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Washington Nationals’ Ryne Harper: Part of 2022 bullpen or non-tender candidate?

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Ryne Harper had a really good run in the bullpen and then a rough stretch to end the season. What will the Nationals do with the soft-tossing righty?

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Through his first 19 games and 22 23 innings pitched in the majors last season, Ryne Harper, who was up and down between the big leagues and Triple-A throughout the year, put up an 0.79 ERA, a 2.38 FIP, six walks, 18 Ks, and a .132/.193/.171 line against.

Harper, 32, was acquired by the Washington Nationals in a late January 2020 trade with the Minnesota Twins, and his manager, Davey Martinez, talked in an early August Zoom call this past summer about how the reliever was doing what he’d done to that point.

“I think the fact that he’s throwing strikes and [he] can throw his breaking ball two of three different speeds,” Martinez explained, “and his fastball, when you throw a 60 MPH curveball, and you’re constantly throwing it, and all of a sudden you throw a fastball the way he does and locates it — as a hitter, that fastball speeds up a lot because of the slow curveball you have to wait on.

“But he’s been pounding the strike zone. I think that’s why he’s had so much success, because he’s throwing strikes and utilizing his curveball a lot more effectively.”

Martinez, a former major league outfielder, was asked how he would have approached the soft-tossing reliever during his own playing days.

“It would have been tough,” he said. “The hesitation in his wind-up is also tough. He throws a lot of guys off with that.”

In a season without many positives for the Nationals, Martinez said in mid-August that Harper’s success was a bright spot.

“He’s been good. He’s been a bright spot in the bullpen. He knows who he is, he knows his identity,” Martinez said.

“He doesn’t give in, he throws his curveball for strikes, he’s got three different ones, he’s got that little pause and hesitation at times where it’s a tough at bat.”

Five rough outings in his final 15 appearances, however, changed things, as the right-hander, who didn’t give up a home run in his first 19 trips to the mound in the majors, allowed six in his final 13 innings of work this season.

Harper gave up 18 hits, eight walks, and 14 earned runs over that stretch (9.69 ERA, 9.48 FIP, .327/.431/.691 line against), leaving him with a 4.04 ERA, a 4.96 FIP, and a .214/.297/.389 line against in his 34 total appearances on the year.

While things didn’t go the way he wanted at the end, or the way the Nationals wanted them to overall on the season, Harper said he and others got an opportunity to test themselves at the big league level and gain experience that will hopefully help in the future.

“It’s been a fun year with the guys as far as like just getting the opportunities to throw and seeing a lot of the guys get opportunities,” he said, “but it hasn’t been a fun year as far as not winning more games than we’re losing.”

“You’re going to lose some games,” Harper added, “... but obviously here with the Nationals and everybody throughout baseball wants to win, so when you’re not winning it’s not as fun as it should be, but it’s been a good year, it was a good stretch for me at the start, but heck things can turn quick in the big leagues.”

Harper also discussed what the difference was between his success in his good stretch of outings at the start of the season, and the rough stretch towards the end, and how pitchers work to avoid an inning like the one he’d struggled through that night, giving up a leadoff single, a one-out double, intentional walk that loaded the bases, and a two-out grand slam.

“The trick is you got to attack it, but you can’t like try to pick and be scared to mess up with it,” Harper said, “... but you got to get ahead, No. 1, obviously, but when you are ahead, you got to make those important pitches when you are ahead, and you got to attack and give it one of those — throw your best pitch — throw it like where if they do it hit, the damage is minimal.”

What does the future hold for Harper?

Are you among those who think the right-hander, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time and projected to earn around $800K in 2022, is a non-tender candidate this winter?

Or will the Nationals give him another shot in what figures to be a revamped relief corps in the nation’s capital?