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Dominant bullpen has been biggest key to Nats’ success

May 19, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

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They’ve lost more than half their starting lineup to injuries at various points over the last two months. Their star-studded rotation has been decidedly average to date. And they’ve been among the worst defensive clubs in baseball.

So how have the Nationals managed to go 23-20 over the season’s first seven weeks, leaving themselves a half-game out of first place in the NL East entering tonight’s series opener against the Reds?

Credit their bullpen, which has been nothing short of dominant.

Pick your stat to confirm this. With three more scoreless innings during yesterday’s 6-3 win over the Mets, the Nationals’ relief corps now sports a collective 2.07 ERA, best in the major leagues. From the seventh inning on, that group’s ERA drops to 1.85, again best in the majors. They’ve got the only bullpen in baseball with at least four pitchers who boast ERAs under 2.00 over at least 10 innings: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett.

Is it any wonder the Nationals exude confidence right now when their relievers take over a game?

“We feel that way,” Clippard said. “We feel very confident. We’re kind of in that mode right now. Just get us the lead, and we’ll do our thing. I think that’s certainly the case right now.”

Every member of the group has contributed in some way to date, but the three right-handers who comprise the back end of Matt Williams’ pen have led the way.

Storen is enjoying the best stretch of his career right now. He owns a 1.26 ERA in 17 games. He has 15 strikeouts to only one walk. Opponents are a collective .140 (7-for-50) against him this season.

“I like where I’m at right now,” he said. “The big thing for me is getting ahead of hitters. I’ve been able to do that, and it’s helped me out a ton.”

Storen has pitched so well, he has made everyone forget his disastrous start to the 2013 season, one that saw him demoted to Class AAA Syracuse in midsummer. He has now made 38 appearances since rejoining the big-league roster last August, during which time he has posted a 1.34 ERA.

“The difference, for me, is everything is down in the zone,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “When a pitcher is throwing every pitch down in the zone, you’ve got an opportunity to get those guys out.”

A few weeks ago, Clippard’s entrance from the right-field corner caused Nationals fans to cringe and hide under their sofas. But since being scored upon in four of his first seven games of the season, Clippard has made 15 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run. His updated season ERA: 1.86.

“I’ve felt good,” he said. “My fastball command has been there, and that’s been key for me. The changeup’s been there, too. With those two things going well right now, I can kind of do what I want to out there.”

Soriano, meanwhile, has battled through a few harrowing ninth innings to post dominant numbers himself: a 1.00 ERA, only 12 hits allowed in 18 innings, 22 of his last 23 save opportunities converted.

Throw in Barrett (one run, eight hits allowed in the first 15 innings of his career), Craig Stammen (six multi-inning scoreless appearances already) and Jerry Blevins (holding left-handed hitters to a .133 batting average and .388 OPS), and the Nationals right now have themselves the majors’ best — and deepest — bullpen.

They also have a bunch of guys who insist they’re less concerned with individual stats than shared glory.

“That’s one mentality I think we’ve always had down in the bullpen, that group mentality,” Storen said. “Picking each other up.”

  1. joemktg - May 19, 2014 at 6:26 AM

    Now if they can get the 1st inning ERA down by a few runs, they’re in business.

  2. chaz11963 - May 19, 2014 at 7:28 AM

    Very happy to see Storen back to himself after his struggles last year. Also, what a pleasant surprise young Mr. Barrett is! I really enjoy watching his intensity when he’s on the mound. Glad to see him making the most of this opportunity for his career.

  3. NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 7:44 AM

    I found LaRoche in the booth with FP and Carp. Funny guy! (Bottom of the third on MLB.tv archive).

    • Hiram Hover - May 19, 2014 at 8:54 AM

      +1 – enjoyed it too.

    • natsfan1a - May 19, 2014 at 1:35 PM

      I noticed him in the booth at yesterday’s game (used my binos to see who was standing by the window with FP). After we scored, I told my hubby that Adam needed to visit the booth more often. Just watched his innings, as I’d recorded the game. Thanks to [um, can't remember who it was] for the tip in the other thread.

