Mike Rizzo will begin his autopsy as the off-season begins!

Photo by Ryan Morris for TalkNats

The final count was 97. It could have been worse. But it could have been a whole lot better. It was the most losses for the Washington Nationals since 2009. On the final day of the 2021 season, we celebrated the careers of Ryan Zimmerman, Gerardo Parra, and Alex Avila. The Nationals had a 5-1 lead going into the 6th inning, and all of the same observations percolated to the top in this game that replicated the blueprint for losing 96 games before this.

Let us digress for a minute and discuss the final game of the 2021 season. The Nats called up Joan Adon for his MLB debut to start this game. When he was brought back out for the 6th inning, I knew in my heart the game was not going to end well. I had seen this tired act before, and the operative word is “tired”.  Adon had given it his all in throwing 78 pitches over 5.0 innings surrendering only 1-run to the Red Sox who needed this win to assure a spot in the postseason.

Let’s roll back to last week, Adon had just been promoted to Triple-A Rochester to make his one and only start there, and they pulled him after the 4th inning and a pitch count of 81. On that day, Adon had a shutout going and his bullpen backed him up for a team shutout by pitching the final five innings against the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox.  Rochester manager Matt LeCroy pulled Adon even though he had a shutout and would not qualify for the win if he was pulled before pitching another inning. Back on August 17, consider that Adon was in A-ball pitching for Wilmington. Caution was more important than qualifying for a statistical win.

The 22nd ranked prospect in the Nats’ system has looked good at times, and at times he has looked really bad. He had three starts in A-ball in which he gave up 6 runs and once in Double-A just a month ago he was pulled in the 3rd inning after giving up 6 runs. But Adon, really had the Red Sox off-balance yesterday until he was sent out for the 6th inning. Sure, he struck out Rafael Devers to push his pitch count to 83. Then it unraveled quickly on pitch 88 as he gave up a single followed by another single on pitch 94. Adon was pulled and watched one of those inherited runners score.

Yesterday, Adon’s final line was really good, but would you rather him exit at 5.0 innings with 1 run surrendered or 5.1 innings with 2 runs surrendered? Give the clean inning to the next guy or pitch Adon and pull him at first sign of trouble, or in this case the second sign of trouble?

It is just a tired act we saw too many times to count when a reliever has to enter with trouble on the bases. Two on and one out was the situation Patrick Murphy inherited, and he almost got out of it. Almost. The value of 1 run is big in any game, and the Nats eventually lost 7-5 after another unearned run scored due to an error and the eventual bullpen implosion and the 36th blown save of the season per MLB.com. A record for ineptitude since the records on saves were first recorded in 1969. The bullpen won/loss record was 23-42.  Those 42 losses was also a record in failures from the bullpen, and you can see how historically bad this bullpen was in 2021. Maybe with a halfway decent bullpen the Nats win 89 games. Who knows. The Mets bullpen went 45-28 by the way.

Five relievers were used by Martinez to close-out the final 3 2/3 innings and of those five relievers, only one was a homegrown player, Erick Fedde, who happened to be the guy collared with the blown save after he gave up 3-runs in 2/3 of an inning. That is part of the problem with the Nats and has been, dating back to the beginning of Mike Rizzo’s tenure. Since he became general manager, you can count on one-hand the successful pitchers who were drafted and developed in this system and come up with one name who stayed with the team: Stephen Strasburg. He was the most advanced MLB ready pitcher ever drafted in this century. Sure, they sent Strasburg to the Minor Leagues, but he was a finished product.

Some might say the Nats have traded off homegrown pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Robbie Ray, and Jesus Luzardo who became stars elsewhere. A case could be made that they would have been stars in D.C., but that was never a given when you see how Giolito went from the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball to a pitcher who was developed so poorly that his value plummeted. He had to be packaged with the team’s next two top pitching prospects, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, to get Adam Eaton in a trade.

After all of these years, the formula has been to spend big in free agency for pitchers or make trades for them. This includes acquiring bullpen arms since the team has failed over and over again to develop good relievers from within. At one point, they used their 10th overall draft pick to select Drew Storen, and we know how that ended. There is a high cost paid like when the Nats signed Rafael Soriano as a free agent closer, they had to forfeit their first round draft pick in 2013, the same year, the Nats botched another draft selecting Jake Johansen as their first pick that year in the second round. That entire draft was almost a bust, but the Nats did get Nick Pivetta and Austin Voth who are the only two players they drafted that year who made it to the Majors. Coincidentally, the Nats faced Pivetta yesterday in relief, and Voth has been a pitcher with mixed results.

Yes, mixed results is the nice way to describe a player who has not been good in the total picture. It describes so many of the Nats homegrown players. At some point, if nothing else but luck comes into it, the Nats have to have a pitcher who has to make it for the team, right? Maybe it will be Adon. We all expect great things from Cade Cavalli and Jackson Rutledge who are the team’s two top pitching prospects per MLB Pipeline.

