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Rip Van Winkle's Worst Nightmare

I spent perhaps ninety seconds flipping through the unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary collecting dust here on my office bookshelf looking for a word descriptive of our Washington Nationals, specifically the bullpen.  I settled for a noun, ghorkhar.

Ghorkhar (noun):  a wild ass of northwestern India believed to be identical with the onager.

I spent no further time on the project, and, consequently, have no idea what an onager is.  Ghorkhar seemed sufficient to me at the time, however, what with its definition's reference to a "wild ass."

A wild ass:  that's the Nationals bullpen.  Or, if you prefer to express the thought as a pseudo-adjective, the Nats have a wild-ass bullpen.

At the close of Monday's action, Washington's bullpen had issued 60 walks in 105 innings pitched.  (All of these stats are through Monday on account of laziness.) Even keeping in mind that the average pen doesn't have a sterling collective walk rate and that Nats relievers have pitched far more innings so far than the average pen, this is absurd. 

Take a quick scan at the roster, and tell me who you would trust to enter the game in a tight spot and throw some quality strikes.  Biemel, I'll grant you.  (Or I would grant you, prior to Tuesday's action.)  Hanrahan and Villone so far, though this early performance is in significant tension with their career numbers.  (And there's also a lingering issue of whether Hanrahan can be trusted in a tight spot, period.)  Other than those guys, who remains?  Tavarez, Mock, the Kipster, and Kensing.  Nope, nope, nope, and you have got to be kidding me.  A decent walk rate is the foundation of a pitcher's reliability, and the Nationals bullpen lacks a foundation.

That's not so bad, you might begin to suggest, because maybe the bullpen is designed to live life on the edge, to go max-effort and throw a goodly share of smoke past opposition bats, too.  The Rickey Wild Thing Vaughan Method to Bullpen Management, we could call it.  Maybe the Rob Dibble one, come to think of it.

No.  Washington's bullpen has fanned 6.94 guys per nine innings, the second lowest rate in the National League; only Colorado's relievers have a lower strikeout rate, but, thanks to some preternatural control, they also have the best bullpen strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league.  Nationals relievers are next to last in that category, too, ahead of only Pittsburgh, which hardly counts as existing.  So when Nationals relievers are on the mound, it's kind of a situation where the plate appearance ends with a walk or with the baseball put in play somewhere.

About that last part: opponents are slugging .438 against Nationals relievers.  At least that's not the second worst figure in the league too; it's third worst.  Opponents are batting .280/.374/.438 against Washington's bullpen, good for an 812 OPS.  Whenever a Nats reliever faces an opposing batter, the opposing batter might as well be the average National League first baseman offensively, for all the good our reliever will do.

Toss out the misfires of Madman Mike Hinckley and Sad Saul Rivera, just to be fair, and things might look a little better, but not appreciatively so.  One of their replacements, Logan Kensing, has managed to combine all the ghorkharishisness of Hinckley with all the hittability of Rivera, without adding the ability to strike out enemy combatants imbued in, say, a viable big league pitcher.

Maybe ghorhkar, while providing adequate wild ass coverage, misses the entire scope of outlandish suck-o-rama that is the Nationals bullpen.  I suppose I should have searched longer for a better word.

* * * *

Even without the benefit of 30 or so games of retrospection, it hardly seems possible that any sane man, even Jim Bowden, could have looked at this simpering collective of relievers and thought, "Yeah, that'll work."  Well, maybe if the middle word were italicized to indicate some sarcasm, like, "Yeah, that'll work."  But I don't think even Bodes constructed rosters for scats and giggles, and I'd imagine that Mike Rizzo sure doesn't.  I'm not as up on the blogging scene as I used to be, but I'd imagine every reader here would say that four out of five Nats bloggers stranded on a desert island would have chosen Advil over Tylenol for their headaches, and would have foreseen that their headaches were caused by Washington's bullpen.

And so we watch as the Nats cope.  It's a strange thing, but even a mere 30 or so games into the season, we have long-gone relievers whose residual roster presences have waned to faint whispers:  "Steve Shell - weren't we upset that he was sent out, or was that some other guy?" and "Wil Ledezma - he pitched for us?  Oh, yeah . . ."  I would say that Kensing will soon be one of those guys, but he's done too much psychic damage.  Wait till August on that one.  In the meantime, guys will come, and guys will go.  Things will seem pretty okay for a game or two or three at a time as the bleeding ceases, but the tissue has to come off the proverbial shaving cut eventually.  And so, say, Kip Wells might put out a fire one night and put the first two guys on base on eight pitches the next night.

I'm afraid I have no fancy solution devised for this problem.  Citing fancy Fangraphs numbers seems like overkill, and there's nothing much to report on the PitchfX front other than the standard-issue "Throw strikes!  No, no, no throw better strikes!" kind of admonitions.  There's no (non-Strasburgian) kid on the farm who will make things better now, hopefully none of the Nationals Journal commenters waiving Strasburg-for-Closer!!!111!!! signs is a sock puppet for Mike Rizzo, and, if you're going to keep Daniel Cabrera around, you might as well take advantage of the lonely fact that he can throw 90 pitches every five days without hurting himself.  The days of pondering whether Cabrera could be transitioned into a fireballing eighth inning guy seem to be as pathetically antiquated as the days of Bob Carpenter wondering what would happen if Wily Mo could just gettaholdaone.  There's no white knight on the horizon, and, unless you magnify Joe Biemel's impact by a factor of "Bruce Sutter, 1978," there's never been one.

