Sudden Burst of Bullpen Competence a Key to Nationals’ Postseason Success

With the Nationals, it’s always the damn bullpen. Over the past eight seasons, that unit has provided the franchise with more embarrassment and grief than relief, from Drew Storen‘s ninth-inning meltdown against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series to manager Matt Williamspassivity in the late innings of Game 4 of the 2014 Division Series against the Giants, to Jonathan Papelbon‘s attempt to choke Bryce Harper near the end of the 2015 season, to the ongoing fiasco of the past two years, including Trevor Rosenthal’s reach for infinity. Washington’s bullpen ranked among the majors’ very worst this year, and while its overall numbers in the postseason aren’t pretty, some stellar high-leverage work has helped the team advance further than ever, winning the Wild Card game over the Brewers, defeating the Dodgers in the Division Series, and taking the first two games of the NLCS from the higher-seeded Cardinals in St. Louis.

Indeed, while the headline-grabbing no-hit bids of Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer are the primary reason for that 2-0 lead, the unit with the 6.04 ERA thus far in October — third-worst among the 10 postseason teams, ahead of only the now bygone Twins (9.00) and Dodgers (6.75) — has come around lately. In winning their past four games, the Nationals’ relievers have allowed just one run and five baserunners (four hits, one hit-by-pitch) while striking out eight in 9.1 innings. Driven by a combined seven innings from Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson in that span, that small-sample stinginess probably can’t be maintained to the same degree over the remainder of October, but it’s a refreshing rebound given the bullpen’s work over the first three games of the Division Series, when the group allowed five homers and a ghastly 14 runs in nine innings, even with one exhilarating inning from Scherzer in their NLDS Game 2 victory:

Nationals’ Postseason Starters vs. Bullpen
Game Opp Starter IP R Bullpen IP R
NLWC Brewers Max Scherzer 5.0 3 4.0 0
NLDS 1 Dodgers Patrick Corbin 6.0 2 2.0 4
NLDS 2 Dodgers Stephen Strasburg 6.0 1 3.0 1
NLDS 3 Dodgers Aníbal Sánchez 5.0 1 4.0 9
NLDS 4 Dodgers Max Scherzer 7.0 1 2.0 0
NLDS 5 Dodgers Stephen Strasburg 6.0 3 4.0 0
NLCS 1 Cardinals Aníbal Sánchez 7.2 0 1.1 0
NLCS 2 Cardinals Max Scherzer 7.0 0 2.0 1
Total 49.2 11 22.1 15

In an effort to camouflage the weaknesses and lack of depth in a unit that posted the majors’ second-worst ERA (5.68, 10th-worst of the post-strike era), fifth-worst FIP (4.94), and the second-worst WPA of the post-strike era (-10.8), manager Dave Martinez has taken a page from teams like the 2003 Marlins and 2018 Red Sox by turning to starters Strasburg, Scherzer, and Corbin for a total of five of the team’s 23 appearances, and 6.1 of the bullpen’s 22.1 innings. Save for Corbin’s NLDS Game 3 disaster, in which he retired just two of eight batters faced and was charged with six runs (two of them let in by Wander Suero), they’ve been scoreless. Strasburg turned in three stellar innings in the Wild Card game, striking out four of the 10 hitters he faced. Scherzer struck out the side in his NLDS appearance. Corbin delivered 1.1 shutout innings in Game 5, running a Joc PedersonMax MuncyJustin TurnerCody BellingerDavid Freese gauntlet unscathed save for his hitting Turner with a pitch, then returned to retire lefty Kolten Wong in the ninth inning of NLCS Game 2. Add it up, and that’s 56 of the team’s 72 postseason innings (77.8%) in the hands of the four trusted starters, with another 10 from the top two relievers (Doolittle and Hudson), and just six from the shakier Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, and Suero.

It’s worth noting that the team did this while seamlessly allowing Hudson to take paternity leave for the NLCS opener to attend the birth of his third child. Moronic sports talk radio hosts — led (?) by ex-Marlins president David Samson — took issue with his decision; Hudson’s team did not. “It was a no-brainer,” said general manager Mike Rizzo, adding, “A happy player is a performing player. We’ve got to take care of our people. You have to treat this like a family. And the important thing is, we’ve got a new little member of the Nationals family.”

