Filtering by Tag: Bullpen

Taking the Temperature of the Nats

At the break the Washington Nationals are 51-42, nine games over .500, and the biggest and most important news is that no one got hurt in their final game of the first half against the Phillies. The Nationals did suffer an injury in the first game of that series but as of right now that looks to be minor as the MRI on Jordan Zimmermann's bicep didn't reveal any structural damage. That doesn't mean that he is 100% healthy or that bigger issues won't pop-up when he throws or pitches again, but for now the Nationals DL is empty and they have the roster Mike Rizzo assembled in the off-season. As far as the Nationals record goes this is the second best record the Nationals have had at the break ahead of the 52-46 record of the 2005 Nationals and behind the 49-34 record of the 2012 Nationals. The statistics of the Nationals tell the story of a very balanced team as they have prevented the second most runs in the NL allowing 3.51 runs a game. The offense is better than most people realize but that is only because they are judging them on a universal scale and not against the current run environment. The Nationals offense has scored 4.16 runs a game tying them with the Dodgers for the fourth most productive offense in the NL.

This combination of run scoring and run prevention has given the Washington Nationals the best run differential in the NL and the third best in MLB. The expected record of the Washington Nationals is three games better than their actual record so if the Nationals luck evens out as the season heads into its second half then the Nationals could have an even better second half than first half. Which is supported by the Washington Nationals projected 75.8% chance of making the playoffs.

The biggest story for the Washington Nationals in the first half was Bryce Harper. Harper got off to a slow start with the power and was hitting .289/.352/.422 before heading to the DL and has really struggled since coming off the DL batting just .150/.244/.250. With a record nine games better than .500 in the first half with Bryce Harper hurt and struggling for most of it, it is hard to say that the Nationals need him to win, but having him at full strength and production will give the Nationals an edge they haven't had for most of the season.

That was just the on-field issues with Bryce Harper and the far bigger issue as far as the media was concerned was Bryce Harper off the field. Matt Williams made an example of Bryce Harper by benching him for not running out a ground out back to the pitcher and then it leaked to the media that veterans on the team had issues with Bryce Harper and that they felt he was too cocky and hadn't proven himself yet. When Bryce Harper returned from the DL the drama was even greater as Harper echoed the thoughts of teammate Ryan Zimmerman that Zimmerman belongs in left and Rendon at third. This caused an even bigger storm in the media and every major baseball writer in the country got at least one story out of it.

With Bryce Harper struggling with the bat and being demonized in the media a strong second half from him is important. Getting Bryce Harper's bat going is going to be the most important development of the second half. The other way the Nationals can continue to build upon their first half success is for the pitching to do nothing different.

The Washington Nationals team ERA of 3.08 ranks first in all of baseball with their starting pitchers' ERA of 3.28 ranking third and bullpen ERA of 2.67 ranking third as well. The Nationals have a balanced pitching staff where the game is in just as good hands when the starting pitchers turn it over to the bullpen and there is no worry about the starting pitchers surviving five innings to get it to the bullpen. The Washington Nationals were built around pitching and in the first half of the season that has shown. The pitching is what helped the Nationals tread water when as many as three regular position players were out of the line-up at a time.

If Bryce Harper's bat can get going and the starting pitching can keep doing what they've done in the first half of the season then the Nationals could be the best team in baseball over the second half. If those things don't happen then they can still be pretty good. That is what makes this such an exciting team to watch and why they project to be a contender up until the end. The Washington Nationals have had a successful first half, but finally healthy the second half could be even better.

Lefties who are not Lefties

When most people think of a lefty reliever they think of a match-up pitcherthat trots out of the bullpen to pitch to one better and then to disappear never to be seen from again in the game. Last season the Nationals had three left handed relievers, but only one of them was occasionally used as a match-up pitcher and that was Mike Gonzalez. In 21 of his 47 outings he pitched less than one inning, but that still means in most of them he was not used as a match-up pitcher. In fact Mike Gonzalez faced one more right handed batter on the season than he did left handed batters meaning that he essentially was not a match-up pitcher even though his splits of an .836 OPS against to right handers vs. .525 to left handers indicates that he should have been.    

Coming into this season the Nationals didn't think they were going to need a match-up pitcher. They did win 98 games in 2012 without one and by signing Soriano basically replaced Burnett in the set-up or seventh inning role with Clippard and/or Storen, and had Zach Duke taking Tom Gorzelanny's place as a long reliever. Mike Gonzalez's role was going to be filled by Ryan Mattheus. If the Nats needed someone to pitch the sixth he was going to be the man and then they would use Storen, Clippard, Soriano to finish the game out.

