Washington Nationals: Matt Grace the unsung hero of the bullpen

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PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 13: Matt Grace #60 of the Washington Nationals in the dugout during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 13, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 13: Matt Grace #60 of the Washington Nationals in the dugout during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 13, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
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This time last year, Matt Grace still had work to do to secure his spot in the Washington Nationals bullpen. Now, he’s the team’s most underrated pitcher.

As the Washington Nationals head towards Spring Training, there are going to be several bullpen spots up for grabs. However, Matt Grace appears to be one of not many locks to claim a role as he continues to prove that he’s an unsung hero of the relief corps.

It’s a complete turnaround from this time last year when Grace entered Spring Training needing to prove something. Though he had no options remaining, giving him something of an edge in the competition, his previous big league time hadn’t quite gone to plan with a 4.11 in parts of three seasons with the team.

But now the left-hander is coming off of an excellent season in which he posted a stellar 2.87 ERA in 56 appearances. He also posted positive 0.8 HR/9 and 2.0 BB/9 numbers, which made up for the 7.2 K/9, and led to a 149 ERA+ and a solid 3.40 FIP.

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Grace’s success comes more from being able to induce soft contact rather than being able to miss bats like other relievers. The lefty ranked 77th out of 239 pitchers, with at least 180 batted balls, in lowest barrel percentage at 4.0% according to Statcast and 76th in lowest average exit velocity.

But something that was also notable, was that he excelled in multi-inning duty last season, with 15 of those appearances lasting more than an inning, surrendering earned runs in just four of them. That included his best outing of the season when he dazzled the soon-to-be World Series champion Boston Red Sox, allowing just one hit over four innings.

In a bullpen that desperately needed relievers to go multiple innings, he really was Amazing Grace. Now, with the way the backend of the rotation is shaping up for 2019, having the lefty able to pitch more than one inning at a time will be crucial once again.

Nats fans know all about the team’s usage of Jeremy Hellickson last season, not often facing anyone in the opposing batting order three times. And while Anibal Sanchez didn’t quite have that exact restriction, the Atlanta Braves were careful not to extend him too much in games to ensure he could pitch deep into the season. So with those two pitchers potentially having abbreviated outings, it puts yet more emphasis on Grace to step up and possibly pitch a couple of innings when those two start.

But Grace has also shown the ability to potentially be a lefty specialist when required for the Nationals after Sammy Solis and Tim Collins faltered somewhat in that role. Left-handed hitters posted an OPS of just .620 against Grace last season compared to the right-hander’s .650 OPS against.

While the split isn’t too drastic, it proves his effectiveness against lefties which could be key for manager Dave Martinez. The Nats skipper did always favor using a southpaw to get fellow southpaws out in big spots, most notably when he kept trotting Solis out there in that situation despite struggling. Having Grace there should help Martinez if he continues to use a lefty specialist.

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The Washington Nationals are going to be relying on Matt Grace to perform to last season’s standards again in 2019. The left-hander should be up to the task as a key cog in the Nats bullpen that could be due for a strong season if everything goes as the front office hopes.

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