The Nats Still Need Bullpen Help

Injuries have created some weaknesses for the Nats, but there's been one constant weakness: the bullpen.

On June 12 the Nationals lost to drop 11 of their last 14 games to go from nine games over .500 and 1.5 games up in the division, to one game over .500 and 0.5 games back. At the same time Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reported that the Nats were interested in the Reds’ closer Aroldis Chapman, one of the best relief pitchers in the game. It made a lot of sense, while the Nationals rotation was great and its lineup was doing well, the bullpen wasn’t experiencing the same success. Both fans and media alike were clamoring for Chapman or someone similar.

Nothing much came of the rumor in the days that followed and the Nationals began to turn it around, they went 3-3 against the Brewers and Rays and then won eight straight games. During that streak the Nationals also saw injuries to Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon (who hit the DL), Denard Span and Yunel Escobar. While Max Scherzer threw a no hitter as part of the two best games ever pitched consecutively and Nationals starters turned in dominant start after dominant start. Understandably, the bullpen issues moved to the back of folks’ minds and trade speculation died down.

What didn’t die down were the problems with the bullpen. It’s not entirely a coincidence that the Nats eight game winning streak went hand-in-hand with their starters 47.1 inning scoreless inning streak. The Nationals do significantly better when their starters do well, putting up league leading 23 wins and .821 winning percentage in games when their starting pitcher goes at least seven innings. In games where the starters go less than seven innings their winning percentage drops to .396, 19th in MLB. The difference is the second largest in MLB behind the Phillies.


% Diff











Of course, seven innings is an arbitrary cut off, however it’s telling that the only teams with above .500 records when their starter goes less than seven innings also have some of the best bullpens in baseball: the Cardinals, Royals, Yankees, Astros and Dodgers.

The two best stats in my mind for judging a bullpen are win probability added and RE24, which better represent the small sample size highs and lows of a bullpen. The five teams above ranking in each stat for team relievers: Cardinals (1st WPA, 2nd RE24), Royals (2nd WPA, 1st RE24), Yankees (3rd WPA, 21st RE24), Astros (8th WPA, 3rd RE24) and Dodgers (25th WPA, 11th RE24). The remaining top 10 teams in win percentage in games where a starter goes less than seven innings: the Orioles, Blue Jays, Giants, Rays and Twins all appear in a top 10 in at least one of WPA and RE24.

The Nationals bullpen doesn’t fare so well in either number, their -0.13 WPA is 21st in MLB, while their 2.53 RE24 is 15th. That’s not the big problem for the Nats in this department. Here’s the team’s relief pitcher WPA and RE24 for the past four seasons:





















Can you spot the two seasons where the Nationals have won over 95 games? Yes, those are the seasons where the Nationals bullpen was excellent by both WPA and RE24. The first year they weren’t they missed the playoffs. This year probably won’t be quite so dire with such a weak NL East, but it doesn’t bode well with their likely playoff opponents, the Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants, all ranking well above.

Broken down to the individual level the results look grim.




Drew Storen



Matt Thornton



Tanner Roark



Casey Janssen



Felipe Rivero



Taylor Hill



Blake Treinen



Aaron Barrett



Matt Grace



Drew Storen has been superb, which is why he’s locked up the closer’s role, but there’s not much after that. Matt Thornton and Casey Janssen have been great, but both have been working on limited work rates; not surprising for a 39 year old and a 33 year old coming off of tendonitis. And Tanner Roark and Felipe Rivero are the only other ones who have contributed positively, but Roark has been shuttled between the pen and the rotation while Rivero is a rookie LOOGY.

In other words, the Nationals really need to add to the back end of their bullpen so they can move the few positives into more appropriate roles and get rid of the negatives. Thornton and Janssen’s lighter workload will play a lot better in the seventh or earlier. And reducing the reliance on Roark in the pen will help during the stretches where he has to take over in the rotation. Carpenter is a good start, but he is more of a middle reliever and fill-in setup guy than a Tyler Clippard type. Looking at the end of that list above, it’s clear the help won’t be coming internally, so a trade must be in the works, the sooner the better.

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