How should the Nats handle Ross Detwiler?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ross Detwiler's transition to the bullpen this season has been a disaster tremendous disappointment. The 28-year-old lefty has walked as many as he's struck out, while FIP says that he's actually lucky to have a 5.06 ERA. Is it time to trade him? Try and clear him through waivers? Leave him in the bullpen and hope he adjusts to the role?

The subject of Ross Detwiler has become something of a lightning rod in the first two months of the 2014 season. We’re seeing a vicious cycle so far, and it’s relatively easy to break down. 

  • When Matt Williams calls on him, Detwiler brings his lucky (?) gas can out to the mound with him.
  • So.............
  • Williams doesn’t call on him very often

There we go… article over.  All of the Detwiler supporters can resume being upset about how Detwiler can’t find his rhythm because Williams isn’t using him often enough. All of the people who think Detwiler should have one foot out the door to whoever picks him up when the Nats ultimately try and pass him through waivers to Syracuse can say that they see why. Oh wait… I’m supposed to break down what’s going on, aren’t I? I’m not sure I have the proper degree to do that, but I will provide you with some interesting things that we can look at.

Since there are plenty of people in the fanbase who are upset on both sides of this fence, let’s start with the Detwiler apologists.

But Jim, He’s a Starter! (No, he’s not)

Much has been made about the possibility (probability?) that Detwiler is upset that he’s been "banished" to the bullpen. To those of you who think that this is the problem (and… gosh darnit, if it actually is the problem), I’d like to say that it’s time for the 28-year-old Detwiler to grow up. There are only 150 starting pitchers in the major leagues.  There are only 750 big league roster spots. Just because the organization doesn’t consider Detwiler to be one of the five (or six) best fits to be in their big league rotation doesn’t mean that they don’t think he can help them in a different role. It also doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to be paid as much in 2014 ($3 million) as many of the people reading this will make in their entire lives… for playing a kid’s game*.

*Yeah… I’m playing that card. Sorry.... OK.... That's out of the way.

Major League bullpens are littered with pitchers who didn’t pan out as starters.  If you go to Detwiler’s Fangraphs page, the top article you’ll see talks about the Kansas City Royals’ successful transition of former top overall pick Luke Hochevar to the bullpen.  His teammate Wade Davis (1.96 ERA, 1.16 FIP, 16.69 K/9) has made quite the transition from starting to relieving as well.  The article also brings up Twins’ closer Glen Perkins, among others.  There's no shame in being placed in the bullpen.

That article does not bring up Detwiler’s teammate Tyler Clippard, who worked as a starter throughout his entire minor league career before transitioning successfully to the bullpen in 2009. Teammates Craig Stammen and Rafael Soriano also represent examples of pitchers who began their career as starters, but have been more than effective since moving to the bullpen. In truth, most of the relief pitchers in the majors were starters at one time or another.

At any rate, there’s a variety of reasons that an organization would send a starter to the bullpen. We’re going to look primarily at two. Let’s start with the simplest theory (which I admittedly don't really believe in) before delving into the real reason that Detwiler belongs in the bullpen.

Lower Injury Risk

Clubs could decide to move a starter to the bullpen in an effort to reduce his workload and keep their pitcher healthier. Given that Detwiler made just thirteen starts last season due to an oblique injury and a disc problem in his back, there’s some logic behind lightening his workload to prevent injury. That said, there’s no real empirical data that confirms that a pitcher will remain healthier if he’s throwing in shorter bursts out of the bullpen (presumably on shorter rest) as opposed to throwing 90-100 pitches every fifth day. Relieving is a different animal. Those 20-30 pitches tend to be more of the maximum effort variety. It’s entirely possible that moving a starter into the bullpen could actually put more stress on that pitcher’s arm.

When I say that there’s no empirical data behind this theory, I mean it. I brought up in the last segment that Rafael Soriano was a starter when he first came up. This happened so long ago that many of you probably either didn’t know that or have forgotten. In fact, Soriano was the Mariners #1 prospect in 2002 according to Baseball America… as a starting pitcher. After struggling a bit as a rookie that season, the Mariners let Soriano pitch both as a starter (in the minors) and a reliever (in the majors) in 2003. They used the same plan early on in 2004, as he threw six appearances out of the bullpen for Seattle and started six games in the minors. It didn’t work. Tommy John surgery would cost him most of the 2004 and 2005 seasons before he transitioned full-time to the bullpen. While he hasn’t exactly been Cal Ripken since then, he’s made at least fifty appearances in all but two seasons since 2006.

