The Nats Bullpen and the Intersection of Perception and Reality
For the first time in a while I was among the fans at Nationals Park and while there was celebrating at the end of the game as the Nats reclaimed first there was a lot of griping along the way, and in it I witnessed the intersection of perception and reality. Now I have to filter out the griping of my father who dislikes any reliever with an ERA. To him they are all terrible. His comments last night included, "Storen hasn't ever recovered from Game 5," "Clippard has never really been that good," "Barrett is another guy that has struggled," and "Soriano is the guy you really have to worry about." My response to each and every one of these complaints was to point at the scoreboard and the reliever’s sub-3.00 and sometimes sub-2.00 ERAs. When it comes to the Nationals bullpen they've been the best part of the team. Starting pitching has come on as late and starting pitching will always be more important than relief pitching, but of the three main units of the team the relievers have done their job better than anyone. The Nats bullpen has the lowest ERA and FIP in the majors, and at 205 1/3 IP have pitched the ninth most innings of any relief corps in the majors.
Imagine the Nats bullpen as one starter that just finished a season with 205 1/3 innings pitched, a 2.54 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 8.42 K/9, and 3.20 BB/9. That starting pitcher would be in the running, if not the outright winner, of a Cy Young award. That is how good the Nationals bullpen has been through the first 69 games of the season. There really is no other word to describe them than incredible, and yet Soriano and Clippard are considered two of the worst relievers in baseball by many Nationals fans.
As far as Soriano goes it is easy to figure out why he isn't liked. He wasn't great in 2013, he is playing under a massive contract, he isn't homegrown talent, and he was brought in to replace a fan favorite that because of Soriano is still seeking redemption for Game 5. There is also the fact that Soriano is a jerk off the field and has a closer celebration that rubs white people the wrong way. Despite the fact that Soriano has a 1.33 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and a 0.96 WHIP he is still seen as a pitcher living on the edge and about to fall off at any time. A lot of that has to do with the nature of relief pitching. When a closer gives up runs it often blows the lead, if not the game, and there exists the idea in that that it is entirely their fault.
As far as Tyler Clippard goes I really have no idea why people have turned on him. All Clippard has done since becoming a full time reliever in 2009 is pitch 413 1/3 innings with a 2.70 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 10.43 K/9 all while never going on the DL. Perhaps it is that Clippard is like the old family car that has been nothing but steady and reliable and is pushing 150,000 miles and everyone is waiting for it to finally breakdown. Any hiccup, any bump in the road could be its last and some people are just too eager to take it to the dump.
All Clippard has been in his time with the Nationals is one of the best relievers in baseball, but in the time he's been doing it the Nats bullpen has undergone some massive changes. Here is the list of closers Clippard has set-up for; Joel Hanrahan, Mike MacDougal, Matt Capps, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge, Henry Rodriguez, and Rafael Soriano. Clippard has been with the Nationals for a long time and any weakness shown is going to be seen by some as a sign that the end is near, or at least that is all I can figure.
The Nationals bullpen has been nothing short of amazing. Of any unit of the team it has done its job the best, and yet it is the one that gets run over the coals the most. That is the nature of relief pitching. Do it well and all the reporters will be waiting to talk to the starting pitcher that pitched seven shutout innings in a 1-0 victory or the position player that capped off an offensive outburst with a bases clearing double, but have one off night and like carrion birds the reports descend upon the relief pitcher that "blew it."