Fitting the Pieces: The 2012 Bullpen
In 2011 the 520 2/3 innings that the Washington Nationals bullpen pitched was the fourth most in the majors. The Nationals bullpen also combined to blow the most saves in baseball at 28, but that was more a product of having to pitch those 520 2/3 innings combined with an offense that very rarely offered much of a cushion. The 2011 Nationals' bullpen was very good striking out 8.02 per nine while walking 3.65 per nine with an ERA of 3.20 and FIP of 3.66.
Things have turned around a bit for the Nationals bullpen. A lot of people focus on the struggles of Henry Rodriguez and the times that Ryan Perry and Tom Gorzelanny gave up multiple runs in an inning to turn a close game into a blowout, but as a whole the bullpen has been better in 2012 than in 2011. The 2012 version of the pen has struck out 8.50 per nine innings while walking 3.71 with an ERA of 3.12 and a FIP of 3.42. The most important stat however is that the Nationals bullpen has had to pitch only 167 1/3 innings or the 15th most in baseball.
The most important factor in a team having a good bullpen is having starters that can pitch deep into games. In 2011 Washington Nationals starters averaged slightly over 5 2/3 innings pitcher per outing while in 2012 that number has improved to just over 6 innings a start. That doesn't seem like a large increase but over a 162 game season that is 54 fewer innings in which a reliever is pitching.
Of the 2011 cast of the bullpen only Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett have stayed in the 2012 bullpen for the entire season. Tom Gorzelanny shifted from his starting role into the bullpen late in 2011 and has been one of the more underrated performers in the 2012 bullpen. Henry Rodriguez showed what his stuff can do at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 before losing it a bit and earning himself a trip to the DL with Brad Lidge returning, but that is only the first of the puzzle pieces to slide into place.
Among the current healthy crop of relievers only Craig Stammen has options, but it is going to be tough to send down a pitcher with a 1.80 ERA who has been one of the most consistent performers out of the bullpen so far this season. Drew Storen has begun throwing but isn't scheduled to return until sometime around the all-star break, but Ryan Mattheus did some throwing the other day and is expected to begin a rehab stint soon.
It is tough to figure out exactly whose spot either Storen or Mattheus will take. Mattheus does have options and that would make quite an emergency option in case of injury to any of the current relievers. As it stands now the Nationals bullpen is a bit mis-constructed with four lefties and three righties. All of the lefties have proven over their careers that they can get right handers out as well as left handers, but it is still a unique and odd balance. Especially considering that one of the lefty options is Ross Detwiler who has started for much of the season and takes an excruciatingly long time to warm out of the pen.
Now these things do have a way of working themselves out and it might be that when it is time for Drew Storen and Ryan Mattheus to return that someone has found their way to the DL or it could be that things finally go right for the Nationals and they are forced to make a trade. Trading Wang or Detwiler would remove one of the six starters from the roster and allow either Storen or Mattheus to slide into the pen. It could also be that the Nationals plan on trading one of the veteran lefties, Mike Gonzalez or Tom Gorzelanny, and right now it is showcase time for those two. It might also be that this time on the DL and in rehab gets H-Rod right and he is deserving of a spot back in the bullpen.
Looking at the Nationals current crop of problems is refreshing. It is never a bad thing to have too many players who deserve a spot on the roster. What may happen is a revolving door of DL trips and bus rides for Ryan Mattheus as he serves as the eighth reliever in the pen. During the course of a season a roster will go through many shifts and variations and it is the job of the GM to make sure all of this juggling keeps the players he wants for the future as well as not disrupting the play of the team on the field, and no one said it was an easy job.
The puzzle of the pieces of the 2012 Washington Nationals bullpen is quite a mystery, but throughout the season there will be seven guys sitting out there all waiting for their turn to pitch. So far when that duty has come they have done well with it as the Nationals have blown only seven saves on the entire season, and five of those belong to Henry Rodriguez and an injured Brad Lidge. As long as starters continue to go deep into games the bullpen will continue to be fresh and ready and by years end will be looked back at as an important compliment to one of the best staffs in the majors.