The Most Underrated Nationals Reliever You Have All Forgotten About

Littered with franchise greats in their short history, under-the-radar relievers like Matt Thornton were the pillars of the 2010's Nationals success.
Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

The Immaculate Grid. A craze that consumed too much of my time, leading to some fun debates but also some head-scratching looking back on why I cared so much. Regardless, I had some immaculate scores I would stack up against the greats. Always under 5, goal of a score of 2-3 points (no big deal), and it is still fun to play every once in a while to make some funky pulls. 

It is always a treat to have the Nationals on the board, throwing out names like Zach Walters, Eury Perez, Cesar Izturis, Matt Latos, and those alike, before I found a treasured grid of a former player who played for the Nationals and Yankees.

Rafael Soriano, Luke Voit, Tyler Clippard,  and obviously some Expos/Yankees like Hall of Famer Tim Raines were too easy. I had to dig deep to find someone that I knew would have a score of under 0.1%. Chien-Ming Wang was a legend in the Bronx, but I thought that score would be too high. Xavier Nady? He was so underwhelming in DC I did not want to waste that coveted spot on him. The more I thought about it, I finally decided to lock in a name and later go down a wormhole, on a relief pitcher that was as underappreciated as it gets. A man by the name of Matt Thornton.

It's easy to remember the franchise greats, but it's just as easy to forget players who were an integral part of good teams. Thornton had a great career spanning from 2004-2016, compiling 662 2/3 innings with 642 strikeouts, a 3.41 ERA, a 1.275 WHIP, and racking up a career bwar of 13.4 as a left-hander making only one career start. He is also the current all-time holds leader in the American league, with 182 career AL holds (important to note holds became an official stat in 1999).

Thornton was a first-round draft pick in 1998 by the Seattle Mariners and struggled throughout the minors, but got his start in 2004 as a 27-year-old rookie reliever. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox two years later and pitched for them for parts of 8 seasons including an all-star appearance in 2010, before being traded to the Red Sox in July of 2013. After putting together another solid season, as a 36-year-old, he signed a 2-year $7 million contract with the Yankees ahead of the 2014 season. After pitching in 46 games for the Yankees with a 2.55 ERA, he was inexplicitly put on waivers due to a roster crunch. He was claimed by the Nationals, and that’s when his unbelievable run began.

Matt Thornton
81st MLB All-Star Game / Michael Buckner/GettyImages

In another season of a good Nationals team with a shaky bullpen, the Nats were desperate for more arms entering the playoff run, relying on Thornton to get big outs. Thornton was thrown into 18 games after being claimed in August, pitching to a perfect 0.00 ERA with 8 strikeouts and a 1.059 WHIP in 11 1/3 innings. Although he undoubtedly had some luck on his side with lower strikeout numbers and a perfect ERA, Thornton kept that good ball going into the 2015 season, appearing in 60 games with a 2.18 ERA and a 1.065 WHIP in 41 1/3 innings. In total, Thornton had a 1.71 ERA in 78 appearances for the Nationals from 2014-2015. That is a 265 ERA+ as a 37-year-old reliever claimed off waivers for parts of two seasons. With a 4-seam fastball in the mid 90s paired with a sinker, slider, and cutter, Thornton thrived on weak contact with elite run and good control on his fastball, allowing him to limit hard hits and walks.

Thronton was later signed to a minor league deal by the San Diego Padres and designated for assignment after struggling to an ERA of over 5 before retiring. Thornton deserved every dollar on that two-year deal he originally signed with the Yankees, even after factoring in the crucial run he allowed in the 2014 NLDS vs the Giants. Thornton will never be remembered as a hero in Washington, but every once in a while, a guy like him deserves his flowers.