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Is it time for the Nats to move Blake Treinen to the bullpen?

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Position battles? Welp... there really aren't any. Let's find something else to talk about! Blake Treinen did a tremendous job as a starter last season when Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez were on the disabled list, but his best chance to make a contribution in 2015 seems to be out of the bullpen.

Blake Treinen was invaluable to the Nats last season as a replacement starter.  His best path to the big leagues this season seems to be in the bullpen, though.
Blake Treinen was invaluable to the Nats last season as a replacement starter. His best path to the big leagues this season seems to be in the bullpen, though.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Nats have played their first few games in the Grapefruit League, so the buzz about baseball being back is upon us.  That will last for about three or four more days before we realize that they don't play a regular season game that actually counts for another month.  There's always some excitement during March about rookies or prospects (Michael Taylor, Wilmer Difo, and A.J. Cole anyone?) to keep us interested while we wait for the calendar to flip to April and the games to count.  Most of the time, there are at least one or two position battles to keep an eye on.  This year, there just aren't that many battles to look forward to....

  • The starting rotation runs six deep.  Tanner Roark has been moved to the bullpen, and would be in the rotation of any other team in the majors.  Even if there is a starter who implodes or suffers an injury, Roark will just slide into the vacated spot.
  • The starting lineup seems to be set, though I can't say just how strong Yunel Escobar's hold is on the full-time starting job at second base.  Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth (when healthy), Denard Span, and Bryce Harper aren't going to be challenged for playing time because someone has a big March.
  • Most of the bench appears to be set.  We can say for certain that Jose Lobaton, Kevin Frandsen, Nate McLouth, and (probably) Danny Espinosa will be starting the season on the big league roster.  The fifth outfield spot could see some competition between Tyler Moore and Michael Taylor, but even that has a clear front-runner (Moore is out of minor league options... Taylor is probably better served getting regular at bats in AAA than sitting on the big league bench).
  • Even the bullpen would appear to be set.  Drew Storen, Casey Janssen, Craig Stammen, Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, and Tanner Roark all look to be locks to start the upcoming season with the big club.  It's also hard to imagine the club leaving Aaron Barrett off the roster after a strong rookie season (2.66 ERA, 2.59 FIP).
Basically, while Spring Training tends to feel like it's too long every year, this March has the potential to be really tedious for Nats fans.  Actually, we should hope that this is a boring preseason (just stay healthy!), because this is a loaded roster that should make the postseason for the third time in four years.  The lack of position battles means that I'll have to find some other things to talk about during this long March.  We'll start today with a look at Blake Treinen's best shot at making an impact on the big league club in 2015.

2014 Overview

Season Team W L SV IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2014 Syracuse 8 2 0 80.2 7.14 2.23 0.45 .300 70.5% 3.35 3.31
2014 Nationals 2 3 0 50.2 5.33 2.31 0.18 .333 77.9% 59.3% 3.1% 2.49 3.09 3.62 0.6

Blake Treinen was a useful asset for the big league club last season as a replacement starter when Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez hit the disabled list.  In seven starts with the big club, Treinen threw 36 innings with a 3.00 ERA, a 3.60 FIP, and a 1.31 WHIP.  He allowed three runs or fewer in six of those seven starts, giving the Nats hope that he may have a future as a member of their rotation.  He made eight more appearances out of the bullpen in 2014, posting a 1.23 ERA, a 1.84 FIP, and a 1.57 WHIP in a ridiculously small 14.2 inning sample.  He also had a strong campaign working exclusively as a starter in Syracuse, finishing with a 3.35 ERA (3.31 FIP) and a terrific 64:20 strikeout to walk ratio in 80 innings.

Repertoire

Treinen does throw four pitches (four seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup), but he relied very heavily on the sinker in the majors last season.  Using data from Brooks Baseball, let's look at how often he threw each of his pitches last season.  I only have data for his time pitching in the major leagues.

Pitch Type Four Seam FB Sinker Changeup Slider
Total Thrown 57 523 46 104
Percentage 7.8% 71.6% 6.3% 14.2%


For starters, we can probably assume that a handful of sinkers were actually categorized as four seam fastballs last season.  His velocity on the two pitches is nearly identical and sometimes the sinker just doesn't move like it's supposed to.  At any rate, we'll note that he threw the sinker 71.6% of the time.  His sinker is fantastic, and he should be throwing it frequently.  It burns worms with great velocity and tremendous movement.  Still, 71.6% of the time is high even considering that many pitchers work off of the fastball.  For reference, 57.7% of all pitches in MLB last season were categorized as fastballs.

Based on pitch selection, Treinen and his catchers seem to feel most comfortable about his slider as his best secondary offering.  He threw more sliders in the majors last season than changeups and four-seam fastballs combined.  The slider still isn't a great pitch for him, but it appears to be a better weapon than the changeup is at this point in time.  His splits alone (we'll look at those in a bit) would seem to verify this, as a slider tends to be a stronger weapon against same-handed hitters because it breaks away from them.  There are two questions that must be asked here:
  1. If he continues to work on the changeup, is there a likelihood that it will turn into at least an average big league offering?
  2. Is there a higher likelihood that if he scraps the changeup and works harder on refining his slider, that pitch can become a plus big league offering?
If the answer to the first question is yes, then they should continue to work him as a starter for as long as possible.  There's an argument to be made that they should do this anyway, since I subscribe to the theory that young pitchers should continue to start until they show you that they can't.  His performance in both Syracuse and Washington last season certainly didn't prove that he can't start.  The one thing that he didn't really do consistently enough was miss bats.  Eliminating his third offering and spending more time making the other one a better weapon to complement his sinker could help in that regard.

