I'm sure something like this has happened before in baseball history, you know, but it's not like you could easily look it up. There's no system that can really capture what Jason Bergmann is doing, no online search able to express "Low minors starter, converted to relief, given a few spot starts, forgotten, left behind, made rotation due to injury, one horrible start, on brink of big league extinction, steady progression of quality starts thereafter including near no-hitter" simply enough. Bergmann's most similar players at Baseball Reference are of no assistance, because he has none. Bergmann's PECOTA comparables over at Baseball Prospectus are also of precious little assistance, not because he doesn't have any but because they're a hodgepodge of career relievers with a bizarro Dustin Hermanson or Jay Hook reference thrown in.
I'm certain something like this has happened before, but I'm without a frame of reference. Bergmann throws one good start, and you want to wait for the next one. He goes for two in a row, and you want to see him put on the trifecta. He goes three or four in a row, and you want to see more. He struggles in a start, relatively speaking, and you nod and comment that there it is. But then you remember that the goalposts for Bergmann's struggles have shifted radically; six innings of three-run ball would have once been a miracle, but now it's a sign of cracks and fissures and impending doom? And it's at that point you realize this Bergmann might stick around for awhile, not only owing to this patchwork rotation but, more to the point, because he's arrived.
Bergmann made his professional debut in 2002 at short-season Vermont. He made 14 successsful starts, going 7-4 with a 2.89 ERA. Although I don't have in my possession a contemporaneous appraisal of his performance, I would imagine this 2002 season is an instance where scouting and retrospective statistical evaluation might diverge. Bergmann surrendered only 48 hits in 71.2 innings, which could yield an interpretation that he overpowered the league's hitters. That may be, but he also yielded a .218 batting average on balls in play. I don't want to overdo the significance of this figure, but I will note it wasn't nearly this low for the next year-and-a-half as a starter. Bergmann struck out 57 batters and walked 33, a figure that was too high for comfort but not alarmingly so.
The next season, Bergmann was assigned to Savannah, where he made 22 starts (and one relief appearance) and went 6-11, 4.29 in 109 innings. His hits allowed rate flattened out to even, and he walked 53 batters while striking out 82. I would imagine Bergmann was granted little if any credit for this performance, as his control was not nearly fine enough for him to progress up the organizational ladder.
Bergmann repeated at Savannah for half of 2004, doing pretty much what he did the previous season. He was then promoted to High-A Brevard County, but as a reliever, and I believe this conversion marked his first step toward the big leagues. Although his control was even a little more wobbly, Bergmann gassed past enough hitters to post a 1.14 ERA and earn a quick look at Double-A Harrisburg.
Bergmann started 2005 at Harrisburg and by June established himself as the team's fast-tracker in the bullpen. He lowered his walk rate somewhat, struck out a batter per inning for the first time, and zoomed up to Triple-A New Orleans. Bergmann's first taste of the Pacific Coast League saw him surrender five homers in 37 innings, but he kept striking out batters and had improved his control to the point where he was fanning three guys for every one free pass. It was on to the big leagues, where Bergmann made 14 relief appearances and one truly strange start for the team's September kitchen-sink rotation.
We pretty much know Bergmann's history from here, although we might not know it as much as we think we do. Last season at New Orleans, Bergmann continued crafting himself into a pitcher, although mostly in relief. In 60.2 innings down there, he posted a 3.28 ERA and retained a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio while again striking out more than a batter per inning. Bergmann's recall, which included emergency rotation duty, was disasterous. He was knocked around for a 6.68 ERA. But, even if well after the fact, I wish to point out two things about that experience:
- Bergmann surrendered a very high rate of home runs, much higher than previous performance with the exception of those 37 innings at New Orleans in 2005; and
- Bergmann's opponent batting average on balls in play shot way up.
Yet, here he is, almost 50 innings into the season with a 2.75 ERA. Can he sustain this? Well, I'm tired of doubting him. I'm not going to scrutinize the tiny numbers too much, but I do want to point one thing out:
What this table represents is how often the Nationals' defense converts to outs batted balls in play, as expressed for each of the Nats' main starting pitchers so far this season. I didn't put the numbers in order, but I did put Bergmann's at the top, which is the point of the exercise. Eighty-two percent of balls put in play when he's on the mound have been converted to outs, a far better rate than for the other four guys. (Team-wide, the Nats have a defensive efficiency rating of .720, meaning 72 percent of balls in play have been converted to outs. This is a good figure, rating fourth in the National League.)
Of course, when a guy has made only eight starts and one of them is a near no-hitter (two hits in eight-plus innings), pointing out he's given up relatively few hits as a percentage of any measure is itself something of a tautology. But this kind of thing probably bears watching; just as you can say the BABIP bug bit him in the butt to some extent last season, he's getting the benefit of the bargain this time around, big-time. Take another look at the BABIP graph. Two factors look like contributors to Bergmann's success -- not exclusively so, but contributors nonetheless:
- Bergmann's groundball rate, which has increased three percent from last season (not really a factor in lowering the BABIP, but certainly a home run rate factor); and
- his line drive rate, which has been sliced in half and now sits at 12.3%.
But don't take this as dumping all over Bergmann's great performance, not in the least. He has been great, and let's savor that. We were told this season was going to be used to sort out who could be counted on going forward and who couldn't. That seems pretty hilarious when the Opening Day rotation features a guy like Jason Bergmann -- hilarious, that is, until you realize the fellow can really pitch some baseball. At what point do we start thinking this guy could be a solid rotation contributor next year and beyond? Probably not quite yet, but we're on the path there.
Which reminds me: I was wrong. I had advocated signing a veteran innings-eater like Ramon Ortiz, just . . . well, just because. Someone had to log some innings, right? Well, wrong. All it takes is one Ramon Ortiz to get in the way of a Jason Bergmann or two. So, yeah, stay the course.
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I want to get to this very quickly, more quickly than I should, but the Nats optioned Kory Casto to Columbus. That's fine; they have that flexibility. But I don't really understand what they're doing with him. They're giving him regular playing time again, but wasn't this the routine last time? Didn't he fix something in his swing while at Columbus? It's great that the team has won a few in a row with Robert Fick at first base, but let's be real here. Either Casto is the organization's best advanced hitting prospect, or he isn't. Sooner or later, we'll have to find out.