Washington Nationals bucking the bullpen strikeout trend

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While most contenders will be featuring flame-throwing strikeout artists this fall, the Washington Nationals will collect outs with a different method.

Surprisingly, the Washington Nationals head into October with one of the top bullpens in baseball. Since general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Oakland relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in mid-July, and later Minnesota closer Brandon Kintzler, Washington ranks fourth in the majors and first in the National League with a 3.13 ERA.

The newly-established law firm of Doolittle, Madson, and Kintzler have put the final three innings on lock down since coming to the nation’s capital, totaling a 1.90 ERA in 71 combined innings.

Almost every other playoff contender has a top-notch bullpen, but no one gets high-leverage outs quite like the Nationals.

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Everyone is searching for the next great strikeout artist, especially in the back of a bullpen. Just look at the other teams pushing for the postseason. Six of the ten teams currently in the playoffs have at least one pitcher with a strikeout rate over 12. The Astros, Indians, and Cubs have three such pitchers. The Yankees have five! (Even the Brewers, on the edge of the second Wild Card, have two).

Meanwhile, the Nationals have none. Doolittle and Madson rank 35th and 56th respectively in K-rates. Kintzler slots in at 183rd out of 185 pitchers (min. 40 innings), with 5.0 K/9.

As a team, Washington also lags behind. Nationals relievers rank last in total K’s (422), and 21st in K/9. Only the Twins rank lower in strikeout rate among playoff teams, while the top six teams in K/9 have already clinched postseason appearances. Limiting contact is going to be the name of the game during the playoffs.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat. The Nationals have managed to dominate the back end of games with elite control and soft contact. Washington’s top three arms – Madson, Doolittle, and Kintzler – all rank in the top 20 in walks per nine innings. And when an opponent does make contact, the Nats’ bullpen has managed to minimize the damage. Matt Albers ranks third in baseball in soft contact percentage (30.8 percent), with Madson and Doolittle also in the top 15.

Kintzler manages to work through his low strikeout total with a steady diet of grounders. He ranks 20th among relievers in ground ball rate, and 11th in double plays. The 2017 All-Star has closing experience, but he is more suited for a fireman role, escaping jams whenever they arise at key moments in the game.

And while Washington has looked much better since the relief reinforcements, the Nationals defense could be an issue in the postseason. There is a reason strikeouts are in vogue among pitching staffs; K’s eliminate any variability in the field. The Nats pen leaves a lot of work up to its defense, which is one of the worst in baseball by defensive runs saved. In a short series, a few defensive mishaps will turn a series, especially if they occur in late-game situations.

Luckily, Doolittle and Madson can still dial up the heat if need be. They may not be elite fireballers anymore, but they are both still setting down over a batter an inning. If Kintzler finds himself in trouble after a couple grounders sneak through the hole, either one of the former A’s can ride in for a big strikeout.

Next: Does Washington need long relief in October?

That was the best part about Rizzo’s deadline moves; he didn’t sell out for the splashy move. Rather, he acquired three quality, under-the-radar pitchers with diverse skill sets. Now, the Nationals enter October with their most complete roster yet.

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.

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