* * * *

Ultimately, what we're left with are questions of convenience.  Would you rather bite your fingernails as Julian Tavarez tries to pitch out of this first-and-third, one-out jam, or Mike MacDougal?  Would you rather watch Garrett Mock desperately try to bridge this see-saw affair through the fifth inning, or Jason Bergmann?  Would you rather trust Joel Hanrahan try to nail down this game, or Kip Wells?  Or Tavarez?  Or Biemel?  Or Villone?  Or maybe Jesus Colome?  The answers to these questions might depend greatly upon what happened the night before.  Like McCormick & Schmick's, I suppose, it's the fresh approach.

Whatever direction the Nats go from here with their bullpen in 2009, it won't be good, it won't be fun even to those with the most peculiar of sensation-seeking predispositions, and it might not even be bad in an interesting way.  But we can at least root for bad and interesting, I suppose.

* * * *

An observation:  I don't know if it's intentional, but it seems as though Rizzo is looking for relievers who can (to use the colloquialism) "miss bats," accepting that this often comes at the cost of control.  The Bergmann-for-Kensing flip a few weeks ago seems illustrative of this.  Bergmann has, on the whole, a decent strikeout and walk record, nothing too special either way.  Kensing has basically whiffed a batter per inning in his major league career, but his control has bordered on deplorable.

Kensing became available, and along he came, joining relievers with similarly high walk and strikeout rates.  Hanrahan, we remember from last year.  Mock fanned a lot of guys out of the bullpen last year, though he also had a high walk rate.  Tavarez had a strikeout rate resurgence last season (although he posted a bad ERA).  Wells has posted pretty good strikeout rates for a starter, but control's always been a problem.  Villone, who became a reliever earlier in his career, has the same general history.  And so forth.

Maybe it's a pretty decent approach, given the outfield could be Willingham-Dukes-Dunn any time one of these guys is on the mound, but it hasn't worked.  Monday night's disaster in San Francisco provides an example.  Cabrera was walking the house after Willingham's misplay, and Kensing promptly perpetuated the damage.  When your pitchers issue five straight walks, it seems sort of hollow to reflect that the first one was intentional and the last one was surrendered by the dude relieving your ghorking starter.

Mind you, I have no idea what else to propose at this point beyond joining the Why they gotta play Bergmann like that, dawg? crowd.  This isn't to say that Bergmann's any great shakes, but he at least deserves the right to fight off the burgeoning Brad Bergesen as the best B-E-R-G of this decade.  Bergmann is like a four on the Ghorkhar Scale, whereas most of the guys in the current Nationals pen are like sixes or sevens at least.  That's pretty much what Colome and MacDougal have been throughout their careers, and rumor has it they're the next guys up.  Oh well.  Maybe Tyler Clippard has matured into a league average reliever. Godspeed.

* * * *

The other observation to be made here is on how this mess has affected Manny Acta's ability to assign the cutesy little bullpen roles that he loves to assign.  I'm referring to stuff like "Jon Rauch: Eighth Inning Guy" for a squad like the '07 Nationals - which, while a nice surprise (thanks in no small part to the effectiveness of the Rauch-Cordero late-game combo, one must acknowledge), still only won 73 games.  Acta, one of the newer and younger managers in the game, seems to consider something like the "eighth inning guy" as a quasi-discrete role necessary in today's baseball.

That's the only way to explain his handling of Luis Ayala last season, which, from afar, seemed a lot like the managerial equivalent of striking a hammer to your shins repeatedly.  Don't let Phil Wood see this post, because I'm going to criticize Manny briefly here.  Only in April did Ayala pitch particularly well, and he otherwise pitched poorly, and particularly poor at some particularly inopportune times.  Yet, he had succeeded Rauch as the eighth inning guy, so the eighth inning was his pretty much up to the point that he went to the Mets.  Ayala made 62 appearances with the Nats, 43 of which began in the eighth inning.  This was a very bad team with pretty bad starters who were very bad at getting deep into games, yet Acta still all but reserved one pitcher for the eighth inning in the overwhelming majority of his appearances, and a bad pitcher at that.

But this year is not last year, and this year the Nats don't even have a guy to this point whom Acta can trust as the closer.  This mess more or less means that "roles" go out the window.  Although I find some displeasure in the cause (terrible, erratic, unreliable relief pitching), the effect of moving away from such rigid bullpen roles pleases me for some reason.  It throws out the closer role (which I grudgingly accept), the eighth inning role (which I detest to this point), and even the LOOGY role (which is fun in name, but ultra-limiting even when executed well).  At this point, it looks like Acta's just going to go with whatever the hot had is at the time to close out games, and, as for the eighth inning role, it's hard to detect much of a pattern at all:  Tavarez, Biemel, Hanrahan, Wells, whatevs.  Yay!

Please understand that I don't think throwing spaghetti up against the bullpen wall makes the team better.  It simply means the relievers' stat lines might look a little more what they would've looked like when baseball was awesome in the 1980s and I was a kid.  We could have a reliever with 12 saves, another with eight, another with seven, and so forth.  Some of our relievers might actually average something appreciably over an inning per appearance - or at least they would if they didn't suck, requiring Manny to go to the parade-of-relievers approach for survival purposes (rather than match-up purposes).  Fun!

Okay, not fun, but at least a little bit different.  That, or Kip Wells somehow racks up 28 saves with a 3.35 ERA.

Either way, though, we're pretty much ghorked.