As the Washington Nationals and the rest of the National League East continue to figure themselves out, fans and teams alike are scrambling to understand what their club does well and what might set them apart from the rest of the division.
For the Nationals, it hasn’t been the starting pitching, nor has it been the offense. From a production standpoint, it’s been the bullpen. The question is, is the bullpen good or is it smoke and mirrors?
To start, the Nats have the ninth best ERA in all of baseball (3.57). From a purely production standpoint, that seems to suggest the relievers have been getting the job done. Some of the deeper peripherals, however, suggest that bad news could be on the way.
For example, the team’s xFIP is third worst in baseball (4.81), with xFIP being a stat which seeks to “normalize” the home run component. Another stat of note is the team’s SIERA, which, at 4.27, is fourth worst in baseball. SIERA seeks to eliminate factors which happen independent of the pitcher; it also seeks to adjust for types of ball in play.
With these types of stats, if ERA is much lower than xFIP or SIERA, we could reasonably expect the person – or team, in this case – to regress to a more expected outcome.
Similarly, if a team sports a quality record but a miserable run differential, we should expect the team’s record to eventually reflect that poor run differential; conversely, if a team has a quality run differential but a lousy record, we should expect the record to climb and match the club’s run differential more closely.
With several pitchers on the injured list, perhaps we should expect those peripherals to eventually climb to where the ERA is, which would obviously be good. With Luis Avilán out after tearing his UCL, Will Harris nursing a strange inflammation injury, and Wander Suero sidelined due to oblique issues, Washington is short-handed from what they were projected to have.
With those injuries being a reality for the Nationals, we have to wonder whether or not the current iteration of the bullpen is simply being used to tread water until two of those arms return, or if this will be the expected output moving forward.
I suspect that if some of those aforementioned metrics don’t being to trend in a positive direction, we’ll see some sort of regression in production on the mound from the relief corps. If that’s to be the case, we’ll be back to wondering what the Nationals are getting right. With an offensive wRC+ that barely keeps the club in the middle-third (93) of all teams and a starting rotation in the same predicament in terms of ERA (4.52) and FIP (5.16), the Nats and their -14 run differential have trudged along to a 12-12 record, as of this writing.
Fortunately for the Nats, it looks like they still have time to get themselves on the right track, as it appears the rest of the division – and, indeed, much of the league – are trying to do the same. With no clear frontrunner in baseball, we’re still at a point in the season where most teams should still be optimistic about where they’re headed. Now into May, we may really begin to see the better teams set themselves apart from the lower tiered organizations.