At any rate, there’s the theory that shifting a pitcher from the rotation to the bullpen may keep him healthier, but there’s nothing that really backs it up. Let’s take a closer look at the reason Detwiler should be in the bullpen.

He Has Trouble Turning Lineups Over Multiple Times

An organization could recognize that a pitcher like Detwiler is having trouble turning the lineup over his second and third time through the order. Let’s examine some situational stats throughout Detwiler’s career:

HR BB K BAA OBPA SLGA
Pitch 1-15 9 17 52 .250 .293 .370
Pitch 16-30 9 31 58 .206 .281 .294
Pitch 31-45 4 35 51 .274 .364 .310
Pitch 46-60 6 22 40 .326 .380 .452
Pitch 61-75 5 20 36 .296 .357 .372
Pitch 76-90 4 16 19 .315 .369 .429
Pitch 91-105 2 4 3 .261 .320 .400

*Note that this data includes this season’s numbers, where… well… we know that he hasn’t pitched particularly well even in the first 30 pitches.

This seems pretty straightforward. That’s a .293 OBP against in the first 15 pitches (usually against the top of the order [read: best hitters in the opposing lineup] as a starting pitcher). That’s a .281 OBP against him on pitches 16-30. And then……. Well, just read the chart and have a look for yourself. If you’d like, you can account some of his struggles the second and third time through the order to fatigue. Then again, if that’s the case, you’re saying he probably shouldn’t be a starting pitcher anyway. Here’s what I see:

Season FB% CB% CH% XX%
2009 70.4% (91.0) 14.5% (76.4) 15.1% (83.2) 1.9%
2010 64.3% (89.7) 18.3% (75.6) 17.5% (82.3) 2.0%
2011 73.5% (92.2) 12.8% (79.7) 13.7% (84.4) 0.8%
2012 80.3% (92.7) 12.6% (79.2) 7.2% (84.4)
2013 88.0% (92.1) 8.2% (78.5) 3.8% (84.6) 0.5%
2014 84.2% (92.8) 10.7% (78.7) 5.1% (84.1) 5.9%
Total 77.8% (92.1) 12.6% (78.3) 9.6% (83.8)

1.0%

*I was going to go with the PITCHf/x data instead, but the classification of sinkers/fastballs and sliders/curveballs seemed to vary too much from year to year.  While this is a bit simpler, wrapping up the sinkers and fastballs together, we can certainly see the increased reliance on those two pitches over the past few years.

Not pictured, Fangraphs’ Basic Pitch Value classifies his curveball (-10.5 career) and changeup (-6.3) as below average offerings while the fastball (since I brought up PITCHf/x data above, both fastballs have been above average per PITCHf/x [+1.7 for the four seamer… +7.2 for the sinker) is slightly above average at +3.7. Basically, what we see here is a pitcher with a good four seam fastball and a really good two seam fastball/sinker. His other two offerings are subpar.

As we can see from the chart above, he threw his curveball more than 12% of the time each season from 2009-2012.  He threw it just 8.2% of the time last year and has thrown it 10.7% of the time so far this season. The changeup has all but disappeared. He used it more than 13% of the time from 2009-2011, but hasn’t thrown it more than 7.2% of the time in any season since.

Rather than managing to develop either of those pitches enough to be average, he’s all but scrapped them from his repertoire. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be a good pitcher. It does mean that he’s more likely to struggle the second and third time through the order. Why? The hitters have already seen what he’s going to use to try to retire them.

Big league hitters are the best in the world, and they see how pitchers get them out the first time through. They tend to adjust, and his performance from Pitch #31 on tells us that they’ve done exactly that to Detwiler in the past. If you look at pitches 1-30 as his first time through the lineup, Detwiler is holding hitters to an OBP in the .280s. From pitch 31 on, hitters are reaching base at more than a .360 clip. That screams reliever!