The good news is it can’t get worse. There is no way to go but up. Truth be told, Rizzo changed his drafting philosophy after selecting Johansen and some other duds to find pitchers with full repertoires who exhibited command and control instead of seeking pitchers with just high velo. Many times the failures occur with making poor choices and others because of poor development, and many times it is just good luck or bad luck because injuries happen.

Some teams choose based on a player having a good foundation, high baseball aptitude, and a superior work ethic. On the old scouting report they grade them as baseball instincts and make-up. When you look at scouting reports, you want to see something special in the summation. What sets the player apart from others?

The Nats near-future will be building a major league roster from players you have seen and not counting on the minor leaguers. Sure, Cavalli might be up at some point, but to pencil him in now won’t help for the 2022 opening day roster. The team will have to fill-in from free agent signings and spend the money to get there. While Cavalli could be a mid-season player, the key is to allow him develop to his potential.

Today and tomorrow the Nats will meet with each player and give them their evaluation and what they want them working on. For most of them, they need rest and shouldn’t pick up a baseball for a while. For others like the oft-injured Strasburg, he will be starting his throwing program in November as he works back from his thoracic outlet surgery. Others like Patrick Corbin is working on the weak parts of their game.

“Our goal is to win,” Rizzo said yesterday to the media. “It’s to win the division. It’s to win the World Series, each and every year. Some seasons you go into the winter and it’s a little more problematic to foresee that. But our goal is to be better next year, to give ourselves a chance to win and build a roster that can fortify us throughout the season.”

The team is at a CBT salary calculation of $128 million so Rizzo can fortify from that. Last year, he let us know that he will be doing an autopsy on the death of a failed season. He will meet with his staff and try to figure it out. Sometimes it is best to see what was broken, but it starts with the personnel on the field and maybe the way decisions are made. How many losses were avoidable by just making bad decisions and how many because the team was just bad?

“Our mantra here has been that starting pitching is the most important thing, and pitchers have to go deep in games to give us a chance to win, to take the onus off the bullpen,” Rizzo said. “I always think of it this way, right or wrong: Your starting pitchers are your best pitchers. Most relievers are failed starters that moved to the bullpen.”

“So we’re going to count on the pitchability, the talent and the expertise of our starting pitchers to get us the bulk of our innings each game. For 11 years when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and wins, and that’s how we built our championship-caliber clubs and that formula’s not changing.”

Rizzo says right or wrong, and isn’t it time to make sure you are not wrong? Part of that statement is a problem in today’s game of baseball that you have to rely on your bullpen to win just like the Nats did successfully in the 2019 postseason by thinking differently than they had before. It is time to turn the bullpen into a strength. Other teams rely on a balance of their pitching staffs between starters and relievers, and if you total up the last 10 years the Nats have relied the least on their bullpen for innings. Of course you will rely more on your starting pitchers, but 610 innings is the target for bullpen innings if you look at averages.

Even in this failed year, the Nats bullpen usage was the fifth lowest in baseball. Tampa had the best record in the American League and led the Majors in 703 bullpen innings while the Nats finished at 566 2/3 innings. Tampa also had the most efficient $/win in baseball at $798,000 per win, and the Dodgers were at $2,520,750  per win. The Nats unfortunately finished at $2,221,500 and might be the only place they beat the Dodgers in 2021. By the way, the Dodgers ranked 14th in highest bullpen usage at 608 2/3 innings.

So yes, the best teams in the league relied on a heavier mix of bullpen usage. It is having the proper strategy, analytics and perspective that you need the proper balance. And of course it matters who you have on your pitching staff. Players do matter. Rizzo does have to adjust his thinking and get with the times. Maybe not to the extreme of using openers like the Rays, but doing what the Giants and Dodgers do analytically to know you have diminishing returns with some starters and pushing them to more innings might not be the answer.

In order to get better, you do need a better pitching: starters and relievers. Having good role management is a key too. But Rizzo is right, that it starts with the starting pitchers. This is all inter-related in how the entire pitching staff performs, but let’s be real here, the Nats 2021 starting pitching staff finished with a 4.64 ERA — ranking them 11th worst in the Majors. Those numbers are skewed some since they include Max Scherzer‘s 2.76 ERA over his 19 starts so it was a 4.94 ERA without the greatest pitcher in Nats’ history. The starting pitching was almost as poor as the bullpen that finished with a 5.08 ERA — the difference of just 0.14 runs per game which would total 1 extra run a week. Think about that fact on the value of 1 extra run a week, but more so to the value of 1 extra run a game. That is the analytics conundrum here, and what Rizzo has to fix going forward.

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