Of course, that brings us to what most two pitch pitchers become.... relievers.  Pitchers who only throw two (plus) pitches can be dominant in short bursts because of the strength of their offerings.  Hitters are generally only going to see them once a game, so a good scouting report isn't really going to give them the type of edge that seeing a pitcher earlier in the game will.  However, these types of pitchers often tend to struggle the second or third time through the order, since big league hitters are tremendous at making adjustments.  With less of a repertoire to work with, those pitchers simply don't have as many tools at their disposal to change their plan of attack.

Of course, this doesn't mean that Treinen couldn't always have the changeup in his back pocket.  Just because he doesn't continue to develop it wouldn't mean that he would completely forget how to throw it.  It likely wouldn't be particularly effective, but it could still be a pitch he throws once in a blue moon to keep hitters off balance.  By throwing more focus to his sinker and slider, he could likely tick up at least a half grade on the slider and give himself a more effective second weapon against big league hitters.

Splits

vs. RHH AB BA OBP SLG OPS BB SO
2011 59 .153 .194 .186 .380 3 19
2012 200 .250 .300 .395 .695 11 46
2013 252 .238 .270 .290 .559 9 55
2014 281 .231 .284 .274 .558 18 64
vs. LHH AB BA OBP SLG OPS BB SO
2011 52 .269 .345 .385 .729 5 17
2012 218 .303 .338 .477 .815 12 46
2013 231 .286 .354 .455 .809 24 38
2014 226 .310 .358 .434 .791 15 30
* Numbers provided by Baseball Reference from his minor league player page

We'll start with a couple of disclaimers.  I chose not to use Treinen's 2014 major league splits alone (.238/.306/.257 vs. RHH, .337/.369/.429 vs. LHH) because it's a small sample size.  The 2014 data does include both his time in Syracuse and D.C.  The 2011-2013 data is all from the minor leagues.  I'll also point out that it's expected that opposite-handed (in Treinen's case, LHH) are going to have more success.  This is simply the case with most pitchers.

We're talking about a 233 point OPS difference last season and 250 point OPS difference in the season before that, though.  For reference, three pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last season had an OPS allowed that was lower than Treinen's .558 against RHH (Kershaw, Garrett Richards, Felix Hernandez).  Just one pitcher had a worse OPS allowed than Treinen's .791 against LHH (Colby Lewis).  The strikeout difference is similarly troubling, as he struck out more than twice as many hitters in just 45 more at bats against right-handers than he did against lefties.  You expect to see some splits, but Treinen's are pretty drastic.

This is why I made the comment above that Treinen's slider has been more effective at keeping hitters off balance than his changeup.  Treinen has two distinct weapons against right-handed hitters.  His sinker bears in on righties and his slider gives him a bit of a change of pace and darts away from them.  With left-handed hitters, he's more dependent on two pitches that have different velocities but break in a similar fashion.  The changeup can often be one of the most effective weapons against opposite handed hitters because it drops vertically and tails away from them..... which is exactly what Treinen's best pitch (the sinker) does.

Is it time to write Treinen off as a ROOGY?   Absolutely not.  However, it would seem that he might have a better opportunity to succeed by coming in to face mainly right-handed hitters out of the bullpen.  I will reiterate that I feel that as long as he's in Syracuse and the Nats pitching staff is healthy, Treinen should continue to start.  However, I think it might be best for both him and the Nats if he is the first pitcher called up to pitch out of the bullpen in D.C. when there is the first (inevitable) injury to any pitcher on the major league staff.

Would moving to the bullpen mean he could never start again?

Certainly not.  It's a practice that we've seen work several times in recent years for teams like St. Louis (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn), Minnesota (Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano), New York (Phil Hughes), and Boston (Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson).  A move to the bullpen wouldn't necessarily mean that Treinen would be condemned to the bullpen for the rest of his career.  It would simply be a way for the Nats to maximize his value to the big league club during a season in which they're expected to contend.  Combining readiness and talent, Treinen would likely slot in as the seventh starter for 2015 on the organizational depth chart, so his chances of contributing in the rotation are relatively low.

Keeping Treinen in the rotation at Syracuse to start the season likely wouldn't stall his development.  Although he's already 26, he's only pitched 131.1 innings above AA, so it's not like he's even dominated the AAA level for a full season.  However, pitching at the big league level is a different animal.  Gaining more big league experience (even if it is out of the bullpen) would likely tell us a lot more about whether or not Treinen can sustain the success he had in 2014 moving forward.

I must confess that Treinen was kind of an afterthought to me when they acquired him in the Michael Morse trade a few years ago.  I was really excited to see them get A.J. Cole back and figured that Treinen was kind of the tertiary piece in a deal where they also acquired a big league ready lefty reliever in Ian Krol.  However, he's been a pleasant surprise the past couple of years who actually provided some nice value in the big league rotation last season.  I've come around to the idea that Treinen would make most big league clubs out of Spring Training, be it as a starter or reliever.  I wish there was a spot for him, but I'm sure that one will open up at some point.