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Washington Nationals’ 2021 bullpen: Luis Avilán

Will Luis Avilán, a non-roster invitee to Nationals’ Spring Training, end up making the Opening Day bullpen?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Most Washington Nationals’ fans are probably familiar with Luis Avilán from his days in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen.

Back when Avilán’s career started in 2012, he quickly became an important piece for the Braves.

In his first season, he commanded a 2.54 FIP, while he amassed a 1.52 ERA in year number two.

Now with the Nationals as a non-roster invitee, Avilán will look to make an impact in a different NL East bullpen.

As of this writing, FanGraphs projects Avilán to be present in the bullpen come April. The lefty veteran is nearly 32 and is looking to regain some of his “stuff” that’s been present in the past.

Since his time in Atlanta, Avilán has mixed in some pretty good seasons with some not-so-good seasons. For his first year in Washington, what should/could we expect?

In 2020, Avilán spent the year with the New York Yankees. He appeared in 10 games, posting a 4.32 ERA, 5.95 FIP, and a -0.1 fWAR.

The year before, in 2019, it wasn’t much different during his stint with the other New York team, the Mets: 5.06 ERA, 4.96 FIP, and -0.1 fWAR over 45 appearances.

Firstly, FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections expect Avilán to experience a slight resurgence. For example, its simulations project a 3.97 ERA and 4.07 FIP (0.3 fWAR). One possible reason for this is his plate discipline metrics. As an example, Avilán’s O-Swing% (percentage of pitches batters swing at outside the zone) is 34.2 percent, a number that is similar to his more successful seasons.

Additionally, his Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches batters swing at inside the zone) was significantly down last year, going from 61.8 percent in 2019 to 54.9 percent in 2020. One way to look at that is to assume that Avilán’s stuff was really effective outside the zone, deceptive inside the zone, or a mixture of both. Either way, that’s a style which benefits a pitcher.

One number that’s really fluctuated year after year for Avilán is BABIP. There’s also not really a correlation between low BABIP and low ERA (or vice versa). For example, the highest BABIP against Avilán came in 2017 (.342), but he had arguably the best season of his career, posting a 2.93 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and a 0.6 fWAR, over 61 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Another sign that could spell trouble is how Avilán’s average exit velocity has gone up year over year since its introduction as a stat. Last year’s was 87.5 miles per hour, nearly three mph higher than the prior year. This trend could create problems for Avilán’s success this season and will be worth watching.

But because Avilán’s “stuff” seems so effective, including a changeup he relies on over a third of the time, I think he’ll experience a nice, slight bounce back this season and, should he be in the bullpen this year, will be a quality addition to help out the staff, manage middle innings, and give the Nationals a chance to win in close games.