Sports

The Unexpected Rise of the Unhittable Jeurys Familia

The New York Mets have had some memorable closers, but never one who has pitched quite as fearlessly or brilliantly—or as much—as Jeurys Familia has this October.

by Howard Megdal
Oct 19 2015, 5:00pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It was closer Tug McGraw who coined "Ya Gotta Believe," the Mets' enduring franchise rallying cry. At the time, it read like something like a joke and something like a dare, but the Mets won a World Series with McGraw closing in 1969, then a National League pennant with him in the same role in 1973. They were never more believable than during their juggernaut 1986 season, when they won the only other World Series in franchise history with not one but two closers: Jesse Orosco for lefties, Roger McDowell for righties.

They've had good closers since, and a good number of less-good ones. John Franco and Armando Benitez succeeded in leading the Mets to consecutive playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000, and Billy Wagner's 2006 season helped the Mets into the National League Championship Series. But the Mets have never had a closer quite like Jeurys Familia, whose breakout 2015 season—and otherworldly postseason—has been absolutely integral to the team's postseason run, which continued with Sunday night's Game 2 win in the NLCS.

Read More: The ALCS's Familiar, Unusual Suspects

At the risk of flooding the zone with a new stat, the 2015 season Jeurys Familia is putting together has to be tops in Mets history in the Agita Index of Stress Free Saves. As easy as Familia has made it look in October, he wins this contest even more handily. McGraw constantly worked out of trouble. John Franco never threw a strike if he could help it, and while waiting for hitters to chase his changeup would always work eventually, it wasn't easy on fans. McDowell and Orosco excelled, but both were merely competent beyond their own pitching lanes. Benitez combined remarkable strikeout rates with disquieting walk rates and an avant-garde approach to pitch selection. Wagner struggled when circumstances forced him out of the specific three outs he was used to recording. Jeurys Familia is doing none of these things. He is, instead, simply getting one batter out after another—reliably, convincingly, and whenever Mets manager Terry Collins asks him to do it.

There are stats backing this up. Familia's 2015 includes the best ERA+ of any full-season closer in Mets history. He is fifth among those closers in walks per nine, ninth in strikeouts per nine, and no one on the former list ahead of him is ahead of him on the latter. But for those watching Familia placidly take his time and mow down virtually every hitter he's faced—literally: three of the 28 batters he's faced in the playoffs have even reached first base—the stats are hardly necessary. It is all right there to see. Familia is calm. His team is calm. The fans are calm. And then the Mets win. It just keeps happening, quite naturally.

"So the way I go about it when I'm out there is I pretend [it's] just me," Familia said Sunday, prior to Game 2. "Just me throwing the ball. I take my time. I don't rush into anything. I block everything out. I know it's a high pressure game, and I know there's a lot of crowds and a lot of media, but I just take my time. I pretend it's just me out there, and unless I throw that ball, nothing's going to happen."

It's not just pretend. Very little of import has happened at the end of a game without Familia on the mound this year, and Terry Collins has relied on Familia even more in the playoffs. Essentially, he has been using Familia the way the Yankees used Mariano Rivera. Familia pitched to 16 hitters in the NLDS against the Dodgers, and retired all 16 to face him. In Game 5, Familia took 21 pitches to record six outs and smother the Dodgers in front of a packed Dodger Stadium. And this workload didn't constitute an emergency—pitching Familia for two innings was Collins' Plan A. So far, it's working.

"I went to him [before Game 5] in the outfield during batting practice and said if we have a one-run lead in the eighth inning, you're in the game, and Bartolo Colon was standing with him as he always is, and he goes, 'by all means, he'll be ready.' And he was, and that was the game plan from the start," Collins recalled on Friday, the day after Familia helped the Mets advance to the NLCS. "And you know, those guys and the way they execute make you look real smart, but he was ready to go from the middle of the afternoon on. But he was outstanding the whole series."

Jeruys Familia is a happy man. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports.

The game plan didn't change on Saturday night in Game 1, either. Matt Harvey shook off the rust and bad vibes that defined the end of his season and dominated, throwing only 95 pitches over seven and two thirds. And yet, the moment he allowed a home run to Kyle Schwarber to trim the Mets lead to 4-2, Terry Collins popped right out of the dugout and summoned Familia for the four-out save. For the first time this postseason, Familia allowed baserunners—one via walk in the eighth, another on a single in the ninth. But the outcome was never really in doubt.

Afterwards, Collins sounded alternately amused and befuddled by questions about Familia's usage. The surprise comes less from anything scientific or problematic, and much more from the typical way other managers use their closers. "I'm not sure I have him tomorrow," Collins said Saturday. "He's thrown a lot lately. So what I'm lucky is that I've got some other guys down there that I can turn to. But I'm telling you—maybe it's just me, but I don't think you can end the game with your star—your best relief pitcher standing on the mound in the bullpen warming up, waiting for a one-inning save."

It's a remarkably progressive stance for the 66-year-old Collins to take, one that reflects his sense of urgency— "I'm old," he says—and likely growth as a manager that extends beyond the playoffs. This multi-inning Familia isn't new. The Mets used him for more than three outs ten times this season. And as a setup man in 2014, Familia went more than an inning 16 times. Collins, conventional as he can be in other regards, has never shied away from the supersized outings that trip up other closers. On Sunday night, he was rewarded for it again, as Familia pronounced himself fit to pitch, then proved it in the ninth by setting down the heart of the Cubs order and securing a 4-1 win.

The Mets clearly intend to keep using Familia like Mariano Rivera, and hoping that their new closer continues to get Mariano-grade results. Unlike Mariano, Familia is benefitting from his ability to mix three strong pitches. As effective as he was last year, and early this season with a fastball/slider combo, Familia has elevated his game with a new and near-unhittable splitter that averages 93 miles per hour, right between the 97 his fastball averages and the 89 of his slider. At the insistence of bullpen coach Ricky Bones, Familia began throwing it against lefties in games.

"They're hard to hit," Collins said of Familia. "This guy throws the ball 98 miles an hour, 97 miles an hour with tremendous sink, a power slider. Now he's got the split finger, and if he throws strikes, I don't care, he's hard to hit. He's just flat hard to hit. So he's got a chance to be dominant."

Closers have dominated postseasons like this because they're great—Mariano again—or because they're very good and have caught fire at the right moment, a la Keith Foulke in 2004. But Familia, who is still growing into his talent, could be announcing himself as a member of the first, smaller cohort. He actually might be this effective. And he might be this durable, too, with two seasons of multi-inning appearances under his belt absent any health issues under his belt. He was certainly his usual self on Sunday, even after pitching 3 1/3 innings over two games in the previous three days. He expects to be ready when his impatient manager calls on him again and again this October, and doesn't expect that to change anytime soon.

"I'm very strict with myself day to day," Familia said. "I'm ready for this. I don't feel in any way challenged when I have to go longer than what I was throughout the regular season." This is the kind of talk that simultaneously calms and excites a fan base that is not used to believing. As with so much else in the Mets' giddy charge deeper into October, it is entirely new.