Warning: Break Glass Only In Case Of Emergency

Let’s start this section off with a look at Detwiler’s Game Log this so far this season:

Date IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
4/3 2.0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0.00 0.50
4/5 2.0 4 0 0 0 1 2 0.00 2.50
4/9 1.0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0.00 2.00
4/11 2.0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0.00 0.50
4/13 1.7 2 4 0 1 1 3 0.00 1.76
4/19 2.0 1 0 0 0 0 2 0.00 0.50
4/23 1.7 1 1 0 0 3 0 0.00 2.35
4/27 1.3 4 3 3 0 1 1 20.77 3.85
4/30 1.0 2 0 0 0 0 1 0.00 2.00
5/6 1.0 3 4 4 2 1 0 36.00 4.00
5/9 2.3 3 1 1 0 1 2 3.91 1.74
5/16 1.0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0.00 1.00
5/19 1.0 3 2 2 1 1 1 18.00 4.00
5/20 1.3 2 2 2 0 1 0 13.85 2.31
Totals 21.3 27 17 12 4 13 13 5.06 1.88

Since April 13, Detwiler has seen three instances where he hasn’t been brought into a game for at least six days (4/13-4/19, 4/30-5/6, 5/9-5/16).  Like people in all walks of life*, relief pitchers need their reps. While you’d like to think that Detwiler is staying fresh, it’s got to be harder for him to stay sharp given that he isn’t getting regular work.

*I don’t know if any of you can tell that I haven’t been writing regularly for the past few years, but I sure can!

If you can’t see why Detwiler isn’t getting regular work, let’s see what we can pull from that Game Log:

  • Detwiler actually got off to a decent start this season. It’s hard to imagine this is true when we look back at his recent results, but he didn’t allow a run in his first four appearances. He did tiptoe his way through a two inning, five baserunner appearance on April 5 without allowing a run. He also walked at least one batter in each of those first four outings. Still, four scoreless outings to begin the year...
  • That fifth outing is where the wheels first came off. Detwiler allowed four runs (all unearned… Desmond made an error with 1 out.  Det retired the next hitter.  Then came a double, a walk, and a three run homer in Atlanta.  Since all four runs scored with two outs, none were earned). He would still pitch twice more before allowing his first earned run of the year, but the damage was done.
  • Williams responded to the poor outing in Atlanta by not using him for six days. As mentioned above, Williams has gone six days or more without using Detwiler on three occasions in the past five weeks.  While some in the fanbase have used this as an example of Williams not giving him an opportunity to find himself, I present this as some food for thought... Detwiler is used to pitching every five days, so maybe Williams is thinking that using him as if he's on that regular "starter's rest" could help to get him going.  Not much else seems to be working.
  • Detwiler has walked at least one batter in eleven of fourteen appearances. Given that he hasn’t recorded more than seven outs in any appearance, that’s mind-blowing!
  • Detwiler has allowed at least one hit in twelve of fourteen appearances. Also mind-blowing given how brief the outings have been!

Given the Game Log at the top, it’s hard to fault Williams for his infrequent use of Detwiler. You would like to see him try and get Detwiler into games more often so that he can hopefully find his rhythm, but there are only so many situations where it’s sound reasoning to bring in a pitcher who is performing as Detwiler has so far this season. He’s walked at least one batter in 78.5% of his appearances!  He’s allowed 27 hits, 9 of which have gone for extra bases, in just 21 innings of work! He just hasn't even been moderately effective, so why should Williams use him unless he doesn't have any other options?

MOAR BULLET POINTS!

  • Opposing hitters have a triple-slash line of .321/.416/.512 against him in 2014.
  • For reference, five hitters that qualified for the batting title in 2013 hit .321 or better.
  • Four hitters that qualified for the batting title in 2013 had an OBP of .416 or better in 2013.
  • Eleven hitters that qualified for the batting title in 2013 slugged .512 or better last season.

Regardless of who he’s facing right now, Detwiler is turning them into an elite hitter. The problem isn’t with Williams… It’s with Detwiler. There's no way to sugarcoat it.

