Monday Mets: For Starters…

Citi Field Bullpen

Last night, the Mets used an 8th-inning rally to end their awful 7-game losing streak in an 8-5 victory over the Braves. The Mets had the lead in 6 of those 7 losses, and had 5 blown saves over the course of the week. What started out as painful in the first half of the week, became mind-numbing by the weekend. At first, fans declared the situation as “ridiculous” with vigorous exasperation, but eventually found themselves shrugging their shoulders at the repetitiveness of it all.

For me, it was a reminder of some of the television shows of my youth. See, I used to watch a good deal of TV, sitcoms mostly, when I was growing up. One of the shows in regular rotation was Perfect Strangers. For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, the show was about a free-spirited eastern European man named Balki, who comes to America and lives with his uptight cousin, Larry, and relative (no pun intended) hilarity ensues. While not the most original concept, it was good solid 80’s TV fun, or at least it was entertaining enough to remain on the air for 8 seasons (not including syndication), and even had a spin-off. What’s fascinating isn’t that the show I just described lasted so long; it was that almost every episode had the same plot: The cousins were faced with a challenge, and Balki’s simplistic solution contradicted Larry’s more planned approach. In the end, they usually discovered that the answer was somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards Balki. Yes, 8 seasons of this. Apparently, there was an appetite for “how can you tell us a different version of the same story?” The 2019 Mets seem to be asking a similar question.

When the Mets lost Saturday night’s game to the Braves, an 8th-inning blown save to wipe out a 6th-inning comeback, it was their 21st blown save this season. It was their 84th game, meaning the team has wasted save opportunities in 25% of their games this year. Sometimes, it’s necessary to compare statistics to other players/teams to get an idea of what it means. This is not one of those times. Much like Perfect Strangers, the details of the game may vary, but the basic plot is the same. The starting pitching keeps the team in the game, the hitters do just enough to offer some hope of a victory, a few relievers are brought into the game, the Mets lose, the manager declares that this loss stings. This has happened so much, the team is beginning to resemble Johannes Relleke. (Look it up.)

What’s tougher than these losses, however, is the team’s inability to do anything about it. I don’t believe that there’s a reliever out there, or even a handful of available relievers out there, who can turn this around. For the Mets to overpay to bring in some relievers to cure this problem would likely turn out to be a failure. They already tried that by overpaying to bring in last season’s top closer, and that hasn’t fared too well.

Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome is NOT the definition of insanity, as it is often incorrectly described, but it’s still not a wise approach to things. The Mets relievers are better than this, really they are, but right now it’s hard to expect them to improve drastically and simultaneously, so simply throwing them out there in the same way and counting on different results is foolish.

So let me offer a suggestion…Over the course of the last year or so, more than a third of the teams in the majors have attempted to use an “opener” to start some of their games. This is when a bullpen pitcher is called upon to start a game, pitch for an inning or two, before handing the ball over to the next reliever. Despite the fact that more than a few teams have tried this, the sample size is small, so it’s hard to declare it a success or a failure so far. I think the Mets might want to try something a little different: start with a reliever and then hand the ball to starter in the 3rd or 4th inning.

Before I go any further with this notion, I must admit my shame for even offering it up. While I may not be a baseball “purist”, straying from most baseball traditions takes me out of my comfort zone. Furthermore, the idea of the “opener” often seems more of a gimmick than a well thought-out plan. Then again, as we learned from Balki, that doesn’t automatically make it wrong.

In the Mets case, here’s why it might make sense: Despite lackluster results so far, the starting pitchers are a talented bunch. The rotation’s biggest concern coming into the season, Jason Vargas, has turned out to be one of the more pleasant surprises on the mound. Right now, as I mentioned earlier, they have generally been good enough to at least not be the reason for a Mets loss. However, once they come out of the game and the team turns to the bullpen, it seems to be a setup for the inevitable. It reminds me of some high school and little league games in which I played, where I would find it hard to imagine an inning actually coming to an appropriate end. To me, it was more likely that the other team would get bored of hitting and purposely get out. When I see Mickey Callaway take the ball from a starting pitcher and hand it to a reliever, there’s this feeling that an awful game is just starting, and who knows how brutal the final score will be. So imagine those same relievers start the game, and only pitches an inning or two before handing the ball to a member of the rotation. Sure, chances are the Mets will start out down a couple runs, but this offense has generally show the ability to score some runs. Or to put it another way, would you prefer Chris Flexen (for example) coming into a tight game with only a couple innings left for the Mets to make up for what he’s about to do, or would you like for him to start the game, knowing that there’s a predetermined limit to his damage and Jacob deGrom ready to pitch the remainder of the game while the offense has a few more innings to mount a comeback?

Perhaps this idea is silly, or even jumping the shark. I don’t necessarily imagine that this script-flipping would change things dramatically, but really, who knows? At this point, what do the Mets have to lose? And, if by some crazy turn of events, this actually did work, then the team and its fans could collectively perform the Dance of Joy.