Here we go again. In a near-annual event, it’s time to wonder whether the Washington Nationals will be able to put together a reliable bullpen, something they do less often than not.
The addition of Will Harris and reunion with Daniel Hudson in free agency to help Sean Doolittle in high-leverage spots is a good start. However, what will truly decide whether the team’s bullpen will bounce back or not will be improvement of returning players.
One of those players, who also seems to be going under the radar, is Roenis Elías.
The left-hander was acquired with high expectations at the trade deadline last season, but immediately injured his hamstring running to first base in his first game for the Nats. He was then scarcely used the rest of the way in 2019 after re-injuring that hamstring.
With a full offseason behind him, the Nationals are hoping that Elías will become a big weapon out of the bullpen and justify giving up the prospects they gave up for him.
However, one area that the big left-hander will need to improve on is getting lefties out.
The only other left-hander who is set to be in the Nats’ bullpen on Opening Day is Doolittle and it looks like he will slot back in the closer’s role, at least to start the year.
That leaves Elías the duty of potentially dealing with some of the fearsome left-handed hitters in the NL East, even if it’s not as a traditional LOOGY with the three-batter minimum.
Now, the initial signs of using Elías heavily against lefties don’t bode well. His splits against them last season were pretty drastic as southpaws slashed .368/.455/.649 against him compared to an outstanding .181/.235/.333 slash line against right-handed hitters.
Despite last season’s numbers, there’s plenty of optimism that Elías can reverse that trend.
“I think his splits will improve, just because his career splits are much better than his splits were last year,” Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings in December. “His stuff is good.”
“Again, we didn’t see him pitch much for us, but we’ve seen him in the past. And prior to the trade deadline, he was closing out games for Seattle, and his stuff is good.
“He’s up to 95-96 with the fastball. He’s got a breaking pitch and a changeup. And again, he never really hit the ground running with us, because of injuries. But we think that he’ll be a reliable guy for us in the future.”
As Rizzo says, Elías’s career splits are much more even in comparison to his 2019 figures.
Over his career, right-handed hitters have slashed .244/.318/.399 against Elías, while lefties hold a .262/.342/.398 slash line. Left-handers have been marginally better, but not by much.
The Nationals are already putting the emphasis on Elías improving his effectiveness against left-handers this spring. Bullpen catcher Henry Blanco was spotted standing in the left-handed batter’s box last week to help get the lefty comfortable facing southpaws again.
But what can the lefty do to get back nearer those neutral numbers? His skipper has a plan.
“Elías is a guy I’d like to see get lefties out quite a bit,” Martinez said, as quoted by Jessica Camerato of MLB.com.
“He has a really good curveball. He doesn’t tend to use it as much, or he tries not to use it, especially when he falls behind.
“We want him to mix in his curveball a little bit more. He’s got such a good changeup. I don’t want him to be afraid of throwing it against left-handed hitters as well.
“We’re going to try to incorporate it this spring.”
When you dig into the statistics, if Elías can utilize his curveball more against left-handers, it has the potential to have a huge impact on his effectiveness.
Historically, his curve has been by far his best pitch to throw against left-handed hitters.
Over his career, lefties sport a measly .192 wOBA against his curve, according to Statcast.
But last season, his first as a true full-time reliever — yes, in 2018 he was mostly a reliever but had four spot starts — he seemed to get away from his curveball.
On the whole, he only threw it 12.8% of the time, according to Statcast, and just 22.5% of the time to lefties.
Both of those were the lowest percentage of his career as he seemed to rely more on his fastball, throwing that 69.6% to lefties and 54.3% overall, according to Statcast.
The last time that Elías had positive splits against left-handed hitters was way back in 2015.
That year, right-handers slashed .251/.332/.433 with a .332 wOBA compared to a mere .227/.299/.309 slash line and .274 wOBA for left-handers.
You can probably guess what comes next. In 2015 Elías threw his curveball to lefties 43.6% of the time according to Statcast, the highest percentage of his career. Meanwhile, he threw his fastball to lefties at the second-lowest percentage of his career at 51.3%.
Elías also had better splits in 2014 as lefties could only slash .212/.307/.348 with a .298 wOBA against him. The pitch-mix trend against lefties was the same that year too with his second-highest curveball percentage at 42.6% and lowest fastball percentage at 49.6%.
In short, the more often Elías throws his curve to lefties, the more success he has against them.
Don’t expect Elías to go fully to his curveball though. There will still need to be some variety with the fastball and changeup so that hitters can’t just sit on his curve all the time.
But in recent years, there have been several players who have improved by increasing their curveball usage. Ryan Pressly was the poster boy for this, but Elías can also look at new teammates Will Harris and Ryne Harper who successfully use a heavy dose of curveballs.
If Elías can do something similar and throw his curveball more frequently to lefties, he could be a very under-the-radar asset out of the bullpen for the Nats, just as they hoped he would be when they acquired him.