The Nationals bullpen was very good last year, and though some members have struggled so far this year, it remains pretty decent. It is currently tied with the Phillies and the Yankees in fWAR for 5th in the majors. It has pitched 38.2 innings (6th in majors), and has a record of 2-2 with 3 saves. Opponents are batting just .214 when facing the guardians of the Curly W.
Unfortunately, nobody is perfect, and the Nationals bullpen has its share of bad eggs right now. You may have heard the names Chad Gaudin, Todd Coffey and Brian Broderick tossed around a lot lately. The discussion seems to be centered around how fast these players can be kicked off the team, with some grace given to Broderick for being young and inexperienced. Each of the three has shown promise, and each at times has melted down completely. Come take a deeper look at each of the three so that next time you get involved in a debate on the subject, you can make an informed argument.
Chad Gaudin - "The man who should never have made the team"
Gaudin has pitched 5.1 innings and has earned a 6.75 ERA. He has struck out a team high 13.50 batters per nine, while also walking a team high 8.44 per nine innings. The Ks are nice, but not enough reason to keep that kind of production on the team.
Is there any argument for why Gaudin should stay on the team? Yes, Gaudin is simply not this bad of a pitcher. His career ERA - 4.63 mirrors his career xFIP - 4.64. Gaudin's 2011 xFIP through his first outings is 4.91, indicating that despite the high walk rate the ERA isn't entirely his fault. Looking at the numbers, Gaudin has been hard by the bad luck bug so far. Opponents BABIP so far stands at .467. His GB% is a ludicrously low 26.7% (vs 43% career average).
Expect Gaudin to improve. Both his walk rate and his strikeout rate are uncharacteristically high. Perhaps someone can tell us whether Gaudin is pitching strictly to avoid contact right now, hence the strikeouts and walks. His luck can hardly get worse, and hence will get better if given time. (yeah, jinx)
Todd Coffey - "His cup runneth over"
Coffey has pitched 4.1 innings and sports a 6.23 ERA. He brings a 4.15 K/9 and a 6.23 BB/9 to the table. At face value, these numbers are very comparable to what Gaudin has put up. Should he stay or should he go?
Coffey's career numbers are better than Gaudin's, with a 4.18 ERA and a 3.95 xFIP. His xFIP in recent years has stayed below 4.00, a promise of good things to come. Unfortunately, Coffey's 2011 xFIP is 6.16, which mirrors his actual ERA. Worse, luck has favored Coffey so far. Opponents have batted just .214 against Coffey.
What appears to be missing is Coffey's control. He is striking out fewer and walking far more batters than history suggest he should. Until/unless he turns his stuff around, he has no place in a high pressure situation. Gaudin may be struggling, but he can still strike people out. Coffey has nothing but luck to rely on, and even that hasn't helped him much so far.
Brian Broderick - "The 5th Rule of Fight Club is..."
Broderick has pitched 3.1 innings and carries around a 16.20 ERA. His 2.70 K/9 rate is the team low, and his BB/9 rate is 5.40. Broderick has never pitched above AA before, so it may be necessary to cut him some slack regarding what is expected of him.
Like Coffey, Broderick is struggling with his control. Nothing in his minor league numbers suggest that he tends to a high walk rate, even if he struggles to strike out major league pitching. That said, his xFIP currently stands at 7.87, so while his ERA is decidedly inflated, his performance so far has no place on a major league roster.
Any argument for keeping Broderick on the roster is based on potential future performance at the major league level. It may be a gamble worth making, but it is certainly a big gamble with little hope of benefit to the team in 2011.
Changes are coming to the Nationals bullpen in the near future.
That much is simply unavoidable, with Henry Rodriguez on his way back from injury. At least one member of the Nationals bullpen is going to lose their job, and barring an injury, these three guys are the candidates. A good argument can be made for getting rid of any one of these three. A good argument can be made for keeping any one of these three.
If I had to make the call right now, Broderick would be the first to get the boot, much as I like his promise. The two veterans need a chance to turn things around, and I believe both can and will if they are given that chance. How much of a chance and how long of a leash? I'll leave that decision to someone who works with something other than stats from a few innings of work.
All three need to improve if they want to hold onto their jobs, and I think the Nationals are confident that they will. Gaudin clearly shows a lot of promise, and Broderick's meltdown is not entirely surprising, leaving Coffey as the only true disappointment so far. Give each of these men another four innings to pitch, and we may be having an entirely different conversation.
Wisdom dictates that you should never base your conclusion of a small sample of data, but that data is there and it tells us something worth paying attention to. A week from now it will be worth revisiting the data to see who is conforming to what history suggests, and who is breaking out of the box we've put them into.
Keep your eyes on these three. Expect them to go down fighting, and in all likelihood one of them will surprise us yet.