It all begins with the starting pitchers on the Nationals’ roster. Pitching is the foundation of this team. If there is any major structural weakness in that foundation, you can expect the season to crumble with it. That in a nutshell describes the 2021 Nats’ season. We saw the worst bullpen in baseball history and when the house collapsed, the damage could be traced back to termite sized holes in the starting rotation that looked like Swiss cheese.
The 2021 starting rotation chart tells much of the story. Remove Max Scherzer‘s 2.76 ERA for the Nats, and your next best starters were Josh Rogers (3.28) and Joan Adon (3.38), statistically speaking from an ERA perspective. Highlighted (chart below) are innings per start coupled with the atrocious ERA’s. It doesn’t take much imagination that when you see all of those 4-to-5 ERA’s, you know how bad those scores were mid-game as the holes were dug. Still, you will see below that if the bullpen stepped up, this team could have been a playoff team which is mind-boggling.
|Name||Age||ERA||GS||IP||Innings per start|
Add to all the poor numbers, and you have to wonder if the road more traveled was the correct route with rookie Josiah Gray (5.31). The Nats went a similar path with Lucas Giolito, five years prior. Pitch until you’ve put in your 5+ innings. This could prove to be the right way to go — but only time will determine that.
General manager Mike Rizzo made it clear that his teams are built on starting pitching, and that will not change in the future. However, the starting pitching candidates for 2022 look to be a whole lot of question marks.
Begin with a 2022 rotation with Stephen Strasburg, and you have a pitcher rehabbing from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Then you have Patrick Corbin who was the worst starting pitcher per inning in 2021. The team lost Joe Ross to a partial tear of his surgically repaired UCL. Ross opted to let the UCL heal on its own without surgery, and the team tendered him a contract for 2022. So if you’re penciling in your top four starters for 2022 with Strasburg, Corbin, Ross, and Gray — you have a whole string quartet of question marks. Strum and spin that tune however you want.
“I think it’s a reasonable expectation that Strasburg and Patrick and Ross have to pitch more effectively and more often for us to quicken this reboot,” Rizzo said. “But this thing is built on starting pitching, starting pitching depth, and that’s what we’re trying to obtain via free agency, the Draft, trades and that type of thing, like we have in the past.”
The Nats would need to spend a whole s###load of money to attempt to fix this problem, but they may not — and instead, opt to roll the dice on 2022 and see what happens with the cast of characters they have on the roster. Part of the solution for the future could come in-house from the team’s top pitching prospect, Cade Cavalli, who could be available for a call-up during the 2022 season. But like in 2021, that is counting on the front of the rotation to step up.
The rest of the names on that list come with more questions than answers like with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth who could both factor into the equation. Some of the 2021 pitchers will not make the team, and some others could be DFA’d.
To recap some numbers on Nats’ manager Dave Martinez‘s 2021 bullpen, they were as we said “historically bad” in terms of blown saves and ERA. In fact, their 5.08 ERA was the worst in the NL and their 36 blown saves were last in MLB.
For comparison, in 2016, the Nats bullpen was the 2nd best in the NL at a 3.37 ERA and just 0.02 from being the best bullpen in terms of ERA, and they had 15 blown saves which was the best in the NL. Year over year, the bullpen has been on a slide downward, and truth be told, they did not pitch nearly the most innings in baseball. Not even close actually. In fact they had the fifth lowest usage in MLB in 2021. Normally the Nats use their bullpen the least. Three teams used their bullpens for over 100+ innings more in 2021.
With Martinez at the helm, we used to joke that it was “everyday” Sammy Solis until he was burned out. Then we would say the same for Wander Suero until he was burned out. Then it was the same for Sam Clay. They did not necessarily have to pitch in a game every day, it was that they were up and warming daily it seemed. Use and usage isn’t just about pitching in games, the up-and-down in the bullpen in what relievers call “dry humping” is much more than pitches per game that show up in the stats. Martinez seems to latch on to a reliever who is having success and has overused them to where they become useless. But that still cannot be the entire problem, just part of it.
On this one, it is tough to blame Rizzo from the perspective that he built a good looking bullpen for the 2021 season. Brad Hand had no blown saves in 2020, and they added him to a bullpen with Daniel Hudson, and Will Harris to form the Triple-H. The only problem is Hand was ineffective, Harris was hurt and out for the season, and Hudson was basically the only reliever who was getting the job done — and he was traded in July. But the innings were piling up and Huddy was showing his age. The rest of who they had remaining in the ‘pen, Martinez used 23 other pitchers in relief in the 2021 season. The results were cringe-worthy.
“I’d love to run a guy out there in the ninth inning where you know that when he comes in, the game is over. I think that’s the goal of every team,” Rizzo said. “But I think that the bullpen as a whole is more important than one specific person to pitch one specific inning. … It’s always part of the puzzle that you have to put together, and often-times it’s the most difficult.”
It seemed every time Rizzo called up a new reliever that they failed over and over. Some started off really well like Andres Machado but after a while relievers were either figured out by the opposition or they could not handle the way they were used. The team even traded for Mason Thompson in the Hudson deal and called him up. He gave up four home runs in just 21 2/3 innings. Clay was supposed to be an extreme sinkerballer who rarely gave up a home run — he gave up four in his 45 innings of work.
|Rank in 15 NL teams||13||3||11||10||10||14||11||12||11||15||10||11|
If you can pinpoint the bullpen problems, let us know. In the meantime, Rizzo will need to shore up the 2022 bullpen with a new closer, and hopefully two new set-up men. For minor league depth, the team has two promising arms being developed in Holden Powell and lefty Matt Cronin who was the ace closer at the University of Arkansas. The hope is they can develop into the future back of the Nats bullpen.
Before baseball was locked-out, Rizzo did nothing with the entire pitching staff. Several good candidates signed with other teams early in free agency and are off the boards. It is hard to know what Rizzo will do to help this team in 2022. Time will tell when the lock-out is lifted. For now, we are in wait and see mode.
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— TheNatsReport (@TheNatsReport) December 30, 2021