The Struggles of the Nats Bullpen

The Washington Nationals are seven games into the 2013 season and so far the bullpen hasn't looked as dominant as advertised. They haven't made it a six or even seven inning game. Rafael Soriano has one blown save and gave up another two runs last night. The only two Nationals relievers with an ERA under 4.00 are Drew Storen and Ryan Mattheus, but at the same time no Nationals reliever has pitched more than four innings. This is a cripplingly small sample size and way too early to worry about anything. Tyler Clippard gave up all of his three earned runs last night on a walk, a weak single, and a Paul Konerko homerun.

All night Phil Cuzzi had a tight inconsistent strike zone and it shows in the fact that there were 15 runs scored and a total of six homeruns hit in the game. Pitchers were forced to pitch to the middle of the plate and when they didn't Cuzzi was not going to call a strike. Can't complain as he was at least consistently inconsistent and caused pitchers on both teams to pitch in the middle of the zone. Aside from the poor zone of Phil Cuzzi, Clippard's homerun was given up to Paul Konerko who is one of the most underrated players of all time. Konerko has 423 career homeruns and a career slash line of .282/.359/.498, and has never gotten the credit he deserves as one of the better players in baseball. There is no shame in giving up a homerun to Paul Konerko. The only bad part is that there happened to be two runners on base, but some of that was out of Clippards control as Cuzzi was only going to give the corners when he felt like it and that was not a half inning when he felt like it.

That brings us to Rafael Soriano. Soriano was one of the Nats pick off-season additions and in his last two games he has given up four runs on four hits. He has given up homers to Shin-Soo Choo and Alex Rios and an extra base hit to Joey Votto. Before all the injuries piled up on Choo he was thought of as one of the top three right fielders in baseball and a five tool player. Now he is leading off and playing center field for the Reds and so far looks to have rediscovered the power stroke that made him one of the most feared right fielders in baseball. Joey Votto happens to be Joey Votto and there isn't much to say about giving up an extra base hit to him. When Votto stays healthy for a season he is going to finish in the top five in MVP voting. He is, simply put, one of the top ten overall players in baseball right now. Then there is Alex Rios who somehow has four homers so far this season and is off to a scorching start hitting .407/.467/.852. Rios is typically a hot starter with his best two months by OPS being April and May, but since this is 2013 Rios shouldn't be performing this well. In 2009 he has an OPS of .691, .791 in 2010, .613 in 2011, and .850 in 2012. As this is an odd numbered year Rios should be heading for an under .700 OPS, and there is still time, but he is off to a good start and has had good seasons before.  

The Nationals bullpen overall hasn't been nearly as dominant as people thought, but it is also only seven games into the season. Nationals relievers have a 6.85 ERA compared to 3.20 for the starters, but it is way too early to pass judgment on how the relievers have performed. The bullpen has given up most of its runs to the Reds, who might have the best line-up in baseball, and six of seven runs last night to Paul Konerko and the hot starting Alex Rios. Looking at who the relievers have faced and how they fared is much more telling than looking at overall numbers and freaking out. Soriano has given up two homeruns in four innings pitched giving him a 4.5 HR/9 on the season. His career average is 0.9 HR/9 and it is likely that he ends up around that number by season's end.

The overall results for the bullpen don't look good so far, but let those stats regress to the mean, look at the Nats relievers career averages, and don't worry about these guys. Soriano, Storen, and Clippard all have career ERAs around or under 3.00, and Stammen and Mattheus were two of the better surprises in the Nats bullpen in 2012. There are few bullpens in baseball that are even that deep one through five, and Zach Duke has done his job as a long reliever. When Dan Haren couldn't get through five innings and had already put the game out of reach Duke came in and took the beating to save the rest of the bullpen. The Nats had a starter only go four and then managed to use only three relievers. The stats for Duke won't look good, but his job as a long man isn't to put up nice looking stats. It is to pitch the innings after a starter surrenders a game and save the more important relievers for another day. It is one of the more important and least respected jobs in baseball.

A 6.85 ERA is nothing to be happy about but in total all Nats relievers have only pitched 23 2/3 innings. For a comparison the 2012 Nats bullpen pitched 515 1/3 innings. It would be prudent to wait until the bullpen has pitched more than around the 5% of the total innings that they are going to pitch all season. This is a talented and deep bullpen, and if the struggles do continue then it is a near certainty that Mike Rizzo will look to resolve the issue before the July 31 deadline.  

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