Doolittle, who retired all four Cardinals he faced for his first save of this postseason while covering for Hudson, was more blunt:

As noted multiple times in this space (my ability to beat a hobby horse to death has never been in doubt), in 2018, the Nationals’ bullpen was bad to the point of owning the majors’ sixth-highest FIP (4.51) and seventh-lowest WAR (1.1). General manager Mike Rizzo spent big last winter on Corbin and modestly on Sánchez, Kurt Suzuki, and Brian Dozier, but the only substantial money he devoted to bolstering that dreadful bullpen was used to sign Rosenthal, who missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, to a one-year, $7 million deal. He also traded $1 million of international bonus money to the Marlins to acquire Kyle Barraclough, who pitched to a 4.20 ERA and 4.98 FIP with the Marlins, traded starter Tanner Roark to the Reds for Rainey, a relief prospect, and signed lefty Tony Sipp to a minor league deal in mid-March. Given that the performances of Jeurys Familia, Joe Kelly, Andrew Miller, and David Robertson — the quartet of relievers guaranteed at least $20 million by teams besides the Yankees this past winter — yielded a combined -0.3 WAR, Rizzo might be viewed as shrewd for his lack of spending, but he didn’t exactly bend over backwards to fill an obvious need.

On the strength of the projections of Rosenthal (1.2 WAR) and Doolittle (1.3 WAR), the Nationals’ bullpen ranked ninth in our preseason positional power rankings, but that ranking papered over a top-heaviness in which no other reliever projected for more than 0.2 WAR, all but guaranteeing that if the Nationals managed to contend, Rizzo would once again have to augment the group by dealing away talent midseason, adding to a litany that includes trading away the likes of Nick Pivetta (to the Phillies in 2015 for Papelbon), Felipe Vázquez (to the Pirates in 2016 for Mark Melancon), and Jesus Luzardo and Blake Treinen (both to the A’s for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017).

Somehow, things worked out even worse than that for the Nationals. During their season-opening 19-31 skid, their relievers combined for an astounding 7.02 ERA, 5.35 FIP, and -0.2 WAR. Rosenthal developed a case of the yips, tying a major league record with five straight appearances without retiring a batter (including his final one as a Cardinal in 2017), and setting records with four consecutive appearances allowing runs without retiring a batter (likewise including that Cardinals finale), and four consecutive appearances without retiring a batter to start a season. After seven appearances totaling three innings, nine walks, and a 36.00 ERA, he was placed on the Injured List with a viral infection; he returned to make four more appearances in June before drawing his release. Barraclough allowed the first seven runners he inherited to score, and 11 of 13 in 25.2 innings while pitching to a 6.66 ERA and 6.56 FIP. He also battled a radial nerve injury and was shuttled between the minors and majors before finally being DFA’d in early August.

Adding the 42-year-old Rodney in early June, after he was lit up and then released by the A’s, helped a little, but when the July 31 trade deadline rolled around, the bullpen was last in the majors in ERA (6.02), and near the bottom in both FIP and WAR. On deadline day, Rizzo traded righty prospect Kyle Johnston to the Blue Jays for Hudson, and a trio of 35+ FV prospects to the Mariners in exchange for Strickland and lefty Roenis Elías. Hudson pitched pretty well (more on him momentarily) but the unit’s performance as a whole still stunk on ice:

Nationals’ Bullpen, Pre- and Post-Trade Deadline
Pre-Deadline 6.02 (30) 4.79 (24) 22.4% (22) 10.0% (19) 12.4% (22) 1.4 (21) 1.3 (21)
Post-Deadline 4.97 (25) 5.20 (28) 22.6% (22) 9.2% (12) 13.2% (11) 1.81 (28) 0.0 (24)
Overall 5.68 (29) 4.94 (26) 22.5% (23) 9.8% (15) 12.6% (21) 1.55 (25) 0.9 (22)
Splits are through games of July 30 and after. Numbers in parentheses are ranks among all 30 teams.

By FIP and WAR, the Nationals’ bullpen was actually worse after the deadline than it was before, a dubious achievement given the active attempt to upgrade. Yes, the numbers are slightly distorted by an August 3 blowout in which Dozier and Gerardo Parra combined to allow seven runs in one inning of work, but Strickland pitched to a 5.14 ERA and 6.31 FIP while allowing more than two homers per nine, Elias was limited to three innings by a hamstring injury, and Doolittle was dreadful (7.31 and 8.15 FIP in 16 innings) while missing 14 days due to tendinitis in his left knee.

