With bullpen struggling, should Nationals consider using an opener?
The Washington Nationals are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Manager Dave Martinez is having to answer tough questions after his team dropped to 14-22 with Wednesday afternoon’s 7-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, which included a 6-0 deficit in the second inning. Injuries are part of the problem — Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, among others, have spent time on the injured list — but the Nationals’ bullpen is the cause of most of the team’s early struggles. And this isn’t a case of poor performances at inopportune times; the Nationals’ bullpen is on pace to be one of the worst since the early 1970s.
This season, Washington’s relievers have allowed 29 more runs than one would expect given the men on base and outs remaining during their appearances. The Baltimore Orioles also have allowed 29 more runs than expected in relief this season, but they have pitched 1541/3 innings, whereas the Nationals have pitched just 1051/3. With the excess runs normalized to 100 innings pitched, Washington’s bullpen is hemorrhaging runs at a rate unseen in more than three decades.
Trevor Rosenthal, who has been on the 10-day injured list because of a viral infection since April 29, was Washington’s worst offender (10 runs more than expected in three innings pitched). Dan Jennings has allowed six more runs than expected over 2⅔ innings this season. Jeremy Hellickson, Justin Miller, Austen Williams, Joe Ross and Matt Grace are allowing more runs than expected so far. Better-than-expected performances from Sean Doolittle, Erick Fedde and Wander Suero have not been enough to compensate.
If advanced stats aren’t your thing, consider the Nationals’ bullpen sports a major league-high 6.41 ERA, which is 48% higher than the league average. That, too, would be a record high since 1974, the first year data is available. Using league-average results on balls in play and league-average timing would drop their ERA to a more respectable 4.65, just 9% higher than the league average and the ninth-worst mark this season. Not as bad, but still underwhelming for a team looking to win the division and make the playoffs.
One option supported by many is the signing of free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel to help resolve the team’s issues in the bullpen. Kimbrel would give Martinez another late-inning stopper to pair with Doolittle, but the cost appears to be prohibitive. The Athletic’s Jim Bowden reported in April that Kimbrel was asking for a deal close to $100 million this spring, but MLB insider Ken Rosenthal tweeted that Kimbrel and his agent are now seeking a deal similar to that of Wade Davis (three years, $52 million) or Zack Britton (three years, $39 million). Even at the discounted price, Nationals ownership likely won’t want to exceed the $206 million luxury tax payroll threshold this season.
Here’s a better option for Martinez: Use a relief pitcher to start the game and pitch one or two innings before calling in a traditional starting pitcher to pitch the next five or six innings. The logic behind using an “opener”: Because the normal “starter” won’t face the top of the opponent’s order the first time, he theoretically won’t have to face it a third time, which typically is when pitchers struggle the most. The Tampa Bay Rays first employed the “opener” approach last season, and they won 90 games. This season they’re 23-13, tied for the most wins in MLB. The Milwaukee Brewers used Adrian Houser as an opener for Freddy Peralta in Wednesday’s win over Washington, and the two combined to hold the Nationals to zero runs over seven innings, yielding five hits and three walks with nine strikeouts.
Ross, a former starter, could excel in this role. His career strikeout rate in the first three innings (24%) is greater than either of his performances in middle innings (16%) or late in games (19%), and his walk rate is also better early.
Is this enough to fix all of Washington’s problems? No, but when things get this bad, you have nothing left to lose.