Davey Johnson and Bullpen Usage

In 2012 the Washington Nationals bullpen pitched the seventh most innings in the majors at 515 1/3. Many felt that this was too many, but man of those innings went to long reliever Craig Stammen and the rubber armed workhorse Tyler Clippard. Those two relievers will be back for the Nationals in 2012 as well as the new additions of Rafael Soriano and Zach Duke. The Nationals will also welcome back Ryan Mattheus and hope to welcome back a healthier Drew Storen. The last spot is up for grabs and more than likely will go to either Bill Bray or Henry Rodriguez. 

Between Soriano, Storen, Clippard, and Stammen the back end of the Nationals bullpen appears to be stacked. Some worry about how the Nationals will fair against the best left handed hitters in baseball with so many right handed relievers, but the fact is that unless a Nats starter can't get through the sixth the Nats will have little need for a match-up type pitcher. Bill Bray could be that lefty, but if he is outperformed in Spring Training by Henry Rodriguez then the superior talent has to win out.

Having a lefty specialist is nice, but it isn't all that important. If Henry Rodriguez can finally harness his 100 MPH fastball, sharp biting curve, and 90 MPH drop off the table change-up then he has a chance to be much more than a one batter reliever like Bray would be. Since Bray is signed to a minor league deal there is always the option of taking Rodriguez north and calling up Bray if Rodriguez falls apart during the regular season. There is a third option. If they are both dominate in Spring Training and Ryan Mattheus is the opposite then an option can be used on him and Rodriguez and Bray can go north with the team.

All of this is interesting to discuss, but whoever the sixth and seventh men out of the bullpen are they are still the six and seventh men out of the bullpen and if they are entering the game then the game isn't going as expected. The hope of any manager on a given evening is for the starter to go seven strong and turn the game over to the set-up man and closer. Who that set-up man is still has yet to be determined. The closer is going to be Rafael Soriano, but either Storen or Clippard can pitch the seventh or eighth and this gives Davey Johnson a few options.

Johnson could do what he wanted to last season and have an A and B bullpen. If the Nationals starting staff is going well and the Nats have won a number of close games in a row he could decide to use Clippard to set-up Soriano one evening and Stammen to set-up Storen the next. Either depending on the match-ups of the opposing batters or the freshness of his own relievers. Johnson could also go the more traditional route and use Clippard in the seventh, Storen in the eighth, and Soriano in the ninth, but that can only be used for so many days in a row while the A and B bullpen can help to prolong winning streaks.

All of this talk about needing pitchers that can get outs in a close game is nice, but what would be even nicer is if the Nats starter can shut down the opposing team for the first six or seven innings while the Nats offense puts five or six runs on the board. In the case of a lead of four or greater, or a non-save situation the Nats won't need to worry as much about having the dominant pitchers on the mound. The Nats in that situation can then use Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, and Rodriguez or Bray to finish out the game.

The Nats need for a match-up lefty is starting to look less and less. In 2012 the Nats starting staff average 5.9 innings a game. With Zimmermann having a full season under his belt, Strasburg no longer on an innings limit, Gio with another year of experience, and the addition of Dan Haren that number should increase in 2013. Dan Haren could be the biggest factor in increasing that number as for his career he has averaged 6.4 innings pitched a start. While he wasn't as good in 2012 he still averaged 5.9 innings a game, and a year removed from injury should help in returning that closer to his career average.  

Even with the innings limit Strasburg average 5.7 innings a start and pitched six or more innings in 20 of his 28 starts. Jordan Zimmermann, who was removed in many a game in the sixth or seventh inning with a pitch count in the low 90s, averaged 6.1 innings a start in 2012 and pitched at least six inning in 26 of his 32 starts. Gio Gonzalez finished third for the NL Cy Young partly due to the fact that he failed to pitch over 200 innings. He had the lowest FIP in the majors, but both Dickey and Kershaw were much better at pitching deeper into games than Gio. Still Gonzalez did average 6.2 innings a start and pitched at least six inning in 25 of his 32 starts.

All of this adds up to the Nats having a starting staff that is going to pitch at least six innings most nights, and the need for that match-up pitcher in a close game isn't going to be nearly as important when the Nats have full inning pitchers in Stammen, Clippard, Storen, and Soriano waiting to close out the game. Think about it this way. In order for the match-up pitcher to matter the Nats have to be in a close game, have their starter struggle enough to exit before finishing the sixth, be playing a team that has at least one good left handed hitter that struggles against lefties, and have those left handed hitters due up. The point of all this is that while it is nice to have a good deep bullpen having a strong starting staff and good offense is even better.

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