How Much Better is the Washington Nationals Bullpen?

Washington National’s fans have been riding a wave since winning the 2019 World Series, but I fear that my fandom may be clouding my confidence in the Nationals 2020 bullpen.

Over the last few weeks, the Nationals have signed a flurry of free agents, virtually all of which have been met with excitement and cheers of “In Rizzo we trust.”  After all, they are the reigning champs and Rizzo has a history of pressing many correct buttons. But after critically reflecting on the current state of the 2020 team, I can’t help but remain unsettled about the Nationals bullpen.

Sure, some of my hesitancy to declare the ‘pen as “lock down” stems from a recent history that is anything but positive.  The Nationals bullpen ERA has ranked no better than 15th in any of the last three seasons.   Mike Rizzo appears confident that the roster is almost ready for spring training, and I have no doubt that the bullpen will be better this year, but virtually anything should be better than last year.

Last season, the Nationals bullpen led all of baseball with a 5.66 ERA.  But they also had the fewest number of innings pitched at only 500.2.  In contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays threw 772 innings out of the bullpen, and actually gave up 1 fewer earned run than the Nationals all season.  Yes, I realize that the Rays frequently use “openers” instead of starters, but the point is that the Nationals starting rotation was counted on to throw more innings than any other team in the league.

With the Nationals boasting a potent, but aging rotation of Scherzer (35), Strasburg (31), Corbin (30) and Sanchez (35), the team will likely depend on the bullpen significantly more than they did during the 2019 campaign.

Daniel Hudson, who recorded the final out of the World Series, has agreed to return to the club on a new two year contract.  Huddy was dominant after being acquired last season, posting a 1.44 ERA in 24 appearances.  His combined totals with Washington and Toronto were an even 3.00 ERA, and 8.8 SO/9.  But in the three seasons prior, Hudson posted ERA’s of 4.11, 4.38 and 5.22.  In fact, last year was the first year that Hudson had an ERA under 3.50 since his 2011 season, during which he was used exclusively as a starter.

This isn’t to say that Hudson isn’t a good signing.  I am simply pointing out that the Daniel Hudson who Nats fans saw at the end of last season, was a lot better than any version of Daniel Hudson throughout the rest of his nine year career.  It is much more likely that Hudson in 2020 more closely resembles with the guy who’s career ERA has hovered around 4.00 and had only 9 career saves prior to last season.  A nice addition, but certainly not our version of an early ’90’s Dennis Eckersley.

The Nationals have added another back-end bullpen addition, in Will Harris. Harris is legit.  He had an ERA of 1.50 last season and a career ERA of under 3.0 in eight Major League seasons.  Harris has made more than 60 appearances times, and was selected to an All-Star team in 2016. He will absolutely help to stabilize the back end of the bullpen, but there are some concerns.  Harris is 35, and while I am hopeful that the Howie Kendrick home run in game 7 of the World Series doesn’t hinder his psyche, those types of moments do have a history of impacting relievers.

The addition of Harris is the most significant offseason addition to the ‘pen.  But even if Harris was a member of the Nationals last season and somehow Rizzo avoided the trainwreck that was Trevor Rosenthal, the overall ERA of the bullpen would still be 5.09. This would have ranked 28th in baseball in 2019.

The Nationals are looking for guys like Tanner Rainey to advance in his second full season.  Rainey put up a solid 3.38 ERA during the second half of the 2019 season.  But Rainey still has a lot to prove.  He’s a two-pitch guy who relies on getting ahead in the count.  Last year, he walked 38 batters in 48.1 innings and only threw a first pitch strike against 52% of hitters last year. This is a problem, because teams tee’d off on Rainey when they were ahead in the count.  Rainey has to be able to locate his fastball, and get his slider over early in the count in order to be effective.  This will be crucial to his growth in the 2020 season.

Davey Martinez has said that Sean Doolittle will open the season as the team’s primary closer.  Doo was very good and heavily used in the first half of 2019. He had 19 saves in 39 appearances and pitched to the tune of a 3.13 ERA leading up to the All-Star break.

We all know the story of the second half; he was 0-3 with a 5.56 ERA and gave up 8 long balls in 22.2 innings.  There is no question that Doolittle’s use in the first half of the season impacted the back end.  But surprisingly hitters had luck against Doo throughout the first half too.  Opponents actually hit at a higher clip (.265) in the first half of the season than in the second half (.253), and his Batting Average on Balls in Play was more than 100 points higher in the first half compared to the second half.

I have confidence that Doolittle will be better than he was at the end of last season, but I am hesitant to think that he will have the same dominance that he has through most of his career.

Look, the Nationals bullpen is better than it was last year.  But better doesn’t mean good, and there is a lot of questions that linger from top to bottom.

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