Why the Nationals Are Mismanaging Their Bullpen and How They Can Fix It
By Sam Holstine
As expected, the Nationals are not off to a hot start in the still young 2023 season. After salvaging one game against the Braves and getting swept by Tampa Bay, they find themselves with a 1-5 record heading out to the Rocky Mountains for a four game set against the Rockies. Hopefully a series against what is supposed to be a much less competitive team can help the Nats get back on track.
One area of this team that has been a bright spot so far, minus one player, has been the bullpen. Through the first six games, Nationals' relievers have combined for 21.2 innings. In that span they are pitching to a collective 4.74 ERA, a number highly inflated by Kyle Finnegan's 27.00 ERA. When you take out Finnegan's rough start, that 4.74 ERA drops to a much more pristine 2.42 number. That's a drop of over 2 whole runs. The season is obviously still very young, and with that these numbers come from a small sample size, but nevertheless, the bullpen has started off strong and is backed up by the numbers.
Even with the bullpen's hot start, Davey Martinez has already found a way to mismanage one of the lone strengths of this roster.
There hasn't been a better example of said mismanagement than the implosion that happened in the 9th inning of Tuesday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was very clear early on that Finnegan didn't have his best stuff that night, and the contact being made off him was evident of just that. That didn't stop Davey from leaving him in the game for far too many batters than he should've, leading to him giving up five runs and practically taking the Nats out of the game.
This isn't the first time Davey has struggled to effectively manage the 'pen. It's been an issue since he first took the managerial position in 2018. His tendency to bring certain guys in at weird times and leave other guys out there until it's too late and the damage has been done, both in terms of his starters and relievers, has plagued his team for over five seasons now. The mix of poor decisions like leaving Finnegan in for far too long, using Thompson in a multi-inning role, even leaving Patrick Corbin in too long yesterday, is giving off the feeling of just throwing guys out there randomly and has already led many fans to count down Davey's days remaining as manager.
Besides Finnegan being the closer and the general long relief roles, it doesn't feel like many roles have been assigned. Even worse, they are using guys in spots they shouldn't be. The two biggest ones being Kyle Finnegan as the closer and Mason Thompson being practically a long relief and/or mop up pitcher for whatever reason. So, how do the Nationals fix the bullpen moving forward?
1. Kyle Finnegan should NOT be the Nationals closer.
Yes he's been the closer for about 3 seasons now and he's been serviceable, but nothing spectacular. In fact, he's honestly gotten worse over his tenure with the Nationals. In his rookie season, which was the shortened 2020 campaign, Finnegan had a 28.8 hard hit percent, good enough for top nine percent of the league. In 2021, it rose to 39.2%, then 43.8% last year, and now 83.3% through his first three appearances this year. His barrel percentage and average exit velocity have also both increased by a wide margin over his career. All the signs show he's due for continued regression, and the fact he's given up multiple runs in two of his three outings, only continue to show that daunting trend.
That raises the question of who should be the closer in replacement of Finnegan. Enter Mason Thompson.
2. Let Mason Thompson pitch in high leverage.
Mason Thompson was acquired by the Nationals from the Padres in exchange for Daniel Hudson. Despite showing nasty stuff throughout his Nationals tenure, they seem to refuse to give him the high leverage role he deserves. His two appearances thus far this season have been for two and three innings, both in middle relief serving as a bridge pitcher to the back end of the bullpen kind of role. If he's seriously supposed to be a major part of this team moving forward, then why limit him this kind of job? Why not start giving him high leverage opportunities to prove he can be the closer or setup man of the future? At a time like this, where the team isn't competitive at all, it should be time to experiment and let other guys get a chance to prove their worth, and Thompson has already showed his elite potential.
Just as a quick pitching profile on Thompson, his arsenal includes a sinker and slider combo that he throws 90.9% of the time, with an occasional curveball and 4-seamer. His sinker and slider is where he shines, as they create a lethal combo. Thompson's sinker had a -4 run value in 2022, as opponents hit just .233 off it with a .288 slugging percentage. The slider had a -2 run value, with opponents hitting a measly .067 with a .267 slug against it. Those numbers will most certainly play, leaving no reason for Thompson to not be given a more high leverage role in the bullpen.
3. Assign better bullpen roles and stick to them.
It seems Kyle Finnegan started the year with the closing job being his to lose, and only time will tell if Davey will actually remove him from that role after recent struggles. In my opinion, Thad Ward should get the main stake in the long relief department. The former Rule 5 pick by the Nats has shown some good stuff already this year, and could be a big piece moving forward in the pitching staff. Paolo Espino will most likely be called up to the big leagues at some point this year, where he should take either a spot starter position or long relief as well. Mason Thompson, Hunter Harvey, and Kyle Finnegan could make a relatively strong trio at the back end of the bullpen. Until Finnegan can regain his former form, Thompson and Harvey should get turns closing. Anthony Banda isn't elite, but has a changeup that plays very well when his command is on. Considering he's the only lefty on the team right now, he should serve as the primary guy for left-on-left matchups. That leaves Carl Edwards Jr., Erasmo Ramirez, and Hobie Harris to serve as alternative high leverage and bridge guys.
The Nationals bullpen has a chance to be at least a league average unit, if not better. If anything is holding them back, it is management. Davey Martinez is leaving guys out there for far too long, letting them take hit after hit and look hopeless on the mound. If he can tighten up and make better and faster decisions, games like the one Tuesday night could end in a Curly W.