How do you solve a problem like Familia?

By Fred Aaron,

Going into the off-season, one of the biggest problems confronting Mets’ GM Brodie Van Wagenen was the collapse of the bullpen.  For a second straight season, Met relievers turned into arsonists instead of firemen (unless your idea of a fireman is taken from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451).  This past season, one of the biggest culprits was the previously reliable Jeurys Familia.  During his first stint with the team, from 2012 to the All Star Break in 2018, Familia had recorded 123 saves over 313 appearances, all in relief except for a spot start in his rookie year of 2012.  Diving deeper into the number shows that he had only allowed 95 earned runs over the span of 321.1 innings pitched, while striking out 329 batters, walking only 129, and giving up 14 home runs.  This gave Familia a pitching slash line of 2.66ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 0.39 HR/9, 9.22 K/9, and 3.61 BB/9.  These stats were good enough to land Familia a spot on the 2016 NL All Star Team.  After his trade to the A’s in 2018, Familia pretty much replicated these numbers with a 3.45 ERA, 1.213 WHIP, 0.6 HR/9, and 11.5 K/9.  The only number that should have given pause was an elevated 4.0 BB/9, almost a half point higher than his career average.  This increase in wildness seemed to come with a greater percentage of strikeouts.  This may yield a possible solution to the problem.

Rookie GM Brodie, looking to rebuild the Mets bullpen for the 2019 season, gave Familia a 3-year, $30 million contract.  To give the Mets more wiggle room with the budget, the parties agreed to backend load the money, paying $6,666,666 for 2019, with the Mets on the hook for $11,666,667 for the remaining two years.  This makes moving Familia difficult, since any trade partner would have to take on this salary, or have the Mets eat a substantial portion of the salary in order to trade Familia.  In addition, Familia is entitled to a $1 million trade bonus if he is traded during each of these years.  In this sense, he has become an immovable object for the Mets, so a solution must be found since he will probably be here for the 2020 season.  

Let’s look at the numbers for 2019 (and no, this is not an early Halloween scare tactic, but these numbers are not for the faint of heart).  Familia posted a horrid 5.70 ERA, with a 1.733 WHIP, caused in large part by his 6.3 BB/9, almost double what he had posted during his first time with the team.  Control was clearly a problem for Jeurys in 2019, a continuation of the issue that arose during his brief tenure in Oakland.  However, his K/9 was also up at 9.5, a result of striking out 63 batters in 60 innings.  Also troubling was his 1.1 HR/9.  However, this was a problem for the entire Mets bullpen, as well as most of the league, as the MLB set a record for home runs in a season.  

So, how do you solve this problem?  Clearly, Familia is not suffering from “Ed Whitson Syndrome,” which is where an otherwise good player crumbles under the pressure of performing for a big market team like the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, or Cubs. This might be the situation with Familia’s bullpen mate Edwin Diaz, but that is the topic for another article.  Familia had pitched in New York before and never shown signs of a nervous breakdown.   Instead, it may have to do with reduced velocity due to age, and pitch selection.  Fangraphs has shown that Jeurys was not hitting 100 mph with his fastball as he had done in prior years.  Also, the Mets had pushed him to rely primarily on his slider and sinker, reducing the use of his four-seamer, and completely abandoning his splitter.  Each of these other two weapons had been out pitches for him in prior years.  This year also saw a great many pitchers complaining about the new baseballs being slicker, making it harder to throw sliders effectively.  We saw this with Noah Syndergaard and Edwin Diaz, both of whom who got consistently burned on sliders throughout the 2019 season.

In closing, there is hope that the Mets can solve a problem like Familia just like the nuns solved the problem called Maria.  Of course, it doesn’t mean making him the governess to a family of an Austrian widower.  Rather, there are a number of ways that are fairly easy to achieve with the right coaching staff.  One way is having Familia utilize all four pitches in his arsenal again.  Also, the walks could be reduced by having him pitch more to soft contact instead of going for swings-and-misses.  There appears to be a correlation between his rise in strikeouts and the doubling of his rate of walks.  Improvements in the Mets defense should also help a guy like Familia who gives up a great deal of grounders.  In 2019, Familia’s FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 4.88, showing that the Mets’ defense may have cost Familia almost an extra run per 9 innings.  Finally, the home runs may go down if the home run bonanza of 2019 turns out to be an anomaly across the league.  A return to his career numbers would make Familia a valuable piece of the Mets bullpen once again, something that the team will definitely need heading into the 2020 season.

Also read: Free Agent Reliever options: Brad Brach

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