Psychology

I’m not a shrink. I can’t say how much Detwiler has let the change in roles affect him. His demeanor on the mound hasn’t looked great, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a problem with him accepting his role. He’s struggling. He’s not stupid… He knows that. Sometimes things just snowball, and the problem could be more that he knows he hasn’t been pitching well than that he’s not being used often enough. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this because it’s nothing that can be tangibly measured. While this is what everyone wants to know (what’s wrong???), it’s probably better left for a sports psychologist.

Embracing The Role/What Should The Role Be?

The Nats’ bullpen obviously already has plenty of guys in defined roles. Rafael Soriano is set as the closer. Tyler Clippard is penciled in as the primary setup man. Drew Storen fits in as a secondary setup man. Though Jerry Blevins has shown an ability in the past to get both left-handed and right-handed hitters out, he’s the primary situational lefty (we can call him the LOOGY if that’s what you prefer). Craig Stammen is the Swiss Army Knife that can handle setup duties if Clippard or Storen have been overworked, but can also throw multiple innings and work as the long man. Ryan Mattheus and Aaron Barrett are middle relievers who really don’t have defined roles. So where does Detwiler fit in?

For right now, he’s generally the last guy out of the bullpen. His (no doubt intended) use out of the bullpen in Monday’s 15 inning loss illustrates some of the reasoning behind that. In case of a lengthy extra inning game, it can be wise to hold a reliever capable of working multiple innings back until you’ve expired your other options. This is simply because you don’t want to blow out all of your actual pitchers and have to throw a position player out there. If that game had gone 19 innings, Detwiler would probably still have been pitching.

In my estimation, Detwiler was also used properly on Tuesday, though he didn't completely do his job…. Since there were some groans in Tuesday’s game thread when Williams sent Detwiler out for a second inning, let’s elaborate on a reasonable thought process that probably led to his return in the ninth.

Detwiler entered the game in the eighth inning with a 9-2 lead a day after the club had played a 15 inning game the previous night. Detwiler pitched the 15th inning of that game, but the Nats used every reliever in the bullpen outside of Stammen and Blevins.  As a pitcher who threw out of the rotation last season, Detwiler’s job Tuesday was to throw two innings, complete the game, and save the rest of the (tired) bullpen.  Stammen will be the long man (if necessary) tomorrow. Det threw a scoreless eighth (despite walking a man with a seven run lead), and many in the game thread were overjoyed.

The same crowd groaned when he came back out for the ninth, saying that Williams should have used that scoreless inning to help build his confidence*. He recorded one more out around a ringing double to the gap, a hit batsman (again… free baserunner with a huge lead), and a bloop single before Williams had to trot out to the mound and bring Mattheus on to record the final two outs. Oh.... Det also threw in a wild pitch for good measure.

*Sorry… Side rant - Isn’t this what you want?  You say that Detwiler needs a defined role. The people complaining about him not being given a chance to find that role and/or work regularly want that defined role.  His role, as a pitcher who was a starter last season, is to come in and handle multiple innings and keep the Nats from having to use the bullpen pieces mentioned above in games where they shouldn’t be necessary… such as a 9-2 game in the eighth inning.

There was nothing wrong with how Williams handled this. He went to a reliever capable of throwing multiple innings (which, aside from the fact that they can’t send him to the minors without clearing waivers, is the reason that Detwiler is in the bullpen) in a situation where his job was to finish off a game with a big lead and save the rest of the bullpen.  He gave Detwiler a chance to try and find that groove that many are complaining that he can’t find by getting Detwiler right back out there after Monday’s disappointing loss. Detwiler didn’t do the job.

What Should The Organizational Plan Be Moving Forward?

Given that Detwiler is out of minor league options, there are only a few choices here. Let’s look at them one by one.

Status Quo: Keep Running Him Out There And Hope He Turns Things Around

This strategy can obviously only last for so long, and it may not yield the results that the Nats hope for. We’ve seen enough out of Detwiler in the past to know that he’s better than he’s shown so far this season, but the underlying numbers this season don’t necessarily indicate that he’s going to turn things around. His BABIP (.329) and HR/FB rate (13.8%) are both high, but his 5.48 BB/9 and 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio say that he’s getting himself into plenty of trouble even without that poor luck.  His FIP of 6.41 is still well above his ERA of 5.06, which suggests that there’s no guarantee that his ERA is going to improve.

