As expected, the Washington Nationals activated right-handed relievers Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley on Friday afternoon, just in time for a game that did not happen. The Nationals’ game against the Phillies was postponed to Sunday night because of rain, pushing the Nationals’ starters back a day and rendering freshly activated relievers unhelpful for an evening.
Kelley dealt with lower back pain last weekend, which he said has subsided. Glover struggled with a hip impingement, which was not a surprise after he suffered a torn labrum in the same left hip late last season and spent the offseason rehabbing it to avoid surgery. Glover admitted Friday he got away from the strength work he did all winter, which “bit me in the butt a little bit.” But he said he feels strong again and does not expect the hip to cause him further trouble.
The return of Glover and Kelley brings much-needed assistance for the Nationals’ bullpen, lately embattled, by restoring their two strongest closer options. Since Kelley went on the disabled list last weekend in Philadelphia, the Nationals have pieced together the ninth inning — with mixed results. But the Nationals do not have just a ninth-inning problem. They have a bullpen problem, one that might seem worse now than it will in a few weeks or months but is nevertheless troubling.
Nationals relievers entered the weekend with the second-worst FIP (fielding independent pitching, an adjusted version of ERA) in the National League at 4.85. Their combined WHIP is 1.44, eighth highest in the majors, nearly a quarter of a base runner per inning more than last season’s group, which qualified as one of the top three bullpens in baseball by most statistical measures. Opponents are hitting .281 against Nationals relievers, who are throwing more pitches in the strike zone than anyone but the Rockies.
Obviously, the Nationals cannot overhaul their bullpen entirely. The bullpen was a concern entering this season. No one could have predicted it would struggle like this. Joe Blanton, one of the best relievers in baseball the past two seasons, is mired in a battle with his mechanics. Blake Treinen is trying to work his way back to last season’s dominant form. Sammy Solis is hurt. This list of underachievers is nearly all-inclusive.
“We work every day. We talk about things. We do flat ground every day,” Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “It’s a crazy game, with its ebb and flow. Through the course of the season, there are going to be times when every mistake you make gets hit. There are going to be times when it doesn’t.”
If you ask the Nationals’ relievers, the answers are generally the same: There have been a few bad breaks, one bad pitch, a broken-bat single that fell in. That is not to say they do not own the results. To a man, they have stood up and answered questions over and over again. But the whole thing has been, as Treinen put it recently, “a head-scratcher.”
For example, if you look at the bullpen’s xFIP, fielding independent pitching calculated with the league average homer-flyball ratio, instead of the actual FIP, the Nationals rank in the middle of the pack. So many outside factors contribute to the percentage of flyballs that sail out, making the statistic considerably more of a fair measure of a pitcher’s actual performance. The xFIP is more than half a run lower. Their home run-flyball ratio is 17.1 percent, second highest in baseball. The major league average is 11.7 percent.
Are the Nationals just making worse pitches than the rest of the league, chucking up more hittable mistakes than their peers?
Perhaps there is something to the idea that the Nationals have been, in part, unlucky. Hitters are batting .322 on balls put in play against Nationals relievers. The major league average is .293, a disparity often attributed to luck or a surplus of particularly hard contact. The Nationals are not allowing more hard contact than the rest of the league, so luck must play some role.
Kelley and Glover should help. Kelley will give the Nationals a closer, taking care of what has been one of the more troublesome innings for the Nationals, the ninth. Glover will provide another late-inning setup type, perhaps to pair with emergent Albers in that role.
“We hope that this time gave Kelley and Koda time to get back together,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said, acknowledging the fact that neither was dominating before going on the DL. “Now I can sort of put my bullpen back in the order that we want to.”
The Nationals need that set order to help because it seems unlikely outside help is coming soon. The organization is not considering moving Joe Ross to the bullpen, according to a person familiar with their thinking. Joe Nathan and Neal Cotts, with decades of major league experience between them, are both at Syracuse with Ross, potentially available for a call-up if needed.
As for external solutions, Nationals General Mananger Mike Rizzo has not engaged in serious trade discussions for relievers, according to a person familiar with the situation, in keeping with what he said in multiple radio appearances this week.
The group of available relievers at this year’s trade deadline will be less heralded than the group Rizzo chose from last year, when the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman and won the World Series and the Indians dealt for Andrew Miller and nearly did the same. White Sox closer David Robertson, whom Rizzo and White Sox GM Rick Hahn discussed this past winter, is out there. Royals righty Kelvin Herrera could be available too, though the asking price probably will be high. Pirates lefty Tony Watson might be another fit. The Twins might deal, as could the Phillies (Joaquin Benoit) or even the Braves.
But the Nationals have not leaped into that market yet, preferring to wade into mid-May in a state of cautious optimism that history will win out. The ultimate question, it seems, will be whether they’re willing to bet their season on it.