PHOENIX — It is fitting that Austin Voth, given the option to study any of the Washington Nationals’ relievers — Brad Hand or Will Harris, Tanner Rainey or Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero or Sam Clay — chooses to watch Daniel Hudson.
Most relievers in the Nationals’ bullpen are former professional starters: Hand, Finnegan, Clay, Hudson, Voth and Suero, to a lesser extent. Somewhere along the line, if that change goes well, their careers get a jolt. That’s what Voth is experiencing through 11 appearances this season. He yielded four earned runs in 16⅔ innings, his line worsening with Eduardo Escobar’s two-run homer off him Saturday night. His velocity, typically in the low- to mid-90s, has touched 97 mph because of adrenaline and the ability to max out against fewer hitters. He has all but entirely ditched his change-up, choosing to attack batters with his fastball, curve and cutter, in that order of most to least used.
The sample is small. But the early returns are encouraging.
“I could definitely grow into this role,” admitted Voth, who spent 2020 as the Nationals’ fifth starter, finishing with a 6.34 ERA in 49⅔ innings. “I could see myself doing this.”
“It seems like he’s just got this different mind-set of: I’m just going to go out there and attack these guys with my best stuff,” Hudson said of Voth. “It takes a little while. It took me a little while once I transitioned from being a starter to a reliever to: ‘I can’t feel my way through this lineup. These are my three guys. I’ve got to go at them with my best stuff.’ It’s been really impressive to watch him.”
Hudson became a reliever after undergoing back-to-back Tommy John surgeries in 2012 and 2013. When he returned in September 2014, the Arizona Diamondbacks eased him back with three short relief appearances. The next spring, he planned to rejoin the rotation. But his command was shaky, and he thought the bullpen was a better fit. He didn’t want to tax relievers by going four innings and 75 pitches each start.
At first, he was a multi-inning long man. Soon, though, he was a high-leverage reliever and notched four saves in 2015. He has been inconsistent in the half-decade since. But now, at 34, he has recorded the last out of a World Series-clinching win; signed a two-year, $11 million deal; and is thriving this season (a sharp contrast to 2020). Hudson has allowed two earned runs, both on solo homers, in 11⅓ innings. His velocity recently ticked up to 99 mph in a matchup with Bryce Harper.
He is a fair blueprint for any midcareer starter turned reliever. That’s where Voth comes in. Hudson’s main change was eliminating his windup to pitch from the stretch full time, though he also has thrown his change-up less and less in recent years. Voth, too, has a reshaped arsenal and has a new warmup routine. He is throwing 72.2 percent fastballs, according to FanGraphs, way up from 60.8 in 2020. He is using 19.1 percent curves and only 1.3 percent change-ups while lightly mixing in a cutter (7.4 percent of all pitches). Hudson, very similarly, throws his fastball 74.5 percent of the time, his slider 22.8 percent and his change-up 2.7 percent.
“I’m probably going to be using my fastball-curveball the most. So as soon as I start warming up, once I get loose, I’ll probably get fastball command down for a couple pitches and then go to my off-speed pitch,” Voth said in early May. “Usually, I’ve been given a whole inning to warm up, so I haven’t had to kind of like warm up fast for a hitter in two batters or something like that.
“But yeah, it’s just going to take a little bit more time to kind of figure it out. But usually it’s right around 20 pitches is when I’m good.”
Voth moved to the bullpen after starting in parts of three seasons with the Nationals. He clicked for some of 2019, until a blister made it hard to throw his curveball. In 2020, he failed to reach five innings in more than half of his outings. This spring, he was in a familiar fifth starter competition with Joe Ross and Erick Fedde. But with Ross in the rotation and Fedde filling in for Jon Lester — and now filling in for Stephen Strasburg — Voth seems to be a fixed member of the bullpen.
When Manager Dave Martinez needed a spot starter in mid-April, the Nationals called up Paolo Espino instead of using Voth for a few innings. When asked whether Voth’s assignment has shifted, Martinez says he is not a long man or a bulk guy or around for mop-up duty. He pitched two scoreless, high-leverage innings against the New York Yankees on May 9. He pitched the ninth inning of a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday.
Beneath his surface-level numbers, Voth is walking too many batters and giving up a lot of hard contact in the air. That is a dangerous combination that could backfire beyond Escobar’s homer in the Nationals’ 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday. Or Voth could make an adjustment, as he has throughout this season, and smooth out the evident kinks. Relieving, like anything fresh, remains a work in progress.
“I don’t have to face the lineup two or three times. I just have to face, you know, a minimum of three batters at times,” Voth said. “So I can kind of max it out like I’ve done this year a little bit, and the velo has been there. It’s helped me out. … So I kind of like where I’m at.”
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