After a season where their relievers flirted with a historically bad level of inadequacy, the bar can’t have been set all that high for the 2020 version of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen.
Through the first 15 games last year, the Nats’ bullpen was in complete disarray. As a group, they held an MLB-worst 7.83 ERA. Only two of the ten relievers to pitch for the team at that point had an ERA under 5.60, with Trevor Rosenthal’s 40.50 ERA the worst of the bunch.
In the same number of games this year, the team’s relief corps has managed to show some respectability with a 4.55 ERA. The newly revamped bullpen now contains several relievers who are stepping up to the plate to help banish the demons of last season.
“I like the depth of our bullpen,” GM Mike Rizzo explained when asked by reporters what he had been impressed with on the team’s major league roster. “We came into the season with a goal of improving the bullpen. I think we have.
“When you’re running out there [Sean] Doolittle when he’s right. [Daniel] Hudson when he’s right. [Will] Harris when he’s right. The emergence of [Tanner] Rainey, the young pitchers such as [Kyle] Finnegan and [Ryne] Harper, these guys are real big-league relievers, and we have depth at that position now.
“We had a good offseason in acquiring those guys. So that’s a key piece to us.”
It’s hard to disagree with Rizzo’s assessment.
Though the high-level stats don’t necessarily jump off the page, the Nationals have been crafting a formula for them to finish off close games that gives them confidence.
That said, the season did start with turmoil. Doolittle was initially pegged as the team’s closer but struggled before being demoted to low-leverage situations and then landing on the Injured List while Harris made two appearances before hitting the IL himself.
But from the ashes of Doolittle and Harris’s woes, the depth Rizzo raved about emerged.
Hudson returned to the closer’s role that saw him finish the most important game in franchise history. Rainey elevated himself to a the top option behind Hudson. Then Javy Guerra, Finnegan, and Harper have all stepped in to bridge the gap to the late innings. Even Sam Freeman was impressing as a southpaw out of the bullpen before his injury.
Those six relievers combined hold a 3.02 ERA with 48 strikeouts and 17 walks in 41.2 innings and have just one blown save — and that blown save came against the Baltimore Orioles when Hudson was tasked with protecting a one-run lead after Doolittle imploded again.
The new bullpen hierarchy got another run out during Tuesday’s game with the New York Mets.
Following Max Scherzer’s gutsy effort to get through six innings, the Nationals led 2-1, needing the bullpen to get nine outs to seal the win.
Guerra, Rainey, and Hudson stepped in and tossed three scoreless innings, highlighted by a critical double play induced by Rainey.
“For me, the bullpen is actually not bad at all,” Martinez told reporters following the team’s one-run win. “These guys have had an unbelievable amount of workload already. So we’ve just got to be careful, but I like what I’m seeing.”
“We just need guys that — for me, like I told these guys, the walks, falling behind hitters. I don’t think we were ahead of many hitters today.
“Just falling behind hitters is not good. Especially when you’ve got a team that’s fairly patient and they swing at strikes. You got to get ahead of hitters.”
The more the new formula is rolled out, the more the group’s confidence will grow in its ability to close games out without the same sense of dread that last year’s bullpen brought.
“That’s kind of what we expect out of ourselves,” Rainey stated on Tuesday when the bullpen slammed the door to close out the game. “We look at ourselves as a great group of guys down there in that pen that anybody can get big outs here and there whenever it’s needed.
“We expect to be able to cover some innings and keep the games where they are.”
Though Rainey himself did have the occasional appearance in high-leverage spots last season, most of his appearances came in mid-to-late innings.
Despite now getting the call consistently late in games, he still hasn’t changed his routine in the bullpen.
“Honestly that hasn’t really changed,” Rainey said. “Lately I have thrown a little bit later in the games, but I’m also still preparing in the fifth inning as if my name is going to be the first one called.
“It hasn’t changed and that probably never will change. It’s just part of my routine. I start getting loose and whenever my name is called it’s time to go.”
While Rainey has gone from strength to strength this season as the primary setup man, perhaps it’s Finnegan who has risen his stock the most in the Nats bullpen so far this season.
Signed to a major league deal this offseason after seven seasons in the Oakland Athletics minor league system, it would be fair to say that expectations were low coming into 2020. However, he’s already starting to repay the faith the Nationals have shown in him with four scoreless innings to start his big league career.
“He’s got great stuff,” Martinez said during the Mets series. “He’s got a good fastball, live fastball, good slider, and I know him and Paul [Menhart] are working on a changeup that’s going to help him out a lot.
“I like what I’ve seen so far, so he could be one of those special kids, and have something that we have in him that we know we can use him in situations.”
And now, with his impressive early performances, it looks as though the Nationals’ manager may be set to give him an opportunity to pitch late in games.
“He’s going to get the opportunity to pitch, he’s going to get the opportunity to get big outs, and we’ll see where we go from there.”
When the Nationals lost Anthony Rendon to the Los Angeles Angels in free agency this past offseason, Rizzo knew that it was impossible to get a like-for-like replacement. He knew that he was going to have to make up for that production in other areas of the roster.
The bullpen was the obvious area to compensate for that, so a full-scale facelift occurred.
The early signs are promising, if not spectacular, and have now at least given Martinez a viable late-inning strategy to work with, something he didn’t always have last season...