Washington Nationals' right-hander Craig Stammen surprised some with a breakout season working out of the bullpen for the NL East champion Nats.
Then-27-year-old right-hander Craig Stammen threw just 10.1 innings in the majors in 2011. After making 54 appearances, 38 as a starter and pitching 233.2 innings with the Washington Nationals between 2009-2010, Stammen spent the majority of the 2011 campaign in Triple-A Syracuse, going (10-7) with a 4.75 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 2.54 BB/9 and 8.05 K/9 in 25 games, 24 starts and 142.0 IP. Called up to the majors in September, Stammen worked out of the pen, posting a 0.87 ERA and a 1.86 FIP in seven games and 10.1 IP in which he walked four (3.48 BB/9) and K'd 12 (10.45 K/9).
The attitude he took to the mound throughout the 2011 season helped Stammen maintain his focus as he explained to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore in a mid-September article that year. He knew people were watching every time he pitched. "'Every time you go out there, you’ve got to try to make an impression on somebody,' Stammen said. 'Every time you pitch, every time you step on the mound, you’ve got to prove yourself.'"
Davey Johnson was impressed with what he saw, and as he explained to the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore, the Nats' '05 12th Round pick put himself in the conversation for the 2012 roster with the way he pitched once he got the opportunity again in the majors:
"'I may have some age on me, but I’ve got a pretty good memory when guys do well,' Johnson said. 'He’s been throwing the ball exceptionally well. He’s got a live arm. He’s definitely in the mix here.'"
Stammen made the major league roster out of Spring Training in 2012 and picked up where he left off in 2011 with a 0.84 ERA, 2.25 FIP, four walks (3.38 BB/9) and 12 Ks (10.13 K/9) in 10.2 IP in the first month of the season and he finished the first half with a 1.74 ERA, 17 walks (3.28 BB/9) and 47 Ks (9.06 K/9) in 46.2 IP. As the Washington Post's James Wagner noted, that was the third-highest total IP by a reliever heading into the All-Star break. Davey Johnson acknowledged he was giving the right-hander -- whose walk totals went up significantly in June (to 6.46 BB/9 in 15.1 IP from 1.08 BB/9 in 16.2 IP in May) -- a large workload. "'I promised I wouldn’t overwork him the second half,'" Johnson told the WaPost's Mr. Wagner, "'but don’t hold me to it.'"
Compared to the numbers he had been putting up, Stammen struggled to start the second half of the season, with a 4.11 ERA, 4.53 FIP, seven walks (4.11 BB/9) and 14 Ks (7.22 K/9) in 15.1 IP in July. Stammen had a 3.86 ERA, 3.40 FIP, six walks and 13 Ks in 16.1 IP in August, with opponents putting up a .254/.319/.381 line against the reliever, but down the stretch in September, Stammen was dominant, posting a 1.29 ERA, 3.67 FIP, six walks and 18 Ks in 14.0 IP over which he held opponents to a .143/.236/.306 line in the final month-plus of the 2012 campaign.
Stammen quietly put together a strong season in the Nationals' bullpen, finishing his fourth major league campaign with a (6-1) record, a 2.34 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 36 BB (3.67 BB/9) and 87 Ks (8.86 K/9) in 59 games and 88.1 IP. He used his slider more than ever before, 31.3% of the time, up from 20.8% in 2011 and 24.3% in 2010, throwing it harder than he had in previous seasons (averaging 84.4 mph up from 78.6 mph in 2011) and also picked up velocity on his fastball, with both his four-seamer (91.4 mph up from 89.9 mph in his career) and two-seamer (91.5 mph up from 90.6 mph in his career) picking up speed.
"Sometimes a pitcher starts a game and they know they've got to go seven innings, nine innings," Davey Johnson explained in a mid-August interview when asked about pitchers moving into a relief role after starting, "... and they use all their stuff, they don't try to overpower you, just use the change of speeds, the breaking stuff off their fastball. When you know you're just in there for an inning or two, generally, almost 9 times out of 10, the fastball becomes more alive and that sets up everything else. Stammen's a good example."
Stammen's regular season success didn't carry over into the playoffs, however, as he struggled with illness during the NLDS. The right-hander gave up five hits, two walks and three earned runs in 3.0 IP in the first postseason appearances of the reliever's career.
The 88.1 regular season IP Stammen threw in 2012 were the second-most by a reliever in the National League, but the pitcher told MLB.com's Bill Ladson late this season that he didn't mind the workload. "'I like pitching as much as possible,'" Stammen said, "'and Davey has put me in good spots for me to succeed. I’ve done as well as I [could].'"
Stammen's 2.34 ERA was the seventh-lowest amongst qualified relievers in the NL. Stammen's +0.8 fWAR was the third-highest amongst Nats' relievers, behind only Tyler Clippard (+1.0) and Sean Burnett (+1.1). The right-hander has all-but guaranteed his role in the 2013 Nationals' bullpen with his work in 2012.
Before the Versailles, Ohio-born pitcher begins to prepare for Spring Training, he's going to represent the Nationals along with teammate Ross Detwiler on the 2012 USO holiday tour which is being led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. A nice way to end what was perhaps the surprise breakout season of the Nationals' 2012 campaign.