The Real Nats Bullpen Problem

The Nationals have a bullpen problem, but likely not the one you've been reading about for the past three months. No, they have a pretty good internal option for closer, the problem is they have few reliable relievers beyond that and time's running out to acquire some.

The closer? Shawn Kelley of course, who put up another sneaky great season and can count himself among the better relievers in baseball.

When I rate relief pitchers the two main stats I look at are strikeout rate and walk rate, big indicators that can stabilize over a smaller sample size. They're also the two main objectives for a reliever, get guys out without giving up run opportunities and keep guys off the bases. I consider the ERA and FIP secondary for relief pitchers since they can often get lucky in limited appearances. Finally, I check three more stats to see how fluky the numbers are: swinging strike rate and contact rate to see how well they can miss opposing bats and average leverage index to get an idea of the pressure they pitched under.

Here's Kelley's percentile rank (higher always better) among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched last season:

That's right, Kelley had a higher strikeout rate than 96 percent of relievers last season and a walk rate lower than 91 percent, those are elite numbers. The ERA and FIP ranks around 82 percent are also solid. These numbers point to Kelley being an elite out reliever who won't put extra runners on base as he works through an inning, both key for stress-free ninth innings.

The only troubling number for Kelley here is the average leverage index for his appearances, which was higher than just 52 percent of relievers, meaning he wasn't facing many high stress situations while amassing these numbers. However, taking a quick look at his wOBA against by leverage index last season (admittedly minuscule samples), there isn't much of a difference between his low leverage appearances and the times he did face a high leverage situation. In 2016, he gave up a .288 wOBA in low leverage situations, .210 in medium leverage and .271 in high leverage spots. This is relatively in line with, and a bit better than, his career numbers of .296, .281, .298.

The most commonly cited reason for the Nationals being wary of naming Kelley the closer has nothing to do with performance, but usage. The argument goes that with two Tommy John surgeries under his belt, Kelley has been treated lightly with higher rest rates. A treatment that wouldn't be able to be continued if he were the closer. However, comparing his days rest between appearances last year to the top closers in baseball, there isn't much of a difference. Especially when you account for the fact that Kelley wasn't a closer himself last year.

Kelley pitched on zero or one day's rest 36 times which would place him tied for 5th among the group above, just one behind Zach Britton at 37. While he might not be able to reach the usage rates Jansen and Melancon did, he should be able to pitch frequently enough to serve as a closer without too many unavailable days.

So if closer isn't the bullpen issue, what's the problem? Well this is the rest of the bullpen: Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The best three guesses we have to fill those shrug emoji spots are Koda Glover, Trevor Gott and either Rafael Martin or Matt Grace, an uninspiring group at best. Glover struggled mightily in his brief debut last season, Gott never managed to crack a bullpen that had a need for good middle relief and Martin and Grace have been awful in multiple small stints.

Which isn't to say the three named members of the bullpen are all that good either. Here's Treinen, Solis and Perez's percentile rankings in the same stats we just saw for Kelley.

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The first thing you notice is the abhorrent walk rate rankings. That's right, 91 percent of relief pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched last season had a better walk rate than Solis. Perez's 21st percentile ranking looks amazing in comparison to the younger two. Overall, that bodes poorly for Nationals fans who are trying to get over past traumas of relievers coming in for one out and walking the batter.

Perez comes out especially poor here, with objectively awful numbers across the board. You can argue that his only job is to get left handed hitters out, but he didn't even do that, giving up a .319 wOBA to opposing left handed hitters. That was worse than even noted left handed hitter struggling Treinen's .309. Frankly, it should be a bigger question whether or not he should be on the team at spring training, let alone opening day.

Solis has a decent strikeout ranking and that's backed up by some again decent ranks at making opposing batters swing and miss. The ERA and FIP numbers are great, but should be taken with a heavy grain of salt considering the peripherals. Treinen's bright spot is the ERA, but pretty much everything else screams fluke. He gets all of his value out of inducing groundouts (a 65.9% groundball rate), but that's a difficult tightrope to walk, especially when giving out so many free passes. Both can likely continue to be solid middle relievers, but I would be wary of going into the season with them as my second and third best relief pitchers.