Try To Clear Him Through Waivers

We can say with a fair degree of certainty that another team would pluck him off waivers. While teams are unlikely to offer much for Detwiler in a trade right now, it's a completely different scenario when teams have a chance to pick up a player who has performed as well as Detwiler has in the past for free (OK… simply for the money owed to him). As there is enough of a chance that Detwiler could recuperate some value either as a useful asset in the Nationals organization or boost his trade value enough so that dealing him would be worthwhile, this option doesn’t really make sense. Since Detwiler is out of options, the Nats would need him to clear waivers before assigning him to (presumably) Syracuse.  It’s not going to happen.... So there goes the dream of sending him to the minors to find himself.

Trade Him

Let me preface this by saying that my background as a writer comes from writing about fantasy baseball. One of the biggest things that you always need to remember as a fantasy writer (and owner) is that you buy low and sell high.  As is the case with relievers needing their reps (it applies in all walks of life), that same buy low/sell high premise applies to real baseball.

In other words, it’s easy to say that the Nats should trade Detwiler, but it’s also impossible to imagine his value ever being lower than it is right now. In the preseason, Mike Rizzo may have found a club that wanted to add a relatively cheap starting pitcher (yes… $3 million is cheap) with another year of club control in 2015. Despite the recent rash of pitching injuries around the league, it’s difficult to imagine the Nats getting much in return for Detwiler in a trade at the moment.  His performance so far this season has severely hampered his trade value.

No contender (the teams that are more likely to try and acquire help from outside of their organization to replace an injured starter) is going to have very much interest in Detwiler the way that he's pitching right now. Even if they do have interest, they wouldn't be willing to pay what they would have a month ago. Selling him low is a poor move organizationally, even if it would likely improve the bullpen in the short-term (with whomever they would bring up from AAA to replace him). While a trade may be the best option both for the Nationals and for Detwiler, now isn't the time to do so.

Use The Gio Gonzalez Injury To Showcase Him

There could be an argument that Gio Gonzalez hitting the disabled list presents the Nationals with the perfect opportunity to showcase him for a trade, but they’ve already announced that Blake Treinen will take Gio's turn on Thursday. Given that Detwiler has now thrown 53 pitches in the past two nights, it’s clear that he wouldn’t be an option for Thursday anyway.  Gio is eligible to return from the DL on June 2, so even if he’s ready to return right away, there will be at least one (maybe two) starts that the Nats could give to Detwiler instead. While I emphasize above that both his performance and his arsenal suggest that he fits best as a reliever, he would likely garner far more interest on the trade market if he managed to have a couple of successful starts.

So What Should They Do?  Will Det Get Better?

Let’s answer the second question first. Despite what FIP tells me, he’s liable to get better simply because it would be difficult for Detwiler to perform worse than he has so far this season. If he’s having trouble adjusting to life as a reliever, there are a handful of guys (as mentioned above) who he sees every day that have transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen.  Maybe they can help him change his routine and pitch more effectively out of the bullpen. If it really is that he’s having trouble accepting that he’s a reliever now, it’s time to grow up and act like the professional ballplayer that he is. Three other members of that bullpen have done that.

While I do believe that the remainder of Detwiler’s career is better spent as a bullpen arm than a starter (unless he mysteriously develops a better third offering), I view Gio’s injury as a potential blessing that the Nats may fail to take advantage of. I feel that the Nats' best course of action is to let him make a couple of starts while Gio is injured, cross their fingers, and hope that he treats it as an audition for one of the handful of teams that are looking for rotation help.

It’s more likely than not that a change of scenery would do Detwiler some good at this point, and Mike Rizzo could hope that a couple of strong starts could get them $.75 on the dollar in a trade instead of the nickel they’d be looking at if they tried to trade him today. Given that the Nats have Stammen (long man) and Blevins (lefty specialist) in the bullpen, Detwiler is a redundant piece for them that is probably worth more to the organization as a trade chip (if he can recuperate his value) than he is in the big league bullpen.

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