ShareThis Page
With bullpen struggling, should Nationals consider using an opener? | TribLIVE.com
MLB

With bullpen struggling, should Nationals consider using an opener?

The Washington Post
1137767_web1_a8742b42129249b3aa0284a7b85c7c70-a8742b42129249b3aa0284a7b85c7c70-0
AP
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Dan Jennings has allowed six more runs than expected over 2⅔ innings pitched this season.

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.

Categories: Sports | MLB
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.