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May 13, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Drew Storen against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nationals Bullpen in Conversation for Best in Baseball

Last week I wrote at length about the Nationals starting pitching and compared it to the last two years and Major League and NL averages.  This week, I move to the bullpen and investigate their current place relative to league averages and years past.

If you read my weekly reviews, you know that I am unabashed (read here and here) in my praise for the Nats bullpen this year.  They recently completed a stretch where they went nearly two full weeks without allowing a run, and honestly, other than a lack of lefties, it’s difficult to find too many negative things to say.  I would be happy to spend the next 500 words waxing poetic about Drew Storen’s slider, but perhaps I’ll crunch the numbers (through May for each year) just to verify what my eyeballs are telling me.

Year ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB H/9 WHIP
2012 3.19 8.50 3.68 2.31 7.47 1.24
2013 3.96 7.64 3.01 2.54 8.80 1.31
2014 2.18 8.59 3.30 2.60 7.32 1.18

Nationals Relievers Since 2012

If there was ever a less meaningful stat for relievers than ERA, I’d like to know what it is.  Games started, perhaps?  Unless your closer has spent the last two months allowing runs in buckets and blowing one save after another, likely ERA is just a stat.  In fact, that 2.18 the Nats have posted in 2014 is over 12% better than the next closest, the Giants, and is over 64% better than the Major League average.  Instead, maybe we should look at FIP, and here tells a more complete tale:  The Nats bullpen comes in with a clean 3, with a wacky -0.82 difference between ERA and FIP.  That difference is the third lowest (or highest really) in both the Majors and NL with the Pirates (-1.1) and Giants (-0.84) ranking just above.  So, basically what I’m saying is forget ERA.

What we can look at, though, are things like WHIP and K/9.  Currently the Nats rank 4th in the Majors in WHIP and third in the NL.  The Nats are over 10% better than the Major League average of 1.30, rounded up, and they fall just below the expected range between 1.40 and 1.19.  H/9 is also below the Major League average and just outside the expected range of 8.73 and 7.41.  If you’re thinking that might be attributed to luck, which I thought it might be, think again.  As a whole, teams are hitting .220 against the bullpen, which is low but not unusually low, and BABIP is .282, which is below average well within range.  So, in that regard, the bullpen hasn’t been lucky; they’ve just been really good at not allowing hits.

How have they not allowed hits?  Well, striking people out is one of the areas.  While 8.59 doesn’t seem all that overly impressive (it’s just above the Major League average of 8.44), and it’s nowhere near the Atlanta K Factory (which sounds like a 70s funk band I could get behind), it’s still good for 12th in the Majors and 8th in the NL.  Respectable.  The more strike outs, the fewer chances for hits.  A winning combination.

Here are the percentages for the Nationals compared to the Major League averages over the last three years.

Year ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB H/9 WHIP
2012 13.79 -2.47 -2.99 4.33 8.43 4.84
2013 -7.07 9.03 14.29 -2.76 -7.27 -1.53
2014 64.68 -1.75 9.39 -7.69 10.25 10.17

Nationals Relievers Compared to Major League Averages

And those same percentages as compared the NL averages look like the following:

Year ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB H/9 WHIP
2012 18.5 0.59 3.80 -1.30 12.18 9.68
2013 -9.60 5.50 9.97 -2.76 -6.25 -2.29
2014 54.13 0.47 8.79 -5.00 8.20 8.47

Nationals Relievers Compared to National League Averages

As with the starting pitching, the Nats relievers have been really good at giving away free runners by limiting their walks.  They may not strike everyone out (there are only so many times they can play the Mets and Braves after all), but by limiting walks, the times when they do allow hits the damage can be limited.  Dismissing ERA for what it is, I think what we’re seeing is a highly effective group that has pitched exceptionally well.

So what’s different this year as opposed to seasons past?  One of the biggest reasons for the success of the bullpen has been their ability to keep the ball in the park.  While in ’12 and ’13, the Nats weren’t especially generous with the long ball (averaging 0.72 and 0.78 HR/9 respectively), this season the bullpen is allowing an absurdly low 0.45, which is second to the A’s in MLB and is almost 76% better than the MLB average.  That number is likely to rise if for no other reason than the Nats have played 34 games at home already, and Nationals Park is currently playing at a Park Factor of 92, slightly below average for hitters and above for pitchers.  As the weather warms that number should even out, and dating back to 2011 the park has played at or slightly above average for hitters and pitchers.

Also, short of a few rough outings this year by Ross Detwiler, there have been no egregiously poor showings by the relievers.  In 2013, Ryan Mattheus, Storen, and Zach Duke were allowing runs left and right, Rafael Soriano had blown three saves, and Tyler Clippard was walking nearly a batter every two innings and suffering for it.  In 2012, Ryan Perry, Henry Rodriguez, and Tom Gorzelanny (too, let’s not forget about Brad Lidge) were alternating innings of gloom.  This year, Soriano has blown only one save, and there are only a few moments when the bullpen ever appeared in real trouble.

At the beginning of the season, the Nats bullpen was an area marked for concern by many, but so far, in 2014, the bullpen has pitched extremely well.  They’re worth keeping an eye on in the coming months, but it’s eye for appreciation.

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