Erick Fedde and his manager, Dave Martinez, agree on something very important for argument’s sake: Fedde, a starter turned reliever — at least for now — is pitching as well as he ever has at the major league level.
There are caveats to that, and those are very important, too. Fedde, 26 and once a top pitching prospect, struggled starting games for the Washington Nationals in 2017 and 2018. He is currently excelling in relief. He retired all six hitters he faced in a 6-2 loss to the New York Mets on Tuesday and, since first joining the Nationals as a reliever on April 28, has thrown eight scoreless innings. That has been a bright side for Washington and a needed boost for a bullpen that began this week with the league’s worst ERA at 6.34.
But if Fedde is as confident as ever, and perhaps developing into what the Nationals expected him to become, is the best use of him out of the bullpen? Should Washington give him a start or two, especially with how Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson, their two back-of-the-rotation righties, have performed through six and a half weeks? Is it, at the very least, worth considering?
When asked this after Tuesday’s loss, which dropped the Nationals to 16-25, here is how Martinez responded: “For right now, I like what he’s doing. The fact, all of a sudden, after the games, he’s telling me he feels good. He’s not laboring. And I told him, ‘We’ll see how you feel tomorrow.’ He had made comments about being ready to pitch back-to-back days. We’ll see about that.”
It wouldn’t make sense for Martinez to publicly endorse Fedde as an addition to the rotation. That would directly throw Hellickson under the bus, and the 32-year-old starter has been burned by poor defense in his last two outings. But Hellickson now has a 6.00 ERA and has yet to make it three times through an opposing order through eight starts. The Nationals are also 2-6 in games started by Sanchez, who has an 0-6 record and a 5.27 ERA next to his name, but they are paying him too much ($6 million this season) to have him do anything but start.
That leaves Hellickson, on a one-year deal worth $1.3 million, as the movable piece if the Nationals wanted Fedde to start. He even started the season in the bullpen when the Nationals went with a four-man rotation because the schedule allowed it. Fedde is the logical next option whenever Hellickson is pulled — like he was Tuesday, after five innings and 75 pitches — so it wouldn’t be too difficult to flip those roles. That would make Fedde the starter and Hellickson the long man out of the bullpen.
Try it, if nothing else, because the season is headed in the wrong direction and Washington can’t afford to be using anyone other than the five best starters on their roster. Rotation depth is secondary to the bullpen, defense, offense and injuries on the Nationals’ list of problems, but they need to patch up whatever they can.
“It’s more just the trust in my stuff, that I’m going out there and thinking that I’m better than the guy I’m facing," Fedde said of why he is pitching better than he had in past seasons. "And it’s been with me in the zone and pitching in better counts, so I think that really has resulted in good outings.”
Relieving, it should be noted, removes many of the obstacles that have tripped Fedde up as a starter. He also had trouble pushing deep into games, and did not once complete a third turn through the order in 11 starts last year, when he went 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA. So he may not be too different from Hellickson or Sanchez in that regard. Hellickson pitched six innings in one start this year, and has been either unable or not trusted to go any further. Sanchez has only done so once, too, and otherwise had his pitch counts run up fast. Maybe the Nationals are destined to have just three starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — who can be regularly counted on for six or more innings.
But there seems to be upside with how Fedde is attacking hitters, even if the situation is totally different. He pitched four scoreless innings in relief in his first appearance of the year — taking over for Hellickson after three innings on April 28 — and his shakiest performance was a 26-pitch frame against the Brewers. He got out of that unscathed and, overall, has tried to go after hitters as he did when starting for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in April. Yet there are subtle tweaks to his approach. And those matter here, too.
“I try to make it not too different," Fedde said following Tuesday’s loss. “But with the opportunity that maybe I’m only facing them once, you can empty the tank and give them my best stuff.”
That has meant mostly sinkers and sliders from Fedde, who typically uses a four-pitch mix as a starter. In the majors last season, he threw his sinker 54.5 percent of the time, his slider 13.8, his cutter 13.5, his curveball 6.8 and his chang-eup 11.4, according to Fangraphs. Now, as a reliever, he is throwing his sinker 59.1 percent of the time, his slider 33.3, his chang-eup 6.5 and his cutter 1.1. He has stopped throwing his curveball altogether, instead opting for one breaking ball that is a slider-curve combo, and is comfortable using two pitches because he mostly did in college at UNLV.
Starters need three or four pitches to be successful. Relievers only need two if they are good enough. But Fedde has kept working on his sinker, slider, cutter and change-up because, beyond still using the latter two here and there, he doesn’t want to lose a feel for any of them.
“I work on them all the time, in side sessions and bullpens,” Fedde said Tuesday. “And I expect to keep doing that until someone tells me otherwise. I want to have as big of an arsenal as I can as long as the pitches are each effective.”
He did not say this in the context of moving from the bullpen to the rotation any time soon. Fedde, to his credit, is happy to do whatever the team wants. But keeping his four pitches sharp positions him well for a quick transition back to the rotation. Martinez recently offered that Fedde became a reliever out of immediate necessity. He has no problem saying, whenever asked, that Fedde’s future is as a member of the rotation.
Yet maybe, for Fedde, for a spiraling team, that future should be right now.