You know the old adage: No team can have too much pitching. The Nationals right now have the luxury of going into spring training with seven possible starters–Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark. They also have a spot starter/long reliever in Ross Ohlendorf. There are some minor leaguers, such as Sammy Solis, who may blow everyone away in spring training and make the situation even more complicated as well.
Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Fister are, barring injury, pretty much guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. The battle royale is going to be over that fifth spot. Tanner Roark came up last year and impressed everyone with his performance out of the bullpen and as a starter. Taylor Jordan showed decent stuff and maturity when things defensively did not go well behind him.
Ross Detwiler started the 2013 season well, but showed as the season went on the continuation of a disturbing trend–throwing too many fastballs. Detwiler threw a fastball 88 percent of the time in 2013, a higher percentage than any other pitcher in the majors. He threw a fastball 80 percent of the time during 2012.
He does throw a two seamer and a four seamer and moves the ball around the plate a lot, but major league batters are going to eventually have success against a pitcher who throws nothing but fastballs. They are going to be sitting on it, especially the third time through the order. For pitchers who rely more than 80% of the time on one pitch (other than knuckleballers, who are a breed in and of themselves), the second and third time through the order, penalty can be severe. Pitchers who throw only fastballs are usually not starters. They are relievers.
Detwiler’s statistics last year demonstrate the problem. In April, his ERA was 2.03. He pitched three games in May, and his ERA had increased to .276. He was pitching relatively well until May 15th when he hurt his back covering first base. But the hitters were hitting him more often in May than they were in April. He went on the DL for a month, then pitched four games in June. He was clearly not the same pitcher, and possibly still injured, because after those four games his ERA rose to 4.13. After pitching one game in July, he was done for the season with a herniated disc in his back.
I don’t know if Detwiler herniated his disc May 15th or did it in June when he was pitching injured and compensating for the pain, throwing his mechanics off. Either way, he still has that herniated disc. He will be dealing with it all of the 2014 season.
Detwiler should start the year in the bullpen. The team needs to see whether Detwiler’s back survives light pitching on a regular basis without a flare up. Detwiler would then also be available as a spot starter if one of the regular rotation guys gets injured, or if Matt Williams wants to insert a left handed pitcher against a lefty-dominant rotation for a game, pushing back the regular starters one game. He would be available to start in double headers.
More importantly for the Nationals, he would be a reliable left hander out of the bullpen who could pitch for two or three innings if needed and not just a lefty on lefty specialist.
Detwiler may be more valuable to the Nationals out of the bullpen this year rather than as a starter. Despite the signing of Jerry Blevins, the left handed part of the bullpen is still suspect. Bullpen work may be less stressful on Detwiler’s back than starting, especially since he is throwing so many fastballs.
From a health perspective, Detwiler may last longer throwing fastballs for one or two innings as a reliever rather than for five to six innings as a starter. Throwing fastballs requires a lot of energy. If the velocity drops on a pitcher’s fastball due to fatigue, those are usually called home runs. I also have a concern about Detwiler re-injuring his surgically repaired hip if his mechanics get out of whack because he is compensating for a sore back. Admittedly, these concerns exist whether Detwiler is starting or relieving, but I suspect throwing thirty pitches an appearance as opposed to eighty or ninety as a starter would be easier on Detwiler’s back and hip.
If Detwiler’s back will not take pitching out of the bullpen, moving a left hander up into the bullpen from the minors may be easier than replacing a starter. If Ross is a starter and finds out that his back will not take the strain of starting, he will end up on the DL again and the team will have to figure out who will have to take Detwiler’s place in the starting rotation.
We are all waiting to see how Detwiler looks in spring training. That may tell the Nationals a lot about his health. However, even a healthy Detwiler may belong in the bullpen this year. That may give the Nationals the best chance to make the playoffs.