Assessing what ails the Nationals’ bullpen

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Only 10 games into the season, Davey Johnson was wary of reading too much into his bullpen’s performance. “Let’s not micro-pick,” he said. And, of course, he is right. If this was an NFL season, we would be approaching the two-minute warning of Week 1. It’s a long haul.

That being said, the early performance of the Nationals’ relievers has raised concern. The addition of closer Rafael Soriano was meant to make the team’s bullpen overpowering and deep in the back end, allowing one-time closers to set up for an experienced closer. Instead, the bullpen has blown up – the collective 6.34 ERA of the Nationals’ relievers ranks dead last in the majors.

The most costly performance came last night, when Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen combined to turn a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning into a 6-4 loss in the 10th. Johnson wondered about his responsibility. It is too early to make radical changes, but not too early to evaluate how the Nationals can fix what has gone wrong. A day later, we can point to three areas that have led to bullpen’s early – and, yes, it still is very early – failings:

Usage

Last night, Ross Detwiler was rolling after throwing 90 pitches in seven innings. He had batted for himself in the sixth, and so his spot in the order was not in danger of approaching. Detwiler felt strong enough to pitch the eighth. But Johnson decided to pull him, a typical occurrence this year.

Despite a 3.09 ERA from their rotation, Nationals starters have thrown just 58 1/3 innings, less than six per start and 14th in the majors. The Nationals’ bullpen has thrown the remaining 32 2/3 innings, the 12th-heaviest workload for a bullpen in the majors. But the distribution of those innings has perhaps led to overuse. Remove Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke, and five relievers have thrown 27 2/3 innings – more than the entire bullpen of three major league teams.

The Nationals have effectively operated with a five-man bullpen, because Rodriguez has appeared in two games and Duke has only pitched once. Soriano pitched in six of the Nationals’ first nine games. Clippard has also appeared six times, with Storen pitching in half the Nationals’ games.

Johnson has not been comfortable with using Rodriguez and Duke in close, which we’ll cover below. Could Johnson save his bullpen some wear by simply sticking with effective starters longer?

“With the quality we’ve got, they’re going to go deeper as the season goes on,” Johnson said. “By and large, I’m real pleased with what I’ve been getting out of the starters. My only consideration is that guys in the ‘pen, their command hasn’t been as good as the starters. Last year, we really attacked hitters. This year, we’re throwing more pitches than normal.”

Johnson has been wary of stressing starters so early in the season. As he has mentioned before, he also believes in not giving a young starter the chance to spoil a strong outing.

“Early on in the season, most of [the starters], the most pitches they’ve thrown in the spring is 80. And the stress on those 80s in the spring is not near as much as it is to start the year,” Johnson said. “The effort goes up, as well as the pitch count. You want to build that good base without overdoing that. If a guy has a positive outing, I don’t want to put him in a situation where it can turn into a negative outing. I don’t want him to go out with that pitch limit early in the season and cough it up. I don’t want them facing the winning run. If I have a talented bullpen, I want to let them start an inning fresh.”

Deployment

Johnson is still trying to work out which relievers will fill which roles. With several pitchers who have closing experience, Johnson has had trouble slotting pitchers into precise slots. He typically subscribes to his ‘A’ and ‘B’ system, dividing his bullpen aside from the closer into two groups and then having them roughly on an every-other-day schedule.

“I’m not as comfortable with how that’s shaking out right now,” Johnson said. “With the different makeup in the bullpen, with more guys that have closed, I haven’t really got in a good rotation for the bullpen. That usually takes a couple weeks going into the season. It’s a combination of what the starters give you, the workload each guy has coming out of the ‘pen.”

Rodriguez has not pitched since last Sunday, which Johnson indicated owes partly to his health and partly to his inconsistency. Rodriguez is still receiving treatment on his biceps, which was sore this spring in the wake of elbow surgery last summer. Rodriguez has not complained, but Johnson still worries. “Henry wouldn’t say anything if his arm was falling off,” Johnson said.

Johnson has also not trusted Rodriguez with a big situation. He insisted he remains confident in Rodriguez because “when he’s good, he’s really good.” But he doesn’t believe Rodriguez is sharp enough to protect a small lead late in the game.

“I’ve been watching him throw, and he’s been getting close to where I can start using him normally,” Johnson said. “There have been leads in games with other guys throwing, their track record has been really good. So I’ve gone that way.”

Johnson has also not found a way to use Duke. His only appearance came in the Nationals’ 15-0 loss to the Reds last weekend. Duke is the Nationals’ only left-handed reliever, but so far the only team they faced that was heavily stacked with left-handers was the Reds.

“The clubs we’ve been facing also, Zach Duke, is predominantly part of the lineup where it’s calling for a right-hander,” Johnson said. “He’s also a long man. So I don’t want to start using him as a situational left-hander. So that, I haven’t got a good system going. It’s a work in progress.”

Execution.

While usage has affected the Nationals’ bullpen, Clippard summed up the most essential and easiest fix: “We need to do better,” he said last night.

The clearest failure has come in the Nationals’ command. Their relievers walked five batters last night, and for the season their 3.86 walks per nine innings ranks ninth-highest in the majors. Johnson believes the Nationals have not been aggressive enough, perhaps owing to increased pressure.

“It’s all kind of mental to me, where you get to trying to make the perfect pitch instead of getting right after him,” Johnson said. “Since I’ve been here, that’s basically what the bullpen has done. With expectations this year, maybe we’re getting a little too fine, trying to be too precise, instead, ‘Hey, here. Let’s go. Hit it.’ ”

The small sample size has led to some funky results. Last night, for example, Clippard induced only one swinging strike in his 35 pitches. Clippard annually ranks among major league leaders in inducing whiffs. His inability to miss bats could be a sign of trouble, but more likely it’s a one-night fluke.

It is only 10 games, but for 10 games the Nationals’ bullpen has not been good enough. It cost them a game against their foremost divisional competitor last night, and it nearly lost them two other games this season. They have the talent to be better. Like Clippard said, they have to do it.

“You go through good time and you go through bad times,” Craig Stammen said. “Last night was a bad time. You can go back to parts of last season where we have four or five games in a row where we didn’t pitch very well, either. Hopefully, this happens to be one of those spots and then the rest of the year we kick it into gear. And I think we’re getting a bit unlucky, too. Clippard made some really good pitches in that inning that they didn’t swing at. I feel like I made one bad pitch and paid for it. And I think Drew could have been out of that inning if not for one goofy spot, weird ground ball. Just the way it is.”

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