While both manager Davey Martinez and Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked up the fact that their right-handed relievers in the bullpen could retire left-handers, and Martinez at times entertained questions about whether or not there was even a need for a left-handed specialist these days, the Nationals did end up signing veteran left-hander Tony Sipp to a 1-year/$1.3M back on March 14th.
Sipp, 35, earned $6M in 2018, in the final year of a 3-year/$18M deal he signed with Houston in 2015. He finished his 10th big league campaign with a 1.86 ERA, a 2.41 FIP, 13 walks (3.03 BB/9), 42 Ks (9.78 K/9), and a .197/.272/.311 line against over 38 2⁄3 innings, putting up a solid .188/.263/.294 line against vs left-handed hitters, and a .206/.280/.328 line against vs right-handed hitters on the season.
“Can’t have enough lefty specialists, you really can’t,” Martinez told reporters shortly after the deal with Sipp was announced, “and in our division ... with the left-handed batters that we have in our division it will be nice to have that guy. But we also have right-handers that are capable of getting those lefties out as well and I kind of like that.”
The lefty featured a three-pitch arsenal in 2018, dropping a sinker he’d thrown in previous seasons, at least according to PitchFx data, and working with a four-seamer which sat at around 91.8 MPH, and against which opposing hitters had just a .241 AVG, and he threw a slider (82.9 MPH; .184 BAA), and splitter (79 MPH; .148 AVG), relying predominantly on his fastball (52.6%).
In the first two years of his three-year deal, the southpaw posted a 5.33 ERA, a 5.74 FIP, 34 walks (3.78 BB/9), and 79 Ks (8.78 K/9) in 106 games and 81 IP.
“Basically, I had to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘The organization’s about to pay you $6 million to go sit on your couch. It’s time to make something happen,’” Sipp told the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome last September.
Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch said it was a matter of Sipp regaining “conviction” on his fastball which led to the reliever finding his other pitches.
“The reason conviction is important to Tony is because he will exert energy and the hand speed and the velocity that it takes to throw a good fastball,” Hinch said. “What comes with that is better spin on his slider and better action on his split ... once he had his fastball and had his conviction, the other pitches followed.”
The Nationals liked what they saw from Sipp, and, Rizzo told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, they liked what the left-hander brings to the Nats’ bullpen.
“I think that [Sipp] balances our bullpen out,” Rizzo said. “He’s had success in big moments.
“He’s been in the playoffs and had success. I think that not only with our division but just in general, I think he’s a sound relief pitcher. And he gets righties out, too. Let’s not forget that.”
Sipp made three postseason appearances for the Astros last Fall, walking two, striking out two, and giving up one hit in 1 1⁄3 IP in the ALCS.
Though he got off to a late start this Spring, Sipp told reporters last week that he thought he could ramp it up in time to be ready for the start of the season.
“It doesn’t take long, but this is definitely uncharted territory for me,” Sipp said, as quoted by the Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty.
“I’ve always felt like Spring Training is too long, and now it’s put up or shut up because I’ve been screaming this for a long time.”
Martinez said on Thursday that Sipp (and Howie Kendrick, who is nursing a hamstring injury) will likely remain in West Palm Beach when the rest of the Nationals return to Washington on Sunday for Monday’s exhibition game against the New York Yankees, though he added that both would be in D.C. for the Opening Day festivities later in the week.
Sipp and Kendrick faced off in live batting practice on Thursday afternoon, and the second-year skipper said it’s just about building the veteran up and getting him ready at this point.
“We’ll see where he’s at and how he feels,” Martinez explained, as quoted on MASN.
“For me, it’s more about just getting him in baseball shape, facing hitters. It’s a lot different when you’re actually facing a guy standing in the box than when you’re throwing the ball in the bullpen. So we’ll see how comfortable he is doing that today.”
Since Sipp signed a major league deal, Mark Zuckerman noted in that MASN article, and is out of options, he’ll have to be placed on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster or he’ll have to come up with a convenient injury which gives him more time to get ready.
Though the Nationals didn’t think they necessarily needed a left-handed specialist, they did end up signing one, and with the rule changes coming in 2020 that demand a pitcher faces at least three batters, it could be Sipp’s last run in a role that is being regulated out of existence in the near future.