Two years ago, the Washington Nationals experimented with turning starter Erick Fedde into a reliever. Even though the right-hander later admitted he never fully bought into the switch, his ERA in the minor leagues plunged from 4.14 as a starter to 3.13 as a reliever, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved from 2.94 to 5.20. Fedde became one of the organization’s most effective pitchers out of the bullpen at Class AA and AAA, but his dream was still to be a starter.
Last season, Fedde returned to his original role and made 11 starts for the Nationals, but he never locked down a spot in the rotation. Fedde started this season in Class AA Harrisburg, from where it is easier to make an emergency appearance in D.C. than from Class AAA Fresno. On April 28, in just that situation, Fedde threw four scoreless innings of relief in a win against the San Diego Padres, and the team reconsidered its approach.
The Nationals had a veteran rotation and a yawning chasm between it and closer Sean Doolittle. Fedde, albeit briefly, showed what he could do in one of the team’s best outings from a reliever this season. So the Nationals ditched Fedde’s spot starter label and announced he would work as a reliever with Harrisburg. He returned to the Nationals as a full-time reliever Tuesday, the next step in an ongoing bullpen experiment. In doing so, Washington altered a top starting pitcher prospect’s long-term development for what it hopes will be a short-term fix to a dire situation. Despite throwing 107⅓ innings, tied for the majors’ lowest total, the Nationals’ 6.29 bullpen ERA is the worst in baseball.
“He has to buy in,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “For right now, his value to us is in the bullpen. … Hopefully he continues to throw the ball the same way [he did against the Padres].”
So far, he has. In his second relief appearance, Wednesday at the Milwaukee Brewers, he walked two and allowed a hit but no runs. The Nationals need Fedde to continue to succeed in his new role.
The lineup is getting healthy again, but the Nationals are still struggling to score, which means their best path to a win consists of eking out a few runs and cobbling together minimal-damage pitching. The rotation has consistently delivered — its 5.1 wins above replacement, as measured by FanGraphs, are the most in the majors — but the bullpen has prevented several mathematical wins from becoming real ones. Even when everyone is healthy again, the bullpen will need to ensure those efforts from the starters aren’t wasted.
The Nationals haven’t decided whether they will use Fedde in long or short roles, but the 26-year-old has embraced the adjustment.
“I’m honestly just a better pitcher at this point,” he said of the difference between this trip to the bullpen and his previous one. “I was a lot younger when I tried that last time, and I feel like I’ve developed more and have a better attitude going into it this time.”
Looking around the clubhouse, Fedde figured that if he were to become a reliever, he was in an ideal scenario. New pitching coach Paul Menhart played a large role in developing him in the minor leagues, and Fedde cited his familiarity with and trust in Menhart for making him even more comfortable in the majors. In spring training, Fedde said, he tried to do a lot of different things with his pitches and mechanics, but Menhart focused on getting him “back to his old self” and restoring his confidence.
A few clubhouse stalls away was Joe Ross, only a few months ahead of Fedde on the starter-turned-reliever timeline. On their first day together in the bullpen, Fedde picked Ross’s brain about how to put everything he had into one inning, instead of five or six, and how to develop a routine designed to ready himself to throw in minutes rather than hours.
The decision to promote Fedde does not mean the switch is permanent, Martinez said. On April 30, General Manager Mike Rizzo emphasized the same thing; the organization prefers to develop starters, he said, because “relievers, for the most part, are failed starters in the minor leagues.”
“We always consider [Fedde] a guy that we’re going to count on . . . in the future to be a starter,” Rizzo said. “[But] we’ve never been afraid to move guys to the big leagues in different roles and different positions and different times, no matter what their chronological age shows. We’re going to put our best club on the field.”
Martinez has expressed frustration this season when some relievers have used their non-dominant pitches — such as Wander Suero’s curveball or Doolittle’s change-up — in key situations. Fedde said he has a four-pitch arsenal — fastball, cutter, slider, curve — that he can use at any time. Martinez said he trusts Fedde’s judgment as long as he consistently throws first-pitch strikes, a struggle throughout his career.
Fedde understands that, as a reliever, he needs to throw his best stuff harder and more often. His desire to use all four pitches could be to avoid pigeonholing himself and increasing the difficulty of transitioning back to being a starter, but he also considers it an effective approach.
“It’s important [that] the guy on deck knows that I’m willing to use all four rather than just become a two-pitch pitcher,” Fedde said. “But, yeah, when the time comes, I can stick with my best stuff a little quicker.”
Although they’re different pitchers, Martinez said his early handling of Ross — no back-to-back appearances, ensuring he’s available when the Nationals would need him most — will parallel his approach with Fedde.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” he said. “But we’re going to use him.”
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