Davey Martinez talked after the Washington Nationals optioned Tanner Rainey to Triple-A Rochester this past weekend, about his plans for the club’s post-trade deadline bullpen, explaining that he told the hard-throwing right-hander he wanted him to get things sorted out quickly because he needed Rainey at the back end of the ‘pen after both Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were traded.
“I spoke to him at length this morning,” Martinez explained. “I just want him to go down and just focus on just throwing strikes, getting his mechanics back. Instead of keeping him up here and just kind of trying to use him in high-leverage situations, I explained to him he’s going to go down there and pitch every other day, he was hurt, he’s been hurt throughout this year, and just get down there, because I explained to him — in the future, that him and [Kyle] Finnegan are going to close out games for us. And I want him just to hone in on his mechanics and pump strikes.”
With Rainey at Triple-A, Finnegan is the main option for save opportunities. He earned his first career save in a July 29th win over the Phillies, and came back the next day, after the trade deadline passed, and saved his second game in a win over the Cubs.
A day later, he tossed a scoreless ninth inning in a 5-5 tie, before Yadiel Hernández walked off on a game-winning home run, so Finnegan earned the W.
“He goes out there, he’s poised,” Martinez said when asked why Finnegan was his choice as the post-deadline closer. “He’s pitched — even the games that he’s come in, he’s pitched in some pretty good, significant high-leverage situations, and he goes out there and he throws strikes.
“So, when you’re pitching, coming in in situations like the ninth inning, he understands what he needs to do, and all he’s trying to do is get outs. And we talked a lot about just him going out there, and just him remembering for him it’s just another seventh inning, he’s just going to go out there and just try to get three outs.”
Finnegan is doing what he’s done this season with a sinker he throws 70.2% of the time, and which averages 95.5 MPH. Opposing hitters have a .239 AVG on the pitch this season, down from .262 last year, but batters have a .243 AVG on his slider (18.5%), up from a .143 AVG in 2020, and he’s experimented with a split-finger fastball (11.2%), against which hitters have a .263 AVG on the year.
“He’s actually thrown a couple [splitters] that have been pretty good, and his slider has actually been a lot better,” Martinez said before Wednesday night’s game against Philly.
“I know [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey and him have talked about throwing a little bit more depth on his slider, and it’s getting better.
“The biggest thing with him is his fastball. He throws a two-seam and a four-seam fastball*, and he attacks the strike zone with it, and when he’s on, his location is pretty good.
“So, I just tell him all the time, ‘Hey, just remember attack with your fastball, that’s who you are, and secondary pitches are basically for him just show-me pitches, you know, if you can get away with getting one over for a strike early, great. We got a lot of information on guys that he can do that to, so he’s aware of that and he definitely goes out and attacks with his fastball.”
[ed. note - “* = Baseball Savant does not have Finnegan throwing two different fastballs, and Fangraphs just has a four-seamer listed, while Baseball Savant just has a sinker, so you figure it out.”]
Finnegan, of course, spent seven seasons in the Oakland A’s system after they drafted him in the 6th Round in 2013, and he moved to a relief role in 2016, but he never got the call to the big leagues with the Athletics, and he became a free agent after 2019, at which point he signed a major league deal with the Nationals.
The fact he’s now a closer, even if it’s a de facto one, is the culmination of an impressive and fast rise for the right-hander, but his manager said he’s handled every new challenge well.
“Honestly, nothing really seems to faze him,” Martinez told reporters.
“He comes to the ballpark, he gets his work in, and he’s just a pleasure to be around. He just wants to help us win.”
And, as his manager said, he doesn’t care where he’s pitching.
“It doesn’t matter — he’s one guy where he’s always said, ‘Hey, you can put me in the fourth, you can put me in the seventh,’ it doesn’t really matter to him, he’s going to treat it all the same and that’s something I really like about him.”
In his first big league season in 2019, Finnegan put up a 2.92 ERA, 13 walks (4.74 BB/9), and 27 Ks (9.85 K/9) in 24 2⁄3 IP, in which opposing hitter had a .242/.328/.352 line against him.
Finnegan posted a 3.86 ERA, 17 walks (5.04 BB/9), 36 Ks (10.68 K/9), and a .260/.350/.407 line against in 33 games and 30 1⁄3 IP over the first three months this season, but then he suffered a hamstring injury that landed him on the IL between June 20th and July 7th.
Since he’s returned, the righty has given up just two runs on eight hits in 12 2⁄3 IP (1.42 ERA), walking four and striking out 10 while holding hitters to a .190/.261/.190 line.
Did the time off help refresh the reliever?
“I think the injury helped him,” Martinez, said, presumably meaning the time off with the issue.
“I know he’s been staying on his legs a lot better, his fastball has been coming out really good, I don’t know before then — if maybe something was bothering him before then and caused the injury, but he’s definitely using his legs a lot more, and his fastball has a lot of life to it, but he’s been good, and like I said, this guy, I’ve watched him work every day and he works really hard to get ready and stay ready, so good for him, I mean, and he deserves everything that he’s earned, and he’s earned it, so I love when he’s in the game, that means that we have a chance to win.”