the Mets did something Monday they hadn’t really done all season: They pinch-hit early in the game based on platoon matchups, opting for Vogelbach to hit for J.D. Davis in the fifth inning. Why? Because lefty Patrick Corbin was out of the game, and there was no chance for another left-hander to come in behind him in the Washington ’pen.

So the presence (or lack thereof) of a left-handed reliever can change how an opposing team deploys its bench.

3. Through Monday, left-handed hitters across baseball this season owned a .696 OPS. New York’s relievers and bullpen candidates — basically anyone outside its current starting five — have yielded a collective .746 OPS to lefty hitters this season.

4. The Mets got Trevor May back on Wednesday, with the right-hander throwing a scoreless eighth inning in the blowout. May is a significant X-factor for the Mets down the stretch; if healthy and pitching his best, he can be Edwin Díaz’s primary set-up man.

“It was good to remind everybody just what a good addition he can be for us,” said Showalter.

May spent his time on the injured list reworking his splitter, which he said he tried to implement too quickly in the spring, leading to some bad habits. May threw a handful of splitters on Wednesday, adding it to a repertoire that includes his mid-90s fastball, drop-down slider and changeup.

“Fastball’s always going to be a big part of what I do,” May said postgame. “I am going to pitch a little more.”

5. Mychal Givens’ Mets debut was less promising, as he allowed five runs on five hits, including two home runs, in 2/3 of an inning. Givens couldn’t finish the ninth inning of a nine-run game, eventually being replaced by Seth Lugo. While a manager less familiar with Givens might bury him in the hierarchy after a game like that, the reliever’s history with Showalter should help him avoid anything like that.

“He’s going to be good for us,” Showalter said postgame.

6. Publicly, the Mets remain high on Joely Rodríguez’s chances to have more impact as a left-handed reliever down the stretch. Rodríguez has not pitched well for the majority of the season, posting a 5.72 ERA and a WHIP above 1.500. Rodríguez’s strikeout rate is up but his ground-ball rate is down and his walk rate has skyrocketed to nearly double his career norm coming into the season.

Pitching coach Jeremy Hefner attributed that to Rodríguez’s delivery, in which he fires the ball across his body.

“It’s a Catch-22 a little bit because that creates a ton of deception but is also prone to throwing balls,” he said. “Strikeouts are up, chase is up, his first-strike percentage is at a career high. He’s doing a lot of things that would suggest it’s going to turn around.”

What would it mean to the ’pen if Rodríguez does turn it around?

“If he’s at his best, he’s shutdown,” Hefner said. “He can come in and get any lefty out in the league and he can hold his own against a righty. He’s got the changeup as a real weapon against a righty. If you go left-right-left in the batting order, he can come in and get those hitters out.”

Hefner added that it’s been difficult for the Mets to get Rodríguez into a rhythm of late.

“There’s a confidence piece to this: You give up a couple runs, you don’t pitch for a long stretch, and then you don’t pitch well again,” he said. “We’ve just got to get him into some situations where he can have successes and use his stuff. I think we’ll get the ball rolling on him.”

Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg aspect to that dynamic. Were Rodríguez pitching better to begin with, he probably wouldn’t have gone the final nine games before the All-Star break without an appearance. Rodríguez has had one hold opportunity since the start of June. The Mets can say they believe in his track record, as Hefner did, but until they start deploying him in important situations again, it will be just talk.

7. Hefner pointed out that Rodríguez’s ERA may be hurt by a number of his runners scoring after his departure. Indeed, 11 of the 24 runners Rodríguez has left on base for fellow relievers have come around to score, well above the league average of 32 percent.

However, Rodríguez has left his successors in some pretty difficult binds, and as we’ve looked at before with Carlos Carrasco, not all inherited runners are equal. Based on run expectancy values,* Rodríguez actually could have expected to see 1.29 more of the runners he’s left on come around to score. If that were the case, his ERA would jump to 6.13 on the season.

*As I said the last time I performed this kind of exercise, I’m using Tom Tango’s run expectancy matrix devised from data from 1993 to 2010. I use this rather than Tango’s 2010 to 2015 matrix because the run-scoring environment seems too different from the more recent data set, so I fall back on the larger one. I am open to arguments on this decision and also a run expectancy matrix with more recent data.

