By Dan Zaudtke
Hey, remember Opening Day? Stephen Strasburg pitched seven solid innings, and Sammy Solis and Blake Treinen retired all six batters they faced. Blake made both Justin Bour and Marcell Ozuna look dumb with some nasty filth. Those were good times. It was also the last time the bullpen went without giving up an earned run, before holding the Phillies scoreless before Daniel Murphy’s walk-off.
The lines of those games:
6-4 Win over the Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 Ks, 1 HR.
4-3 Loss to the Marlins: 3 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB 2Ks, 1 HR
7-6 Win over the Phillies: 2.1 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 2 Ks, 1 HR
4-3 Loss over the Phillies: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 0 K
14-6 Win over the Cardinals: 4 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 HR
8-3 Win over the Cardinals: 2 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR
6-1 Loss to the Cardinals: 3 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 Ks, 1 HR
As Chelsea Janes points out, the Nationals pen has the second highest ERA, compiling a .956 OPS against (She includes The Philly Massacre in her column. For mercy sake, I am discounting that game. Dusty Baker was simply trying to get through that game without decimating the rest of the pen, e.g. Oliver Perez is a LOOGY and pitched 2 IP, giving up 3 ER.) From Opening Day, until holding the Phillies without a run on Friday, the Nats’ bullpen produced some 2009-level stats: 13.3 H/9, 7.58 ERA, 3.79 BB/9, 7.58 K/9, and 2.84 HR/9. There is a difference between being unlucky (unsustainable high BABIP-against, soft hits, etc.) and bad (walks, XBHs, HRs). The Nats, right now, are the latter. They’ve been hit and hit hard, giving up an absurd number of home runs.
Look no further than Joe Blanton. The guy who seemed like a great addition in Spring Training, has been anything but so far. He has served up three home runs (tied with Shawn Kelley) — two of which were backbreakers: a three-run shot against the Phillies, when the Nats offense was waking up in a 3-1 game, and Saturday’s 2-run bomb after the Nats had tied it — to Cesar Freaking Hernandez — he of 9 career home runs in 1231 ABs! That can’t happen, especially when Jayson Werth, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, and Matt Wieters are all out of the lineup. Walks are actually down from last year, but are still too high. The Nats can overcome one or two bad relievers. Even with Jonathan Papelbon and Yusmerio Petit, this was one of the best bullpens in 2016. The problem is, they’ve all been bad.
However, there is reason for hope. Bullpens, by nature, are fickle, especially in extreme small sample sizes. These dreadful numbers are as unsustainable as Wieters’ and Murphy’s batting lines. Mike Rizzo likes the talk about the “back of the baseball card.” The pen will normalize. Solis will not walk 8.1/9, Kelley won’t give up almost 7 HRs per game. In fact, Kelley is a notorious slow starter. His career April OPS against: .855; the rest of the year by month: .601, .756, .700, .619, .587. He’s currently walking almost twice the number of batters as he has over his career rate and almost three times more than last year. He looked more like the Kelley we know his last outing, pitching a 1-2-3 inning with 2 Ks.
Treinen’s numbers are skewed by a bad outing in Philly (1 IP 2 H 2 ER, 1 BB 1 K, 1 HR). Not to make excuses, but the weather that day seemed to affect everyone but Max Scherzer… and I am pretty sure he’s not human. Of the four hits Treinen has surrendered outside of that game, three of them were seeing-eye groundballs and a dying-quail RBI bloop — unlucky hits. He still walks too many, but his capacity for inducing double-plays mitigates that weakness. He also seems to have discovered his strikeout-ability.
While Solis is a bit more of a concern, as he’s only striking out 5.4 per nine, that will go up. His walks are absurdly high, even for a guy who walks a lot of people, those will go down. He has a fairly significant injury history, so that might be a factor. Koda Glover is starting to show that a K-machine he was in the minors, averaging 1.2 K/IP. He has K’d a batter in each of his last two outings. Inexperience is his biggest flaw right now — his stuff is evident, and everyone raves about his demeanor (Koda Glover doesn’t get the jitters, the jitters get Koda Glover). You have to feel watching him pitch, it’s just a matter of time. There’s even hope for Blanton — he’s given up seven hits, three of them home runs. I can’t recall seeing anything like this.
We are just 11 games in, and there is plenty of time to correct any continuing issues. The bullpen now is not going to be the bullpen in July, which probably won’t be the bullpen in September. I don’t think Enny Romero is long for this team — he’s never shown the ability to get people out, despite his eye-popping radar gun readouts (except in August, where he has a .424 OPS against, oddly). Romero has a career .775 OPS against. I believe any reinforcements, however, will probably come from outside the organization.
Most of the relievers at Syracuse are performing just as poorly as Romero, if not worse. Trevor Gott, for example, has fantastic stuff but can’t get anyone out: 10.38 ERA, .429 BAA, 2.54 WHIP in 2017. Unless someone has a Glover-esque metoric rise, I don’t see any real help in the bullpen from the minors. Rizzo will make moves—and almost invariably, they’re good moves. While Cleveland and Chicago emptied their farm system for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, Rizzo shrewdly acquired Mark Melancon for a fraction of what those teams paid. (Side note: Yes, Miller would have probably put the Nats over the Dodgers; the long term cost would have been Eaton, since the pieces we used to acquire him would have been involved in any Miller deal).
The long and short of it is this: Yes, the bullpen looks like a dumpster fire right now. However, April should not be a cause of undue celebration or panic. We have the talent in the pen, we have one of the best pitching coaches in the game in “Magic” Mike Maddux, and a nice mix of younger and veterans. It will level out, and any needs will be addressed.Tags: Blake Treinen, Enny Romero, Joe Blanton, Koda Glover, Nationals, Nats, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley, Washington Nationals