Fixer Upper: The Nats Bullpen House
The Nationals have a bullpen problem. You didn’t need me to tell you that. If you have a vague awareness that the Washington Nationals are a baseball team then you know that they have a bullpen problem. The question, with the Nats rolling to a 21-10 start and 6.5 game lead on the New York Mets, is how big of a problem is it?
The common wisdom would tell you not to worry as long as the team is winning. The smarter wisdom would tell you that a bullpen with only two relievers with an ERA below 4.00 is a gigantic problem that needs to be fixed before its performance starts showing up in that nice, shiny record.
The Nats offense has done a great job covering up the bullpen issues, by staking the team to huge leads making for easy saves, or no save wins. While the save isn’t a great player evaluation stat, it’s a good shorthand for close wins. Overall, 48 percent of the Nats’ wins have ended with a save, 12th lowest in MLB. In terms of very close games, the Nats have played just eight one run games, tied for ninth least in MLB, going 5-3. An MLB best 6.26 runs per game can cover for a lot, but no one should expect the runapalooza to last forever.
There are some places the Nats could get better. Koda Glover is running a 4.15 ERA, but a 2.00 FIP with a nice 2.9% walk rate, but he’s on the DL. Shawn Kelley got off to the same bad start in April 2016 then was lights out, but he’s also on the DL. Matt Albers has put up a solid 21.4% strikeout rate, 2.4% walk rate and 0.77 ERA, but his 2016 ERA of 6.31 and 5.80 FIP suggest it won’t last. Same story for Jacob Turner, who we’re not even sure is actually a reliever or not. And those are the brightest spots the Nats have on the roster.
The problem stems from a bout of overconfidence in the offseason. Kelley’s strong year coupled with Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis well outperforming their peripherals made it seem like urgency was not needed. Rather than paying the premium price for Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen and the other top relievers on the market, the Nats felt safe offering what they thought was the player’s true value. That meant they missed out on every possible bullpen upgrade except for Joe Blanton, who coincidentally, was also the worst available reliever who could be considered an upgrade.
In my post on the late January reliever market Blanton’s 63rd percentile ranking at strikeout rate and 53 percentile ranking in walk rate screamed a decent reliever who shouldn’t be trusted with big things. The Nats clearly needed more and as punishment for the penny pinching haven’t even gotten that. Blanton’s 10.64 ERA and six home runs allowed in 11 innings pitched have made him unpitchable except in blowouts.
The Nats compounded their problem by making an abhorrent decision on the closer spot, handing the role to Treinen. At the time Treinen looked like he had exactly zero traits you want to see in a good closer, and proceeded to prove it in remarkably short order. His already terrible walk rate skyrocketed further to 12.9 percent, while his strikeout rate has dropped to 17.1 percent, leading to a 9.00 ERA and 4.50 FIP. The blown closer role hasn’t done much for his confidence, with Treinen now pitching more deliberately than Pedro Baez.
In terms of immediate upgrades, the pickings look slim. The only interesting relief pitcher who is still a free agent is Luke Hochevar who ranked in the 71st percentile in strikeout rate and 83rd percentile in walk rate among relievers in 2016, but had a bad home run problem and 3.86 ERA. It could be worth the $500 thousand bet for the Nats that they can fix the home run problem and benefit from the good strikeout and walk rates.
In the trade market the Nats have long been tied to David Robertson and a 15-15 start shouldn’t be enough for the White Sox to re-consider extending their fire sale. Robertson has been good so far, with his strikeout rate rebounding to a career best 38.5 percent leading to an ERA of 2.79 and FIP of 2.52. His walk rate stubbornly sitting at 10.3 percent presents some concern, but is a tiny issue compared to what the Nats are dealing with.
A couple teams’ awful starts have led to some other quality arms being available. The Royals’ Kelvin Herrera has already been tied to the Nats, but he currently has a career worst strikeout rate of 19.1 percent, 3.75 ERA and 6.37 FIP. Joakim Soria, also on the Royals, has posted a 2.63 ERA and 1.65 FIP so far, but an ugly walk rate (12.1 percent) and poor 2016 put a bit of a damper on him. The Braves’ Jim Johnson has followed up a bounce back 2016 (3.06 ERA, 2.71 FIP) with a 30.6 percent strikeout rate and 6.1 percent walk rate in 2017, but it’s unknown whether they’ll trade with the Nats. Jeremy Jeffress of the Rangers and Jason Grilli of the Blue Jays have had good seasons in the past, but have been awful so far in 2017.
Alex Colome was tied to the Nats over the winter and the Rays closer has followed his breakout 2016 with another good start in 2017 (2.51 ERA, 2.62 FIP). However, the Rays 16-17 start means the Nats would likely have to wait until the trade deadline if they wanted to go that route. And it’s questionable whether Colome is even really available.
That means the Nationals missed their opportunity to build a dependable bullpen in the offseason, losing out on a lot of great to good to decent options. Now they’re stuck hoping the relievers they already have can get back to acceptable levels and one upgrade will be enough to carry them, as Melancon did in 2016, or that Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper continue hitting like Barry Bonds. At this point, the latter seems more likely.