Mets relievers shouldering a heavy load early in '24

April 23rd, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO -- Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, reliever Michael Tonkin arrived at Dodger Stadium feeling discombobulated. Tonkin, an offseason signee, made the Mets’ Opening Day roster but was designated for assignment only days later, because the team needed to call in a fresh reliever. While Tonkin sat on the waiver wire, the Mets traded him to the Twins.

For similar reasons, Tonkin didn’t last long in Minnesota. When the Twins DFA’d Tonkin for the second time this season, the Mets claimed him back and flew him to California. So quick was the turnaround that Tonkin’s wife stayed in Minneapolis to await the couple’s belongings, which the Tonkins had shipped west after breaking their lease in New York. While she hunkered down, Tonkin pitched in two consecutive games in Los Angeles, winning one of them, only to learn that he’d been DFA’d again.

Such is the life of a modern reliever, particularly one on the fringes of a roster. What makes Tonkin’s situation notable is that all this might have been avoided had the Mets not been so reliant on their bullpen throughout the early season. Heavy relief usage has forced them to churn through relievers throughout the month of April, continuing into Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Giants.

During the series opener at Oracle Park, Mets relievers delivered another nine outs, and they would have been required for three more had the teams not skipped the bottom of the ninth. This is, in many ways, a problem. On average, the Mets are asking their relievers for 12 outs per night. That ranks ninth in the Majors, though the statistic is a bit skewed given multiple teams above them commonly use openers.

Simply put, Mets starters are not routinely going deep into games. Jose Quintana was the latest culprit, walking three batters over five innings Monday at Oracle Park while throwing 91 pitches in the process. By the sixth, Quintana was out of the game, which he called a “frustrating” night.

“We’ve got to get better,” manager Carlos Mendoza said. “This is something that [pitching coach Jeremy Hefner] has been talking to a lot of them. We’ve got to continue to stay on the attack and finish at-bats.”

So far, the Mets’ heavy bullpen reliance has not caught up to them -- at least not statistically. The team owns one of Major League Baseball’s five lowest bullpen ERAs (2.85) and has stayed consistent throughout the early season. But cracks are beginning to show. On Sunday, lefty reliever Brooks Raley landed on the injured list due to elbow inflammation after appearing in eight of the Mets’ first 20 games. His replacement, Grant Hartwig, pitched that afternoon before shuttling back to the Minors to make way for fresh arms.

Overall, Mets relievers are on pace to throw more than 650 innings, which would shatter the franchise record of 595 2/3 set in 2021. (The Rays, who have utilized openers for years, set the MLB mark with 824 1/3 in 2018.)

“At the end of the day, our starters, they are going to go deeper,” Mendoza said. “I’m pretty confident that the starters will start giving us length here.”

Mendoza cited the fact that on Monday, Quintana managed to pitch into the sixth despite throwing 73 pitches over the first three innings. But the only batter he faced in the sixth, Michael Conforto, hit a solo homer. Jorge López, who ranks second in the Majors with 12 appearances over the Mets’ first 22 games, entered at that juncture.

Overall, the Mets have used 22 pitchers in those 22 games, including Monday’s newcomers Sean Reid-Foley and Josh Walker. It’s not the formula they prefer.

It is a problem, in fact, that can result in additional Tonkin situations if the Mets don’t slow their bullpen pace.

“It’s the part that you can’t really complain, because we’re playing Major League Baseball here,” Tonkin said last weekend before departing. “But it’s exhausting.”