November 20, 2018

Why the Nationals’ Bullpen Sucks

August 14, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

It is an oft told story: the implosion of the Washington Nationals reliever corps. It is happening now, and it has happened oh so many times that the success stories stand out starkly from the failures because there have been so few of them. Whether it is the failures of Drew Storen in the playoffs in 2012 and 2014 or the more recent plague of ineffectiveness, bullpen disasters have been a constant sour note through the otherwise sweet song of one of baseball’s more ascendant organizations over the past seven years when everything else was generally going right.

In the beginning there was Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard and they were the last word in the firmament of bullpen success going into the 2012 postseason. Both had been developed in the Nationals organization and they appeared to be more than capable to carry the team deep into the playoffs. But then came the famous stumble by Storen in the fifth game against the Cardinals and nothing has gone right since.

Regardless, Storen and Clippard stand out as the last and only relievers to achieve their first success with Washington. Storen was drafted with the 10th selection in the 2009 draft that also netted Washington Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick. Tyler Clippard came over from the Yankees in 2007 for Johnathan Albaledejo–one of Jim Bowden’s best trades in DC. Clippard was a starter at the time and made two starts for Washington in 2008, but was permanently converted to relieving in 2009.

Tyler Clippard is one of a kind in the history of Washington Nationals bullpen stories. He was a starter who the team converted to relieving and achieved ongoing and long term success in that role. He continues as an effective late inning option for the Toronto Blue Jays despite overuse by the Nationals early in his career, which is probably one reason Rizzo let him walk in 2015.

After Clippard and Storen left the team in 2015, a down year for the franchise generally, Mike Rizzo turned to what would become Plan B. In 2015 the first iteration of Plan B was Jonathan Papelbon. That story does not need re-telling, but Papelbon was the beginning of Mike Rizzo’s predilection for the mature reliever–one that had been to the mountain top. It was likely that Rizzo brought in relievers with experience after Storen proved that bullpen guys without a baptism in postseason waters might not handle the pressures well.  So he sought out more relievers past the age of 30 than good sense would augur.

Papelbon was 35 in 2016 and after he melted down, Mark Melancon, then 31 followed him. Shawn Kelley, then 32 and Oliver Perez, then 34, were added for stability because Blake Treinen was not yet ready. In 2017 the team began the season with Treinen as the closer, but when he failed, auditions were held for Shawn Kelley and then Koda Glover. The results mark the dark side of the moon for Washington bullpen woes.

To right the ship, Rizzo traded shortly before the trading deadline for Sean Doolittle, then 30 and Ryan Madson, then 36. He had also added Brandon Kintzler, then 32, as well as Joe Blanton then 36 and Matt Albers, then 34. Maybe I am making too much of those ages, but it is essential to emphasize that only Sean Doolittle posed any reasonable expectation that he would fill a late inning role longer term.

In 2012 FanGraphs posted an analysis of relievers and starting pitchers and how they age. Not surprisingly a decline in fastball velocity is the most notable effect of aging in all pitchers. However, the study demonstrated that while relievers maintained their velocity longer than starters, the strikeouts per nine innings for starters did not decline as precipitously as it did for relievers. Home runs per nine innings increased for relievers more notably than it did for starters as they both aged. The conclusion is that starters have an arsenal of secondary pitches they can rely upon as they age as opposed to relievers who rely far more heavily on the gas. Hence relievers do not age as well as starters. The article highlights age 30-32 as the watershed moment for relievers.

A member of the Washington Nationals analytics staff said in my presence that the team did not value their input as much as they wished. The only player on the team that held the group in high esteem and used their input regularly was Max Scherzer. Anecdotally, one could make a strong case, based on Scherzer’s success and the long running problem the team has had with aging relievers, that the Washington front office should listen to those propeller hat dudes a little more often.

Maybe they are coming around, because this season Rizzo traded for Kelvin Herrera–28–in July and shipped Kintzler and Kelley elsewhere. The addition of Greg Holland, now 32, is on the cusp and worrying. So which way will the team go for 2019? Only if Doolittle and Herrera come back from injury in the near future will the team have enough late inning firepower to make it into the postseason, so 2019 may be where the bullpen question plays out next. Many believe that the last two games–when Koda Glover and 37-year old Ryan Madson failed miserably–stuck a fork in an otherwise disappointing 2018 season.

One of the problems moving forward for the Nationals is their lack of pitching depth overall. The ability to convert strong arms like Jefry Rodriguez–he of the fastball/slider repertoire–to the bullpen where they might shine, is limited because he has been pressed into service as a starter. The team is so hurting for healthy arms to start games that experiments to find effective relievers have been largely put on hold.

The Nationals might look to the free agent market for bullpen help, but the only free agent relievers who are under 30 are Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera, both 29. Relievers tend to achieve free agency when also beginning of the end for their effectiveness.

I had the pleasure of attending a game on Sunday in Harrisburg, where the Nationals Double-A affiliate, the “Senators” play. Mark Schialabba, director of player development for the Nationals, highlighted numerous talents coming through the system in a SABR presentation two weeks ago.  We wanted to see several of them, including James Bourque, a 25 year old who has been converted to relief and is having a fine season, posting a 1.99 ERA over 41 innings at High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg.

Bourque did not pitch, but we were impressed with another fine bullpen arm, southpaw Jordan Mills. Mills works from one of the funkier deliveries I have seen in a Nationals uniform, dipping down from the left side for a 70-72 mph curveball that was unhittable. He mixed in a 88-91 mph fastball but it was mostly a show pitch. Maybe the issue is patience. Maybe as Sam Cooke used to sing, “A change is gonna come.”

There is a world of difference between Double-A and the majors, especially for relievers. Getting major league hitters to swing at a 70 mph curve, when the fastball is only 89, might not work as well as it does in Harrisburg. But the Washington Nationals need to find the answers to their bullpen conundrum somewhere other than among bullpen senior citizens. In the 2018 draft there were quite a few pitching selections that profile better as relievers than starters. The tide is definitely turning, but when will it arrive?

One thing we have learned in the past few years: when the bullpen sucks, there is little to do but hope for the future. 21st century baseball does not allow entry into the World Series without a very strong bullpen. It is the singular feature most wanting on the Washington teams of the past seven season. 2018 has proven no different despite Mike Rizzo’s best attempts to date. So, once again, our hopes most likely rest with next season. By Kentucky Derby time we should know which horses can run the distance. Until then…

 

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