8. General manager Billy Eppler said the Mets “have some options internally to potentially look at” in terms of a lefty reliever. Frankly, I’m not sure who that’s referring to beyond Rodríguez and David Peterson, who the club will need as a starter for at least the next few weeks. On the 40-man roster, the Mets have Sam Clay, who just spent five games with the team without ever warming up in-game. Beyond that, Syracuse has Álex Claudio, the recently acquired Phillip Diehl and Locke St. John, who was designated for assignment earlier this season, as options.

Maybe the most intriguing internal left-handed option the Mets had recently was one they dealt to San Francisco in Thomas Szapucki. The thought within the Mets organization was that Szapucki would end up in the bullpen sometime this season, but the team kept him stretched out as a starter in the minors until this past week, when it finally moved him to the ’pen. It could have been interesting to see what Szapucki could have given them as a bullpen option had he made that transition earlier in the summer.

9. It is worth pointing out that very few left-handed relievers did get traded at the deadline. Only four changed teams: Josh Hader and Taylor Rogers in the same swap, Jake Diekman and Will Smith. Indeed, the Mets would look worse if the likes of Matt Moore, Andrew Chafin and Aaron Loup had all been moved.

Texas’ Jon Daniels and Detroit’s Al Avila talked about teams not meeting their price points on Moore and Chafin, both of whom can become free agents at season’s end. (As Cody Stavenhagen points out in that piece, this has been a years-long theme for the Tigers at the deadline.) Loup, on the other hand, was probably held back by the $8.5 million he’s set to make next year with Anaheim. While he’s not having near as good a season as he did last year with the Mets, Loup is having a demonstrably better season than Rodríguez and has a demonstrably better track record than Rodríguez. Given the Angels’ salary dump of another, better reliever in Raisel Iglesias, it’s hard to envision it would have cost significant prospect talent to acquire Loup for a marginal upgrade.

10. One point Eppler made back in November, with regard to cumulative World Series odds:

“A way to do that is to make sure you hold on to the prospects you have, which in turn makes you have to invest a little more into free agent spending,” Eppler said that day. “I know Steve (Cohen) talked about his job and his role in that, and it’s the toughest role because he has to sign the front of the check, so we have to make sure we are making really good decisions in how to invest that.”

If the Mets knew then they wanted to be this protective of their top line of prospects, they should have been more willing to spend on a reliever like Chafin in the winter, when he only would have cost money. Instead, they rolled the dice on a minor-league signee in Chasen Shreve and the late-spring trade for Rodríguez.

(You could go so far as to argue the Mets also should have invested in one more free-agent starting pitcher, such as Carlos Rodón, rather than trading J.T. Ginn and Adam Oller for Chris Bassitt. Bassitt has been good on the field and an excellent cultural fit for the clubhouse, which renders that a weaker argument in my mind.)

11. The Mets’ best strategy come October may be to buck the historical trend of starters getting pulled earlier and earlier in the postseason. A starter finished the sixth inning less than 20 percent of the time last postseason, and that number has been dwindling down for a while.

The trendline is clear. There are outliers, most notably the 2019 Astros (11 such starts in 18 games) and 2019 Nationals (10 in 17 games). The 2015 Mets got eight such starts in 14 games that October.

12. And then there is one more weapon for the Mets.

Their manager.

“He’s definitely the best at managing a bullpen out of everyone,” said Tommy Hunter, who’s in his sixth season playing for Showalter. “You know what he likes, you know who he likes in certain situations, based off of rest, based off of usage. I don’t want to say he’s easy to follow and give everybody the trade secrets, but if you’re down there you’re pretty comfortable knowing when you’re going to get into a game.”

“He’s an old-school manager that knows how to get the best out of each and every player and how to put everybody in the best opportunity to be successful,” said Mychal Givens, who was acquired Tuesday and spent four prior seasons with Showalter in Baltimore. “He instills in us to be big-leaguers. You take accountability for your actions, you take accountability for being out there and being a baseball player. Go get your job done. He takes accountability for everybody to do their job.”

Yes, Showalter is still known for the decision to withhold closer Zack Britton in the 2016 wild-card game. But as I’ve said a bunch since then, what was so surprising that night was that Showalter was the manager making that mistake, given how adept he typically is at maneuvering a bullpen. He’s done another excellent job to this point this season with the Mets.

(Photo of Trevor May: Brad Mills / USA Today)

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