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Don’t look now, but the Washington Nationals might actually have a good bullpen

Believe it or not, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen is not only significantly better than it was to start the season, but it might now be a genuine strength of the team...

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve heard the narrative all year: The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has been an absolute [insert metaphor for terrible, awful, or catastrophic here] this season.

That was the reason for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals’ front office going out and making wholesale changes to the bullpen at the deadline. They wound up with Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elías, and Hunter Strickland, all for very minimal prospect cost.

“We recognized the need that we had on this team and we went out and attacked it and we think we’ve improved ourselves because of it,” Rizzo told reporters after the deadline.

“These aren’t the sexiest names in the trade market, but we think we got good quality, reliable bullpen guys, with some moxie and some experience.”

While some were disappointed that the Nationals didn’t get someone from the very top of the market, such as Shane Greene or Ken Giles, what they did get might turn out to better for the Nats given their dire situation beforehand.

With an elite reliever already on the roster in Sean Doolittle, they needed to stockpile high-leverage depth behind him rather than find one top-end setup man.

That was evident given how much of a nightmare the eighth inning became as they had no reliable bridge to get the lefty. Quite simply, it was a nightly horror show with no end in sight.

Even when the Nats did find someone for the eighth, they promptly ran them into the ground because they had nobody else to take that mantle when they or Doolittle needed a rest.

Both Elías and Strickland have served as the closer for the Seattle Mariners at some point this season. Meanwhile, Hudson was the primary backup closer for the Toronto Blue Jays, filling in admirably when Giles was unavailable.

“We have options now with these guys,” Martinez said in San Francisco. “What I like about our bullpen right now, is that we’ve got guys that can pitch every single day without killing these guys every day.”

Even with the makeover, the team’s combined 6.00 ERA from relievers used by the team so far this year still comes up very frequently. That’s the second-worst mark in the major leagues, just ahead of their beltway neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles at 6.09.

However, all it’s telling us is how pitchers who have come out of the bullpen so far have fared. That doesn’t always give a good indication of how things will be moving forward.

It’s perhaps even more important to take this into account for the Nationals, who have cycled a cavalcade of relievers in and out of the bullpen this season, hoping that some would stick.

For example, the diabolical performance of Trevor Rosenthal won’t have any bearing on how the team’s relief corps performs moving forward. The same goes for Dan Jennings and possibly Kyle Barraclough, assuming he departs.

So, in reality, we need to look at how the pitchers who are currently in the bullpen have fared.

Since May 24th, the day after all those meltdowns against the New York Mets, relievers who are currently in the Nationals’ bullpen hold an impressive combined 3.42 ERA.

That doesn’t include Elías, who will no doubt play a huge part moving forward. Besides, he has a 3.47 ERA in that same span, so including him would give us the same overall ERA anyway.

To put that into context, not only is that 3.42 ERA better than any major league bullpen has put up in that time, a 3.42 ERA would rank second in the major leagues on the season behind the 3.28 ERA of the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen.

If you do the same calculation for the Indians — only using pitchers currently in the bullpen— then their ERA comes out at 3.01 since May 24th.

That’s still a fair amount better than the Nationals, but it’s a lot closer than some observers would guess, seeing as they get bandied about as the best and worst bullpens respectively.

Bullpen depth beyond the active roster is also important to this equation. However, if you add in all the remaining relievers on the 40-man roster to that calculation, that ERA rises to just 3.83, which would rank sixth in the majors on the season.

This success from the current crop of relievers would appear to be sustainable too. Going back to all the relievers on the 40-man roster, they collectively hold a 3.62 FIP in that span, somewhat surprisingly better than their ERA.

The point is, don’t be deceived by that lofty 6.00 ERA, the Nationals’ bullpen is much better than that figure makes it appear.

The new and improved bullpen has already made its presence felt. In the three-game sweep of the Giants, they combined for nine innings of stress-free relief to close out all three wins.

“With the additions that we got, and the other guys that had, they’re getting big outs for us,” Martinez said after Tuesday’s win over the San Francisco Giants.

“When you’ve got guys like we’ve got now down in that bullpen and our starting pitching knows hey, six innings, we get six innings, and we’ve got the lead, it’s going to be tough.”

Over the first month and a half of the season, the Nationals were left wondering where they would be if they had even a league-average bullpen. Well, now it’s time to find out just how good they can be with the solid relief corps now assembled.