At points, it looked like the next Nationals closer would be Koda Glover. At other points, it looked like it would be Shawn Kelley, and at other points, it looked like it would be David Robertson, or someone else belonging to another team. But now we can say that the next Nationals closer will be Blake Treinen. That is, at least, in the nearest-term future, barring a change or a trade, which could happen within any given matter of minutes.
For the Nationals, what this is is a resolution. It’s an answer, and all the other bullpen roles fall out of this assignment. For me, it’s a chance to write about Blake Treinen again. I’ve been on the Treinen bandwagon for a few years, mostly just because of his sinker. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with drawing parallels between Treinen and Zach Britton, another power-sinker reliever who converted from the rotation. Their sinkers behave similarly, thrown at similar speeds, and although there’s the clear difference of handedness, I have to go back to the well. Time to think about Treinen and Britton one more time.
Here is a Blake Treinen sinker. It registers at 97 miles per hour.
Here is a Zach Britton sinker. It registers at 96 miles per hour.
Britton’s a lefty who throws from the third-base side of the rubber. Treinen’s a righty who throws from the third-base side of the rubber. Britton, according to the team, stands 6’3; Treinen, according to the team, stands 6’5. Reasonably tall, the both of them. Britton has blossomed into one of the absolute most dominant relievers of his era. He’s gotten there by throwing sinker after sinker, leaving the hitter little mystery. Treinen has not graduated to that level. That much should be clear. He is still a successful ground-baller, coming off a 2.28 ERA. Treinen, last year, was good! He’s good at his job. And when I examine these two pitchers, I wonder if Treinen now is where Britton was after 2014.
In this table, a relevant comparison.
Back then, Britton was coming off his first effective year as a reliever, and as a closer. One notable difference not shown here: Britton threw 92% fastballs, while Treinen threw just 69% fastballs. Treinen’s more stubborn about forcing his slider, and his slider’s actually been a tremendously valuable pitch, but anyway, in general, you can see the parallels. In 2014, Britton was good without being dominant by his peripherals. He was a master of generating grounders and weak contact, with significantly more soft hits than hard hits in play. Last year, Treinen was similar. Not the same, but similar. Britton was the only pitcher in the majors last season to post a higher ground-ball rate.
Now behold how Britton has only gotten better:
Between 2014 and 2015, Britton’s strikeouts took off. His chase rate took off, and he’s pitched less and less within the zone. There’s been even more soft contact, relative to hard contact, and you can look over in that last column. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2014, Britton’s average sinker was about six inches lower than the vertical midpoint of the strike zone. Last year, his average sinker was about twelve inches lower than the vertical midpoint of the strike zone. Britton’s gotten better about controlling that pitch around the knees, and now, from Baseball Savant, it’s time for some sinker-specific heat maps:
For comparative reference, here’s 2016 Treinen, showing only sinkers:
Treinen has been good about keeping that pitch in the lower half. We know from his grounders and ERA that he hasn’t made a habit of leaving too many sinkers up. His 2016 average sinker height is a perfect match for Britton’s 2014 average sinker height. Which should lead you to wonder: What if Treinen worked down even more? What if he further imitated the Zach Britton plan of attack? Obviously, no two pitchers are identical, and, obviously, one of these guys throws with the opposite hand. And then there’s the matter of MLB maybe trying to raise the lower part of the zone. But what if Treinen and his similar power sinker targeted the bottom of the kneecap, instead of the top? How much better could Blake Treinen get?
I don’t know the answer to that, but given how Britton has gone, I haven’t lost confidence that Treinen could become more effective still. He’s already a fine reliever, a guy who avoids batted balls in the air, and a guy who just got better against left-handed bats. If Blake Treinen is Sam Dyson, well, the Rangers aren’t complaining about Sam Dyson. Yet there is that higher upside, and maybe this is a spot where the Nationals could benefit from signing Matt Wieters. Wieters has been there to watch Britton grow. Wieters has caught him, and he’s guided him lower and lower. Matt Wieters has worked with that power sinker, and he could help Blake Treinen improve. I’m not saying it’s a guarantee, but that prior experience doesn’t hurt.
The Nationals like to trade, and the Nationals like to trade for new closers. They still could do that, at literally any point on any day. Yet Blake Treinen could be exactly what they need. He’s deserving of this chance, at the very least, and you don’t have to go far from DC to find another city where a pitcher like this has made himself untouchable.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.