In Doolittle’s final appearance before going on the IL, he allowed four ninth-inning runs to the Brewers and blew a save in a wild game the Nationals wound up losing 15-14 in 14 innings. That began a streak of 28 straight games in which no National recorded a save, and while it was tied with the Marlins for the second-longest such streak in the majors this year behind the Tigers’ 34-game streak, the differentiator is that while the Tigers went 7-27 and the Marlins 8-20, somehow the Nationals went 16-12 in that span; they won 11 of those games by five or more runs, and another two on walk-off hits. The second-longest no-save streak by a team that went .500 or better belonged to the Yankees, a 14-gamer from August 27-September 12 in which they went 10-4. Since the 1994 players’ strike, only one team has had a longer streak than the Nationals while keeping their heads above .500: the 2015 Blue Jays, who went 18-16 over a 34-game stretch from May 5 to June 10.

While Martinez’s initial intention was to use the dreaded closer by committee to cover for Doolittle’s absence, it was Hudson who emerged as the ninth-inning go-to guy even while blowing two saves in late August. When it came to closing, the 32-year-old righty, whose 11-year major league career has been bifurcated by back-to-back Tommy John surgeries in 2012 and ’13, had previously accumulated all of nine saves with the Diamondbacks in 2015-16, two with the Blue Jays earlier this year, and one on August 13, after Doolittle had worked back-to-back days. But as Doolittle worked to regain form, Hudson went 5-for-5 in save opportunities over the final 12 days of the season, throwing nine scoreless innings in the process against the Cardinals, Phillies, and Indians.

After pitching to a 3.00 ERA and 4.19 FIP in 48 innings with the Blue Jays, Hudson posted marks of 1.44 and 3.53 with the Nationals. While he’s worked in the strike zone more often since the trade, (50.8%, compared to 43.9% with Toronto), he’s gotten more chases outside of it (39.0%, versus 27.7% with Toronto), in part due to a remixed repertoire emphasizing his four-seamer more than ever, throwing it 71.1% of the time over the final two months of the regular season according to Pitch Info, compared to 61.0% with the Jays, with his sinker usage dropping from 9.2% to 1.1%. His velocity has ticked up slightly, from 96.0 mph to 96.4, with a high of 98.8. Where he had thrown the heater to righties and lefties with about equal frequency for Toronto, he’s particularly favored it against lefties for Washington (78.7%, compared to 64.7% versus righties), and they’ve managed just a .182 wOBA against him, compared to .319 as a Blue Jay. On a team whose relievers yielded a .353 wOBA to lefties (second-worst in the majors), that’s a big deal, even in a small dosage. Thus far in October, lefties are 0-for-7 against Hudson with one walk and four strikeouts.

The rounding into form of Doolittle (.270 wOBA against lefties) has helped as well; in 13.1 innings since returning from the IL, he’s allowed just four runs (two in 5.1 postseason innings). Lefties are just 1-for-9 with a pair of strikeouts against him in October, though the hit was a Division Series Game 2 homer by Muncy.

Given a two-games-to-none lead as they return home, the Nationals are in a commanding position. They have Corbin, Strasburg, and Sánchez lined up for the next three games, and their rested bullpen could presumably be augmented at some point again by Scherzer, who otherwise won’t start again until Game 6. It would still behoove the team to find spots for Rainey, Rodney, and Suero to succeed, but for as rough as their road has been, it’s looking quite possible that, rickety bullpen and all, the Nationals will find themselves in their first World Series in franchise history very soon.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

the beauty for the Nats is in the 6 games they’ve won this postseason, something like 363 of 365 outs have been gotten by Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez, Hudson, and Doolittle.

Martinez did an excellent job in games 1 and 3 of the LDS almost conceding and not burning bullets those games.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Your math can’t be right unless they are playing 20 inning games, but your point stands.

Most teams have two bullpens – the good pitchers to get high leverage outs, and the bad ones to get you out of games. If the starters go deep (and pitch in relief), and you are playing 4 or 5 instead of 6 games a week then there is less need to use the bad pitchers and you can really limit those guys into situations where they have favorable matchups while extending the good ones since tomorrow is an off day and you almost never have 3 games in 3 days.

If a manager plays it right, this can benefit teams with good starting pitching and a weak bullpen. Just like a good manager can leverage a good, deep, bullpen to cover up for a weaker starting rotation. It is all about recognizing that winning 4 of 7 over 10 days is COMPLETELY different than winning 100 out of 162 over 190 days.

4 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

just thinking it must have been 163 of 165. It’s now after last night 184 of 192.

Think it’s worth it to say the Nats DID win 93 games this year. They’re no 85 win team that just snuck into the playoffs. They’re 81-40 now in their last 121 games.

And I think everyone knew if the Nats made the playoffs, with the rotation they have, they would be an incredibly tough out. When you have 4 of the top 11 NL pitchers who made the playoffs, it’s no surprise.