Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hisanori Takahashi Should Be This Year's Darren Oliver

The day was October 14, 2006. The Mets were in trouble. It was the second inning of Game 3 of the NLCS. The Mets were at Busch Stadium, facing the Cardinals, and Steve Trachsel was struggling. He led off the second inning by surrendering a home run to the opposing pitcher, Jeff Suppan, which made the score 3-0 in favor of St. Louis. A walk, single, and walk later, he was out of there. Who came in to save the day? None other than Darren Oliver, one of the unheralded heroes of the Mets 2006 season.

Oliver wasn't perfect, allowing two of those inherited runners to score - but that can hardly be blamed on Oliver. What happened next, however, was something which endeared Oliver to me for life. No matter what else he did, I would always be a Darren Oliver fan.

He went out there for the third inning, and set down the Cardinals without any problem. He was back out there in the fourth, and aside from a single by Pujols, escaped unscathed.

But then he was out there for the fifth. And the sixth.

And the seventh.

He retired the last nine batters he faced, keeping us in a game which seemed like it was ready to spiral out of reach in the early going.

The Mets, as you know, lost that game, but I was impressed by what Oliver did that night. He tossed 74 pitches, coming into the game cold, and keeping the Mets within reach. It was valiant. But more importantly, it made me realize something very important about bullpen construction -- a long man is ESSENTIAL to keeping a bullpen fresh.

The Mets bullpen in 2006 was, by all accounts, pretty great. From Wagner (2.24 ERA) to Heilman (3.62) to Bradford (2.90) to Feliciano (2.09) and Sanchez (2.60), there were a lot of valuable parts. Everyone had a role, and played it to a tee. Bradford got the righties, and Feliciano the lefties. Sanchez and Heilman set up for Wagner. And when there was heavy lifting to be done, it was done by Darren Oliver.

The Mets haven't had a reliever like Oliver since he left via free agency after the 2006 season, and the bullpen hasn't been the same. Oliver was great that year. In the regular season, he appeared in TEN games where he pitched three innings or more, and 18 where he pitched 2 innings or more. Altogether, he had 24 appearances of more than an inning, and he appeared in the game when we were winning, losing, and in the fourth inning through ninth inning. He provided us with absolutely invaluable flexibility.

He was left-handed, had pitched for many years as a starter, and could get both lefties and righties out. In my opinion, he was the pitching MVP of the 2006 Mets.

And do you want to know a secret? The Mets may have the 2010 version of Darren Oliver in camp right now.

Hisanori Takahashi.

Takahashi is also left-handed and has spent his career as a starter[1]. He has a diverse repertoire which can be used effectively against both lefties and righties. This spring, he's been excellent in a long-relief role. In addition, he's come from Japan where starters are used less frequently than here in the States - he might not be well-suited to starting every fifth day anyway.

The Mets absolutely must consider using Takahashi in the same way Darren Oliver was used back in 2006. I have to get this off my chest right now - because despite months of keeping up Fonzie Forever, I have never mentioned this: I don't think ANYTHING infuriates me more than seeing a manager use five or six relievers in the same game.

How many times did this happen last year? Starter blows up in the third inning. Manuel goes to the 'pen. Green, one inning. Parnell, one inning. Feliciano, one inning. Stokes, one inning. Rodriguez, one inning. This really cannot happen.

I've never pitched professionally, but I do play and I do watch the games - and I know that a reliever who comes in to pitch an inning, even if it's a quick 12-pitch inning, is going to be seriously taxed. He warms up in the bullpen. He warms up on the mound. When all is said and done, he's probably thrown 40 pitches. To make five members of your bullpen throw 25 or 30 useless pitches is the biggest waste of resources I could possibly think of. In the situation above (here is example here and here and here) your bullpen is probably throwing 200 max-effort pitches to get through five innings. Why not let one man shoulder that load instead and throw 100?

With the Mets apparent depth at the fifth starter position, they need to consider making Takahashi that man. If Figueroa or Nieve, who are out of options, win that job (as they should), Takahashi would then be free to be the long-man in the bullpen. If that happens, then Feliciano will never be wasted in a game simply because we need an arm. K-Rod won't have to pitch in a loss simply because we've run out of relievers who are "available" on a given day.

This is not an issue I've heard discussed lately, but it may end up being one of the most important decisions the Mets make (or do not make) this entire year. Also, in this era of bullpen specialization, I believe it is an issue which has been vastly under-studied. If you are going to keep specialists in your bullpen, you need someone to eat up innings when the starter is ineffective. Takahashi, to me, is the perfect candidate for this. I hope that the Mets consider it.


Follow us on twitter at @fonzieforever, and thanks for reading.

[1] A commenter on Metsblog correctly points out that Takahashi has seen time in Japan as both a starter AND reliever. According to, Takahashi appears to have been used as a reliever in 2006, earning 15 saves for Yomiuri.

Also of note is that Takahashi has only once in his career pitched more than 163 1/3 innings in a season. Both of these are just more reasons to think he would be more effective as a long-man or swingman than as a starter.


Joe said...

I agree wholeheartedly!!! I have looked for that since 2006, too, and also think Takahashi is perfect for the role. He has four pitches he can throw for strikes or something like that.

I would go a step further. How many times in the past couple of years have we seen Ollie get lit up in the first couple of innings? When he's having a bad day, it's obvious. Why not take him out right away, before he spends 116 pitches to go 4 innings and give up 8 runs? If Takahashi or Figeuroa came out and threw strikes, it might keep the game within reach, and would certainly be less painful to watch.

Anonymous said...

YES!!! It can be any of Takahashi, Figgy or Nieve - but someone has to be able to go long from the pen, for all the reasons you said.

And don't let anyone spout about how this is the NL, and pinchhitters make this role unviable. Let's face it: the incremental gain from using your 25th man - the guy who you'd use as the PH the first time your long reliever bats - is minimal, and certainly less long-lasting than the damage to the pen in the next game.

(PS - another pet peeve: with all the good weather reporting available, why do managers let a starter warm up & pitch when they know for sure that the game will be interrupted in the first 3 innings. Use the long "reliever" there too - and then bring in the (fresh) starter after the rain delay.)

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Gaku in Japan said...

You predicted right!
Look how Takahashi's been doing for the Mets this season.