The bad news is the Nats have missed their opportunity to get serious upgrades on the free agent market. Considering how many other eggs they've put into the Bryce Harper 2018 window basket you have to wonder why they didn't put a higher valuation on Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon in order to cement a world-class top two with Kelley. Even if they didn't want to spend big, they could've looked at Koji Uehara (1 year, $6 million), Brett Cecil (4 years, $30.5 million), or Junichi Tazawa (2 years, $12 million) who all had strikeout and walk percentile rankings above 70% (Cecil and Uehara were both over 80%) and were fairly cheap.

Not all is lost however as there are still some solid relievers out there who can shore up the Nats’ non-existent middle relief corps. While they can't go the super bullpen route that's currently in vogue, they can create a cavalcade of decent relievers and hope one or two have a career year to get them the rest of the way. Below are the best options on the free agent market (plus two trade candidates they've been tied to) along with their 2016 percentile rankings.

Logan brings similar walk issues as the rest of the Nats pen, but he has a great strikeout rate backed up by elite swinging strike and contact rate ranks. This is a pitcher who won't let the ball get in play often. His .215 wOBA against is substantially better than either of the Nats existing lefties, but you don't want him facing righties too much (.305 wOBA against). The other lefty, Blevins, is an old friend for Nats fans. His departure from the Nats was messy, so a reunion is likely not in the cards. However he pairs a great strikeout ranking (albeit with not as good contact rates) with an average walk rate, better then you can say for any of the Nats relievers besides Kelley.

On the right handed side, however not much better overall. Romo had an injury shortened 2016, but he still put up good rankings on the strikeout and walk rate sides, while backing it up with great contact rates. Frankly, he's the best reliever still on the market and the Nationals should be doing all they can to sign him. Even if he's taken some steps back from his closing days he'd still easily be the second best reliever in the Nationals bullpen with room to spare. I made fun of Blanton a few times during the NLDS but he put up a decent season in his new relief role. Ranking in the 64th percentile for strikeout rate and the 53 for walk rate, he certainly won't set the world on fire, but they are reliable numbers for a reliever that can hold down the back half of the Nats pen.

The two main relievers the Nationals were linked to in the trade market earlier in the offseason were Alex Colome from the Rays and David Robertson from the White Sox. It's questionable whether they're still in discussions for either of them, but I wanted to include them anyways. Colome at 28 years old is the jewel here, putting up an elite strikeout rate and swing and miss rates while pitching in some of the highest leverage situations in the bigs. Robertson is almost the complete opposite here, with a horrid walk rate ranking, for the price of his contract and what the White Sox are supposedly asking forhim, it's a good thing the Nationals have decided to steer clear.

It won’t be the best bullpen in the game, but putting Logan, Romo and Blanton alongside Kelley, Treinen and Solis will give a solid top six bullpen arms. That also allows a spot for either a hopeful bounceback year for Oliver Perez, or, preferably, for the young guns to rotate in and find another diamond in the rough.         

 

Citizens of Natstown Podcast Episode 150

On the 150th episode of the podcast the Citizens return to discus game 5 of the NLDS, the end of the Nats season, upcoming arbitration and non-tender decisions, the coaching staff, roster holes, free agent targets, and more!

Saturday November 5th is Extra Life 2016! We'll be streaming video games for 24hrs to raise money for Children's National, right here in DC. We've already raised $1000 and we'd love to raise as much as possible. For more information and to donate go here. Thank you for your support!

Citizens of Natstown Podcast Episode 149

The Citizens are back to recap the first four games of the NLDS, talk the probability of certain scenarios in Game 5, lament a certain roster decision, take a brief look at the NLCS (No we're not getting ahead of ourselves, if we have a podcast next week we'll be over halfway through the CS), and more!

It's time for Extra Life again! We're raising money for sick kids at Children's National Medical Center in DC. Go here for information and go here to donate! Thank you for your support Natstown!

Extra Life 2016 is November 5th!

tl;dr: Help us help sick kids at Children’s National Medical Center in DC. Donate here.

It’s that time again: summer is quickly fading to fall, the Nats are gunning for home field advantage in the NLDS, and our yearly Extra Life marathon benefitting the Children's National Medical Center located in Washington, DC is just around the corner.

