Thoughts on the Nats Bullpen
A couple days ago Davey Johnson made mention that his biggest concern with the Nationals was the bullpen. The relievers haven't fallen into the roles he wants for them and with Mattheus hurt and Storen struggling it creates even more issues, but it shouldn't. A good starting staff should make a talented bullpen even better and the Nats starters have done their job in setting up the bullpen for success as they have pitched the fourth most innings in the majors at 310 1/3. The Nationals bullpen has only seen 132 innings of work, the fourth fewest in the majors.
The Nationals are getting the starting pitching to set up the pen, but it hasn't worked out that way, and the reason is that Davey Johnson is committed to the idea of an A and B bullpen and that all relievers have to have defined roles. Now all teams have set-up ment and closers, lefty specialist, longmen, mop-up men, and all other sorts of roles for relievers. The bullpen that Davey Johnson was handed was much easier to set-up. Soriano was going to be the closer and then either Storen or Clippard was going to be the set-up man. Johnson wanted Clippard to pitch against lefties and Storen against righties and their career splits say that is a wise move. The only probably with that set-up is why give one the day off unless the team is in the midst of a long winning streak.
As the season has turned out Storen has struggled, but not all of it is his fault. His line drive rate is lower than his career average and his BABIP is an astronomically high .375. Just look at his last outing against the Phillies for an example of his buzzard's luck. Storen was cruising. Aside from a walk to Michael Young he had looked dominate against the Phillies, and then Delmon Young came to the plate and on the third pitch he saw he was fooled badly. He swung under, inside, and late on a pitch up and in lofting it down the right field foul line. It happened to land fair and Michael Young was able to race home to give the Phillies a one run lead. Storen then proceeded to give up a double to Domonic Brown that scored pinch runner Michael Martinez from first. There was no bad luck involved on the second hit, but the first one to Delmon Young was all bad luck, and even if Davey Johnson had wanted to bring in a lefty specialist for Brown he was A. not going to embarrass Storen with that move and B. Storen had looked dominate enough that worry never crept in until two runs had scored.
Storen was pitching the eighth inning of a tie ball game because he is a very talented reliever. He has had some bad luck this season and that will turn around, but until it does Clippard should be the main set-up man. From their setting up the rest of the Nats bullpen isn't too difficult. When the team is winning and the starting pitcher fails to go seven then Storen should get the seventh inning. His bad luck may have earned him a demotion from set-up man, but it hasn't earned him a demotion into anything further down the chain than the seventh inning. Now if the starter fails to go seven and the Nats are behind then a different reliever should get the seventh. Most teams have an A and B bullpen, but the A bullpen is for when they have the lead and the B bullpen is for when they are behind. This is when the Nats should bring in Stammen or Rodriguez, depending on how close the game is, and if it is a one or two run deficit then not only should Stammen pitch the seventh he should stay in as long as he can.
Back when relief pitching was first becoming a thing there was a role known as the fireman. Those were the pitchers that came in when the game was on the line. The starting pitcher had started to struggle early and the manager would call on his best reliever to put out the fire before it was too late. Now teams use their best reliever as their closer and second best as the set-up man. It is time for the role of the fireman to make a return and some teams are doing just that. The Orioles do it with Tommy Hunter who has pitched 29 innings in 18 appearances and the Tigers with Drew Smyly who has 31 1/3 innings in 17 appearances. The Nationals would be smart to use Stammen in this manner. Bring him in in the sixth or seventh inning of a game the Nationals have the lead in with men on base or use him as the bridge to the ninth when a starter fails to get through the sixth. This and pitching long relief when the Nats have a deficit of three or fewer runs is the best role for someone like Craig Stammen.
After Stammen the Nats have too many relievers. They have Abad, Cedeno, and Duke from the left side, and Henry Rodriguez as the mop-up man. Henry Rodriguez is not the ideal mop-up man as he is prone to being unable to get anyone out and is as likely to pitch a third of an inning as two complete innings. Rodriguez has all the stuff in the world, but cannot control it. He did pitch a scoreless inning in a tie game the other day, and if the Nationals start to trust him more in close games his role could very well be a one inning reliever in a game that is tied or a close deficit. With Stammen, Storen, Clippard, and Soriano the Nats have the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth covered when they have a lead. The last three spots of the bullpen should be reserved for the specialist and the relievers that will only pitch when a team is behind, and a lot of the times they are one in the same. Having other relievers that are talented enough to be in an ahead bullpen isn't a bad thing though, and specialists are somewhat a waste of space.
With Abad and Cedeno the Nationals don't know what they have yet. Neither has a lot of major league experience and both are still somewhat young for relievers. They both also happen to come most recently from the Houston Astros and if the Astros don't want to hold onto a pitcher that should be a red flag. The problem with specialists is that they have proven that they can't get out around 75% of the major league population and cannot be trusted to pitch an entire inning. If Abad and/or Cedeno are left handed relievers instead of lefty specialist then that is good as they can get both lefties and righties out. However if they are lefty specialists then the Nationals have a problem as they only make sense to pitch if a tough lefty is leading off an inning, ending an inning, or if there are multiple lefties in a row.
If the Braves come up with Simmons, Heyward, Upton in the sixth inning of a close game how do you navigate it? When playing match-ups with the Nats current bullpen they would bring in Rodriguez to face Simmons, Abad for Heyward, and Stammen for Upton. That is using three relievers to get through one inning. If the game happens to go to extras or the next day's starter struggles then the Nats are in danger of overworking their bullpen. One inning relievers are much better than specialists, but it cannot be said that Abad or Cedeno are either at this point as there is not enough information to know. And aside from all the concern over losing Burnett, Gorzelanny, and Gonzalez out of the bullpen only one of them was a specialist and the 2013 Nats bullpen is tied for seventh best in the majors against left handed batters with a 3.48 ERA.
The Nationals bullpen has struggled, and if not having defined roles is the issue then the Nats have even bigger issues, because it isn't that difficult to plan for this bullpen. Especially with starters getting so deep into games so often. The Nats have the seventh, eighth, and ninth covered with Clippard, Storen, and Soriano. With relievers that talented the order almost doesn't matter. With Clippard being hotter than Storen right now he should get the eighth and Storen the seventh. After that you're looking at games where the starter fails to go six and often times those games aren't in your favor anyway and you're looking for relievers just to finish the game. Stammen has shown an ability to pitch multiple innings and to keep a game close. The role of the fireman should be his. If the starter gets into trouble early bring in Stammen, if the starter fails to go six bring in Stammen, and if the Nats are behind by less than three bring in Stammen and let him go as long as he can. After that you're talking about either extra innings or games in which the Nationals are behind. then you're just looking for someone to finish out the game and with Duke being so ineffective the Nats have no mop-up long reliever. It might be time to reach into the minors and see what Erik Davis can do in a bottom rung major league bullpen job, and if he does well he can work his way up the ladder.
The Nats bullpen isn't hard to set-up. Davey Johnson likes to take the pressure off the players and put it on himself. That may very well be what we're seeing here, but a lot of the bullpen usage hasn't made sense this season. Johnson needs to stick to one set-up man and one closer and if the Nats are on a winning streak greater than three then he can simply rest the guys he has used the past three days for the guys with the roles immediately behind their's. The strength of the Nationals is starting pitching and the Nats starters have been some of the best in the majors. That should help the bullpen, but instead the Nats are making it hurt, and that is something that needs to end.