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Nats Need to Find a Way to Win the Close Ones

The Nats overall are 8-4 in one run games and that might lead people tobelieve that they have done a good job of winning the close ones, and while they did end up winning yesterday, the way they went about it is not the path to success. Against Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner the Nationals scored a combined three runs. That by itself may not sound good and no one is denying that the Nats offense has been scuffling, but Matt Cain holds a career 3.35 ERA and is one of the best pitchers in the NL. Madison Bumgarner is a rising star and has been the Giants best starter this season and his career 3.17 ERA isn't too shabby either, and while they Nats struggled to score runs against Cain and Bumgarner the Giants scored a combined one run against Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. In other words, the Nats starters were just that much better.​

In both games the Nats entered the late innings with a one run lead and handed the ball to a bullpen that was believed to be one of the best in the NL and in both games the Nats bullpen blew it and forced the game into extra innings. The Nats ended up splitting these two games, but they should have won both of them. These games represent what playoff baseball is like. Whether it is Strasburg vs. Cain, Gio vs. Bumgarner or Strasburg vs. Cueto, Gio vs. Latos or Strasburg vs. Wainwright, Gio vs. Miller; if the Nats starters out-duel the other team’s top pitchers they have to win the game. This is how the Nats are ultimately going to win a World Series. While the lack of offense and ability to score runs is very alarming the more alarming aspect of these last two games was the Nats inability to close out games, and this isn't the first time it has happened this season.

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Revisiting the Rafael Soriano Signing

When the Nats signed Rafael Soriano it was met with mixed reaction. Statsdon't back up the need for a lock down closer. When leading heading into the ninth baseball teams have a greater than a 90% chance to win that game, and that is right around where the Nationals have been this season. The current MLB average win percentage with a lead heading into the ninth is 94.9% and the Nationals are at 94.7%. That misses quite a bit of the nuisances of the Nationals bullpen this season and why even as an overpay paying for the marginal wins Soriano has provided was worth it. ​

Imagine the Nats bullpen without Soriano. Think back to Game 5 and who it was standing on the mound and Descalso first tied the game and Pete Kozma drove in the go ahead runs. Think about the image of Drew Storen sitting in front of his locker staring in horror at the ground. Now fast forward to 2013 and look at Clippard and Storen. Neither pitcher is pitching like they have in the past. Clippard is walking an astronomically high 6.8 per nine and Storen is giving up a too high for a reliever 1.5 HR/9. Both have struggled at times and in his one chance to close out a ball game Storen blew it. No one has made a big deal of the mild struggles of Storen and Clippard, but imagine if the Nats didn't have Soriano. Imagine all the columns being written with the focus being on Game 5 and the mental state of Drew Storen. All the columns on if Storen truly has a closer's mentality and all that other nonsense.

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Circumventing the Closer

With the signing of Rafael Soriano the Nationals did something important. They are now able to both have a non-traditional closer pitch in the highest leverage situation of the game while still having a traditional closer for the save situation. For you see with Clippard, Storen, and Soriano all having experience closer and career ERAs at or around 3.00 and all being strikeout pitchers the Nationals will have closer level talent pitching in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings whenever they have the lead. So far in the season both Clippard and Storen have pitched four innings and have essentially split the seventh and eighth inning with Storen having pitched in the eighth inning in all four of his outings and Clippard pitching the eighth in two out of his four appearances with the other two coming in the seventh.   ​

When both Clippard and Storen have appeared in a game it is with Clippard pitching the seventh and Storen pitching the eighth. It is both clear that they are near equal talents and that Davey Johnson favors Storen slightly more as the set-up man. That should come as no surprise as Storen is the more talented pitcher and would have been the Nats closer had Soriano not been signed. There is an important off-shoot of this that goes back to how Davey Johnson used the bullpen in 2012. With Clippard as the closer, Burnett as the set-up man, and Stammen as the clear third most talented reliever in the bullpen Davey Johnson used Stammen mostly as a long reliever in games that were close. In essence Stammen was the Nats bullpen Ace or fireman. He came in to clean-up the mess left by starters and was often given the highest leverage situations and asked to pitch more than one inning. ​

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The Struggles of the Nats Bullpen

The Washington Nationals are seven games into the 2013 season and so far thebullpen 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. ​

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