If you’re a new reader to the site this season, or just haven’t seen our previous Extra Life endeavors; Extra Life is a 24-hour video game marathon benefiting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. We specifically chose all proceeds donated to our campaign to benefit Children’s National Medical Center, located in Washington, DC.

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Citizens of Natstown Podcast Episode 148

In a two-man show O'Hara and TJ discuss the litany of Nats injuries over the last month, the meaning of losing Wilson Ramos, the NLDS rotation/bullpen/bench options, Jose Fernandez, and a few other random topics.

Our Extra Life 2016 campaign has kicked off, please be sure to read about our efforts to raise money for Children's National and donate here!

Monday Breakdown: Is the Nats' Schedule Too Easy?

With 51 games left to play (and 32 NL East rivalry games remaining), the Washington Nationals stand seven games ahead of the second-place Miami Marlins. 

Even though the Nats have some breathing room in the East - and the Nats currently hold winning records against all their division opponents - David Huzzard and Alyssa Wolice agree that the team can't afford to lose its focus over the next two months. But, is it possible that Washington's schedule presents disadvantages for an October-bound team that likely won't play a "must-win" game again this season?

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Tuesday Breakdown: The Mysteries of International Signings

Hope you had a good 4th of July. Mine was pretty good until the illegal fireworks started getting set off and my dogs freaked out. There really isn’t much big Nats news from over the weekend. The Nats had a winning streak but that ended. They signed a bunch of teenagers to large contracts. It’s really hard to get excited about international signings. It’s the most the Nats have ever spent and they got some top ranked guys but they’re 16 and so far away from the majors.

Did you realize that 16 year olds were born in the year 2000? We’re a couple seasons away from having a major league baseball player that was born in the year 2000 and that is scary. Back to the international signing period and it’s lack of ability to excite people. The draft is somewhat exciting when you’re favorite team has the top pick and it’s a year that Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper are available. Those guys were hyped up and publicized long before the draft. I don’t even know who the first overall pick was this year and if the Nats pick weren’t related to a prospect already in their system I wouldn’t have remembered him either.

Now amplify how unknown the players are in the draft times a thousand and that is the international signing period. The players drafted at least have college or high school stats and accomplishments to list. The players signed as international free agents are just kids and a lot of them aren’t even playing with regulation baseball equipment. It makes a great story when they make it to the majors but for me, the common fan, to get excited about them at this stage is impossible.

Look at Victor Robles. He is on the fast track to the majors having just been promoted to Potomac and if he makes a two level jump again next season he has a chance to be a September call-up in 2017, and even that feels like too far away to get excited about. Part of it has to do with the Nats being good. The farm system was much more exciting when it was something that was going to save the team. Take Turner and Giolito for example. Giolito is the top prospect in all of baseball. The same as Strasburg and Harper and yet his debut and arrival to the majors was met with a hundredth of the excitement, and for Turner there is a segment of fans that don’t even want him in the majors.

Waiting for players like Robles, Turner, and Giolito is how Nats fans used to get their jollies. Now it’s turned to almost an extreme of some thinking call-ups will ruin team chemistry and send the Nats spiraling out of control. I think we can find a balance of being excited for the arrival of hot prospects and watching the team have success at the top level because they’re so interconnected, and in order to sustain success the Nats are going to have to keep increasing the power of the farm system.

Also before I close this out Zack Hample is an asshole.   

Monday Breakdown: The Nats' Bullpen

With Jonathan Papelbon on the 15-day disabled list with a right intercostal strain, the Washington Nationals have an even greater impetus to pad their bullpen. Citizens of Natstown's David Huzzard and Alyssa Wolice offer their takes on what the Nats should do to regain late-innings strength: namely, should the Nats take a shot at landing Aroldis Chapman? 

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2016 MLB Draft: Nats take three solid prospects on day one

The Nats lost 3-1 on Thursday evening, but it was still a productive night, as they added three solid prospects to the organization on Day 1 of the MLB draft. The addition of Daniel Murphy and the subtraction of Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann left the Nationals with back-to-back picks at #28 and #29, as well as pick #58.

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© 2016 Citizens of Natstown