Man, there’s not much else that can be said about the Washington Nationals’ bullpen right now. Fans are sick of it and are just hoping for some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.
The group’s ERA sits at a league-high 7.59 after the team’s first 18 games and has cost them numerous wins along the way. Though there’s been some slow improvement from when they held a 10.17 ERA just under two weeks ago, it’s still a huge weakness.
Perhaps the biggest Achilles’ heel of all is the eighth inning. Right now, the Nationals possess a horrific 11.00 ERA in the eighth inning, with the next nearest in ERA being the Baltimore Orioles at 9.90. Not great company to be in.
The reason it’s been such a struggle is the complete absence of reliable innings from the man they signed specifically to solidify that inning in Trevor Rosenthal. The former Cardinals’ closer has been a disaster so far, failing to even record an out in his first four appearances.
Despite a pair of improved outings against the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants, the Nats still aren’t quite ready to throw him back into his setup role just yet. That’s the right way to go for now, but it’s really exposed the lack of depth in the bullpen.
So far this season, only two pitchers in the reliefs corps currently own an ERA under 5.00, leaving very limited options for manager Dave Martinez to turn to in a high-leverage spot.
It will come as no surprise that Sean Doolittle is one of those pitchers. But the other is Kyle Barraclough, the offseason trade acquisition from the Miami Marlins, who is quietly putting together a nice start to the season.
Remember, when Mike Rizzo brought in the right-hander, it looked like an excellent opportunistic piece of business.
He had previously been a dominant setup man in the first three years of his career for the Marlins, posting a 2.87 ERA with 57 holds and 12.1 K/9. But he regressed badly in 2018 with a 4.20 ERA while the walks rose and strikeouts dipped.
So with the Marlins trying to acquire as much International Bonus Pool money as possible to complete the signing of Victor Victor Mesa, the Nats’ GM took advantage of this and the right-hander's down year to acquire him at a discount.
Even though the Nationals are well aware of the question marks, Martinez talked to MLB Network Radio during Spring Training about their plan to get him back on track.
“We’ve got to be real conscious of his health,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘Hey, just ease your way in.’ The biggest thing with him is his mechanics.”
“[Derek Lilliquist] honed in with him on that and he’s been really good this Spring, and everybody talks about velo and all this stuff, the velo will be there once the game starts, the adrenaline pumps up, and he’s in a good spot.”
That work appears to be paying off for Barraclough early on this season.
Through his first 10 games of the year, he’s put up a sparkling 1.35 ERA and 2.35 FIP in 6.2 innings with seven strikeouts while giving up three free passes.
“Barraclough is starting to pitch better, his sinker was really good today,” Martinez said during the series with Giants. He’s clearly beginning to gain the trust of management which may lead to higher leverage opportunities.
However, one of the main knocks so far has been that he has been prone to letting inherited runners score.
So far in 2019, he’s allowed seven of the eight inherited runners he’s been given to score as he’s primarily been used to clean up the messes of other pitchers.
This high percentage of inherited runners scoring comes from a high 1.50 WHIP, way above the 1.31 league average WHIP, meaning he’s simply falling victim to the incredibly slim margin for error so far. But a lot of this can be put down to bad luck.
For starters, hitters currently own a .368 BABIP against him this year, a lot higher than his .275 career BABIP against. Meanwhile, his line drive, fly ball, and ground ball percentages are all within four percent of his career numbers, so that BABIP should correct itself as the results line up closer to where they've been previously.
But even if you believe that’s he’s not going to be good at stranding inherited runners, there’s an easy to way to prevent that. You can have him start with a clean eighth inning. Problem solved.
In all seriousness, while the bullpen and Rosenthal struggle badly, Barraclough is clearly the best option to work in the top setup role for the Nationals. He’s earned his chance there and he’s proven he’s up to the task in previous seasons.
It’s hardly an instant fix for the bullpen as a whole, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction to get players into defined roles. That benefits everyone, so hopefully, Martinez will trust his shiny new reliever with the ball in some of the highest leverage innings.