The Washington Nationals’ bullpen is grabbing headlines, and not for the right reasons.
Heading into Thursday’s games, the team’s relievers, as a group, have the worst ERA (5.20) in the National League due to the highest batting average against (.270) and leading the league in OPS against (.798) in the seventh through ninth innings with an average of 5.56 runs allowed per nine innings, more than a run more than the rest of the NL combined. Washington’s bullpen has also recorded the fewest outs per game in relief (2.9) this season, putting it on track to be the worst bullpen in team history.
“We saw this coming into the season,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday during an interview with the Sports Junkies on 106.7 the Fan. “We tried to make some moves in the offseason. We tried to acquire some of the elite closers, we didn’t get them, and so now we have to keep looking, keep fighting and keep grinding.”
The lack of a bona fide closer is only part of the problem — the main issue is that the Nationals are getting one of the worst relief performances we’ve seen since 1980.
Washington leads the majors in innings pitched per game by its starters (6.2), over a half an inning more than league average this season, which means the relievers come in most often in the seventh inning. And that’s when things go off the rails.
The Nats’ relievers have allowed 1.31 runs more per nine innings than we would expect based on the runners on base and outs in the inning when the reliever steps on the mound. Only seven teams over the past 37 seasons have been worse, with none of them making the playoffs.
Washington’s bullpen is allowing a .281 average against with a .821 OPS in the seventh inning, roughly the same production the Colorado Rockies are getting from third baseman Nolan Arenado, who is No. 2 at his position in All-Star Game voting behind reigning MVP Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs.
Oliver Perez is the worst offender in the seventh inning. In just 5.1 innings of work in the seventh he’s allowed one double, one triple and two home runs for a 1.204 OPS against, which is nearly double the league average. To make things even more complicated, batters are hitting like Mike Trout against Perez in low leverage situations, so even without the game on the line the Nationals can’t rely on him with any certainty. It’s also why the team can’t seem to hold on to a lead: The Nationals have lost 10 games with their starter exiting the game on record as the would-be winning pitcher; only their division rival, the New York Mets, have more (13).
The team fares better with their relievers in the eighth — .233 average against with a league-average .733 OPS against — but that was mostly due to Matt Albers being reliable. On Monday, Albers gave up a three-run home run to Tyler Flowers to blow the save and take the loss against the Braves. Plus, his 2.10 ERA might be a bit low. If Albers were to experience league average results on balls in play and league average timing, his ERA would be expected to be closer to 3.24, indicating perhaps more troubles are on the horizon.
And then in the ninth inning things get worse with an even higher OPS against (.843) than they had in the seventh inning. Home runs are the culprit here — the Nats have allowed 12 home runs in the ninth, the second-most in the majors behind the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners (13). Shawn Kelley, who was used as a closer by the team earlier in the season, has five of those.
In fact, no bullpen is allowing more home runs per nine innings pitched than the Nationals this season (1.59), and they are close to establishing the high-water mark since 2006, the first year MLB instituted its leaguewide drug testing program. They’re currently tied with the 2016 Reds, who finished with the same 1.59 rate last season. The league average is 1.13 home runs per nine innings in 2017 and you’d have to go back to 2003, when the Nationals were still the Montreal Expos, to find the last time the franchise was close to this bad (1.28).
The truth is the Nats may own the worst collection of relievers assembled in the past 10 years when it comes to giving up dingers. Over the past decade, five other bullpens have allowed more home runs relative to the league average. Four — the 2006 Baltimore Orioles, 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2013 Houston Astros and 2016 Cincinnati Reds — failed to make the playoffs or win more than 70 games. The fifth, the 2011 Texas Rangers, lost in the World Series.
You could argue Texas’s bullpen was a bit unlucky that year. If you replace that team’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered, while assuming a league-average home run-to-flyball percentage, the Rangers’ bullpen should have had an ERA of 3.86 in 2011, rather than the 4.11 ERA that’s reflected in the record books. The Nationals, by comparison, should have an ERA of 4.38 by this same method, almost a half of a run higher.
Texas also saw better overall pitching in the seventh to ninth inning (.683 OPS against, below the league average) and had no problem calling on closer Neftali Feliz in the ninth (32 saves with a 2.74 ERA) that year, whereas the Nationals not only lack a reliable stopper for the end of games, they have a tough time even getting to that point without a boatload of drama along the way.
“We need some help,” Baker said on Tuesday. “We need some help, big time.”