The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Nationals’ bullpen preparation, a year makes a huge difference

Paul Menhart is entering his first full season as the Nationals' pitching coach. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Paul Menhart zipped around the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse last Thursday, head on a swivel, seeking each of his relievers for a short conversation. There was an exhibition in a few hours. There were appearances to schedule, and bodies to consult, and, for Menhart, the Nationals’ pitching coach, a puzzle to solve.

It was a bit chaotic, to be honest, but he is fine with that.

“I’m sleeping okay,” Menhart said with a smirk. “Well, I lay down and close my eyes every night.”

Menhart is entering his first full season on the job, and has the unenviable task of preparing a bullpen for Opening Day. When Derek Lilliquist was fired on May 2, 2019, leading to Menhart’s promotion, the bullpen’s performance was the biggest reason why. And how the bullpen readied for the year — or didn’t — was quietly cited as one of Lilliquist’s biggest shortcomings.

There was a general lack of communication between Lilliquist and pitchers last spring, according to returning pitchers and three other members of the organization. Lilliquist was generally hands-off. There were many times that a veteran staff appreciated that. But when it came to the bullpen, and it came to spring training, the Nationals needed a more detailed and concerted effort.

The group stumbled through March, April and May, and later finished with a 5.66 ERA, the worst ever for a playoff team. It battled injuries, saw immense turnover and squeezed every last ounce out of Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. It was, in a few words, pretty consistently bad. But the Nationals invested in improvements this winter, re-signing Hudson for two years and $11 million, and signing Will Harris for three years and $24 million. Then they reworked the preseason plan.

“You have to get a feel for what you’re going to do doing during the season,” Doolittle said last week. “It’s the only time of year that you have a controlled environment, and you’ll just constantly be behind if you don’t take advantage.”

Last spring, only Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough pitched in back-to-back games before the season. When pressed about that in May, and whether the bullpen was properly prepared, Manager Dave Martinez pushed back. Lilliquist was already fired, and there was no reason for Martinez to shove him further beneath the bus. Martinez pointed to additional work on back fields, suggesting that some pitchers simulated situations, and went through the expected motions, where reporters didn’t see.

But major league relievers hardly used the back fields in 2019. Trevor Rosenthal then pitched his first back-to-back in late March and allowed five total earned runs. Matt Grace quickly pitched in three consecutive contests between April 2 and 4. Justin Miller went back-to-back on April 3 and 4 and soon cited arm fatigue. Now Menhart expects to have relievers on the back fields throughout the next two weeks.

“We can use that space and the minor leaguers in camp to set up whatever scenario we want,” Menhart explained. This will be his 15th season in the organization, and, before he was named pitching coach, spent five years as the minor league pitching coordinator. He says he saw the good, bad and ugly of how to push bullpens through spring training, and with that formed his own method. “So maybe it’s two guys on, one out, you’re a major league reliever, now get out of it. Get. Out. Of. It.”

“That’s all it is,” he continued. “And it’s up to them to really get after it, get their energy level up, try to treat it like a real game. It’s not real, of course, but training your arm, body and mind before the season is so important.”

The pitchers and coaches refer to this as “checking boxes.” Doolittle has two boxes to check: He wants to pitch parts of two innings in the same outing, to practice staying warm between frames; and he wants to go back-to-back, with the second appearance either in a game or on a back field. Doing it on a back field would allow Doolittle to end the inning if his pitch count got too high, or work on something specific, such as throwing only secondary pitches, or testing his slider against righties.

Tanner Rainey only has one box to check: The 27-year-old wants to pitch back-to-back, rest, then pitch again, totaling three appearances in four days. Hudson wants to go back-to-back, on the same terms as Doolittle, but his second ask is trickier. He wants to come in with two outs and a runner on, get out of the inning, then come out and pitch the next inning. That would be hard to do in an exhibition, given the variables, but Hudson is confident it will happen.

And if that situation is elusive, that’s what the back fields are for.

“You want to simulate the situations you can predict yourself being in,” Hudson said. “Especially the ones that could come up right away. We’re pretty used to being thrown into anything, as relievers, but it can be uncomfortable at the start if you’re not ramping up correctly.”

The bullpen’s progression picked up over the weekend. Wander Suero recorded five outs Saturday. Roenis Elías recorded four outs Sunday, his first multi-inning appearance of spring, and struggled through the back half. Doolittle, Hudson and Rainey will check some boxes soon, rust will be expected, and perfection won’t be.

Mistakes don’t cost anything in February and most of March. They’ll count come March 26, once the Nationals face the New York Mets, and it’s all high pressure from there. That’s why Menhart isn’t targeting Opening Day when mapping this critical stretch. He is actually looking well past it.

“I want them to be May 1 ready on March 26,” Menhart said. “That’s what I keep saying: ‘May 1 ready on March 26.’ ”

It may be coincidence that Menhart took over on May 3 of last season, right in line with this catchphrase. But it really makes the concept fit.

Read more on the Washington Nationals:

Svrluga: Stephen Strasburg’s change-up is MLB hitters’ ultimate guessing game

Analysis: Juan Soto’s contract was renewed for $629,400. How can the Nationals do that?

The Nationals once desperately needed an emergency catcher. They don’t have one anymore.

The Nationals wage war on spring training monotony with hockey, cooking and polar plunges

Victor Robles was picked apart at the plate last postseason. He’s countering with a new swing.