The Billy Pulpit

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Mets were born in farcical circumstances, and have spent 62 years trying to wipe clean the memory of their ludicrous infancy. Now that they have the richest owner in the league and one of the top executives in baseball manning the tiller, we’re probably close to the end of the Mets’ reign as baseball’s pre-eminent (and I apologize for stealing an idiom from soccer) banter club.

But Billy Eppler gave them a hell of an encore before the curtain drops for good. Last week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Eppler until after this year’s World Series. That sanction comes after a four-month investigation into the former Mets GM’s misuse of the injured list as a de facto taxi squad during the 2022 and 2023 seasons. Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported that Eppler directed the team to fabricate injuries for “up to a dozen players.”

During the 2022 and 2023 seasons, Eppler’s Mets made more than 700 transactions that impacted either the 26-man or 40-man roster. That includes 51 instances of a player being placed on the injured list during those two regular seasons. Going through the transaction log, I filtered out acute injuries that could not possibly have been faked: broken bones, surgeries, basically anything that would’ve won the player a Purple Heart if the injury had been suffered in combat. That includes various torn UCLs, Pete Alonso’s bone bruise, Edwin Díaz’s torn patellar tendon, a couple broken fingers, and a partridge in a pear tree.

That leaves 40 instances in which players were placed on the IL either with no designated injury in the MLB.com transaction log, or with an injury that could’ve been embellished: strains, tightnesses, irritations, and so on. That includes injuries to players like Max Scherzer, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Taijuan Walker, Starling Marte, and Justin Verlander; under no circumstances would the Mets invent a reason to take those players off the field if they were healthy.

I don’t have access to the Mets’ detailed medical records for the past two seasons, and even if I did, my medical training only goes as far as a long-since-lapsed CPR certification and watching several hundred episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. I have no way of knowing which injuries Eppler supposedly fabricated. But after eliminating players whom the Mets would never take out of the lineup, as well as acute injuries, I came up with 23 players whom the Mets might have wanted to put on ice.

If there really were “up to a dozen players” put on the IL for specious reasons, that’s a startling number. And according to MLB’s investigation, whose findings Eppler says he accepts, he was the ringleader. While “other Mets employees violated MLB’s rules,” the MLB Department of Investigations “concluded that the pattern of conduct was at Mr. Eppler’s sole direction and without any involvement of Club ownership or superiors.”

Thank goodness. I’m not going to say that Eppler got Oliver Northed, but he’s clearly being made an example of.

And that’s fine.

Eppler resigned his position when MLB announced its investigation in October, though given that the Mets had hired David Stearns over his head less than a week before, his days were probably numbered anyway. Suspending an executive who was already out of work looks like a forceful response to misbehavior, but in practice it’ll probably only formalize the fact that Eppler was going to be spending more time with his family over the next nine months. Besides, Manfred reserved the right to reinstate Eppler sooner if he submits an application. At the end of this suspension — either in November or earlier at Manfred’s discretion — Eppler will probably be able to find work in a special assistant or senior adviser role somewhere, but after two unsuccessful stints running big-market clubs, it seems unlikely that he’ll get another crack at running a team on his own right away.

Even so, if you were making a list of most disgraceful Mets GM ousters of the 21st Century, this might not make the top three. Eppler’s actions certaintly don’t rise to the level of former Braves GM John Copolella’s lifetime ban (which has since been commuted) for violating international signing rules or Jeff Luhnow’s suspension for his role in the Astros’ banging scheme.

Those punishments do have one thing in common with the discipline handed down to Eppler: MLB is addressing a systemic problem by making an example of an egregious offender. Baseball is like a petri dish for cheating; any insular community of highly competitive people would be. All the more so in the past 20 years, as people like Luhnow — business types who would otherwise be making millions by finding rules to bend or break in other industries — replaced baseball lifers at the top of the organizational chart.

Once rules start to get bent, they stay bent, unless the body with regulatory power — here, MLB — exerts significant force to straighten things out. A loophole only gets wider the more people cram their way through it.

There isn’t really a regulatory body to govern baseball. MLB holds the power to govern, but it is also the custodian of the industry’s financial fortune. If meting out discipline to every offender would damage the league’s credibility, the league might find another, tidier way to get the same message across.

Hence Eppler’s unfortunate circumstances. For years, I’ve considered situations like this by way of a truism I learned from a friend, who’s a tax attorney: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

Did Eppler invent this scheme out of whole cloth? Was he the only GM who fudged injury reports to get an extra reliever on his roster from time to time? That’s highly unlikely. But a nail that sticks out runs the risk of getting hammered down. So it was in the steroid era, the sign-stealing crisis, and the NCAA’s investigation into NIL violations at the University of Tennessee.

As much as I don’t mind MLB making an example of Eppler, I do have some sympathy for his plight.

Because the rules that he broke don’t really work anymore.

From the beginning of baseball history until the early 2000s, injuries were largely something to be treated when they occurred. Teams would go into a season with a set major league roster; players who weren’t performing up to standards would be traded, sent down to the minors, or cut. In an ideal world, a team might only use 15 pitchers all year. A top starting pitcher would throw 250 or more innings in the regular season. Before the advent of divisional play in 1969, he’d make as many as three World Series starts. Even into the 1990s, a team’s ace would usually max out at four or five starts in a postseason.

Now, almost nobody throws more than 200 innings in the regular season, and the ace on a Wild Card team that makes the World Series will start six times, as Zack Wheeler did in 2022 and Zac Gallen and Jordan Montgomery did last postseason. Pitchers can throw fewer innings than ever, and the postseason — the only part of the calendar that matters, some would say — demands more energy than ever.

Every team, in its own way, plans to use at least six or seven starters from Day 1 of training camp. Most teams with championship aspirations will start the season with a pitcher on the mend from Tommy John surgery or the like, whom they will pencil in for a spot in the playoff rotation. The pitching staff is no longer just the 13 guys on the active roster, it’s all 20-plus arms on the 40-man roster, rotated in and out over the course of the year, plus prospects and waiver flotsam. Younger pitchers especially have their workloads managed by pitch counts, and in some cases, prophylactic use of the IL.

The growth of pitching staffs has led to a similar proportional decrease in the number of position players a team can carry at one time, increasing the demands on players who ought to be limited to situational roles.

Even as the number of pitchers on the active roster has been limited by statute, the game has trended even more toward max-effort pitching, and there has so far been little if any progress toward finding a way for pitchers to throw 100 miles an hour, for 100 pitches a start, year after year without getting hurt. Instead, the people running teams, these loophole finders, these rules lawyers, have kept finding ways to put more arms in their managers’ toolkits. Spirit of the rules be damned.

Will anything change, now that Eppler’s taken this fastball to the ribs? Probably not. Suspending an egregious violator is a deterrent, but like everything else with pitcher training and usage these days, it’s a treatment, not a cure.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Philmember
2 months ago

I’m not sure if this is less serious than the sign stealing. Especially if it went to the level of creating fake paperwork to back up the invented injuries.

I can also imagine a scenario where per-arb reliever X is phantom IL’d a couple of times… and then the team use this against him in an arb hearing.

Mr. Redlegsmember
2 months ago
Reply to  Phil

True, but the flip side is that the pre-arb reliever still gets paid the MLB minimum while on the IL instead of being sent down and making a minor league salary or cut from the team entirely. That $ difference might more than make up for the difference in arb salaries.