  4. Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    “From the seventh inning on, that group’s ERA drops to 1.85, again best in the majors. They’ve got the only bullpen in baseball with at least four pitchers who boast ERAs under 2.00 over at least 10 innings: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett.”

    Was not aware of this. That spotlights your main setup men and closer and shows why you win the games you are ahead in but also shows in games you are behind that the later inning guys are keeping it close to where a comeback is possible. This is why Clippard has a W/L record of 4-2.

    Clippard has been perfect since April 24th and his kryptonite seems to be the Atlanta Barves. One of Clip’s losses was against the Barves and he also has a blown save against the Barves on April 11th when he gave up a HR that pushed the game to extra innings that the Nats ended up losing.

    How can MW reverse the record against the Barves where the bullpen and mainly Clippard has not been good? Clippard is like a different pitcher when facing them.

    • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:15 PM

      How can MW reverse the record against the Bravos? How about by using Storen or Blevins as the 8th inning guy in those games and giving Clip a well deserved rest? Or at least having them (or Barrett) warmed and ready if anyone gets on base. One of the biggest issues early in the season was leaving Clip in when it was clear he didn’t have it that day.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 12:28 PM

        222, that makes too much sense going with history and trying to change it. Davey was stubborn and it cost him and so far MWs record against the Barves isn’t much different.

        Change the bullpen approach and change the defensive approach to best defense for late innings with a lead and I’m hoping the poor baserunning which seemed to happen most in the Barves 2 series isn’t repeated.

        This team plays so differently against the Barves and then there’s everyone else. Approach vs the Cardinals and Dodgers seemed better.

  5. Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 8:07 AM

    Rule 5 guy Adrian Nieto has only started 10 games this season for the White Sox and is doing well in very spot duty. He has also been used as a pinch-runner and late innings catcher and is now hitting .324. The Nats might not get him back from the White Sox as a Rule 5 player. His sample sizes are still small with only 34 ABs.

    • masterfishkeeper - May 19, 2014 at 8:20 AM

      Sure hope we get him back, but with Abreu out for a while, I expect the White Sox are under no pressure to win now, so I fear they will keep him.

    • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:12 PM

      I love the idea of a spare catcher being used as a pinch runner. That guy must be special.

  6. natsjackinfl - May 19, 2014 at 8:40 AM

    People looking at the Reds bullpen numbers and licking their chops have to realize those numbers were amassed without Aroldis Chapman. Adding him to their mix changes their whole bullpen dynamics.

  7. natsjackinfl - May 19, 2014 at 8:40 AM

    People looking at the Reds bullpen numbers and licking their chops have to realize those numbers were amassed without Aroldis Chapman. Adding him to their mix changes their whole bullpen dynamics.

    • natsjackinfl - May 19, 2014 at 8:41 AM

      Man, I seriously hate WordPress.

      • Joe Seamhead - May 19, 2014 at 9:04 AM

        “Man, I seriously hate WordPress”.

        Hey, Jack! Quit reporting my comments, will you?

        Just joking, but I’m constantly hitting that report comment button when I’m scrolling down on my ipad.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 9:01 AM

      In a 3 game series the odds of seeing the team’s #1 pitcher is 60%. Nats face Cueto in the un-luck of the draw. As far as bullpens go, keep in mind the Reds starters as a group are going later into games then the league average, so this is more a battle of getting their pitch counts up and taking advantage of the starter.

      Fister gets Cueto. Must manufacture runs and hope to keep it close.

      • 6ID20 - May 19, 2014 at 10:48 AM

        No worries. The MASN commercials tell us that this series is all about Jordan Zimmermann vs Joey Votto. That’s why you watch Nationals baseball.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 10:51 AM

        LMAO

      • tcostant - May 19, 2014 at 10:52 AM

        MASN also tells us that Washington D.C. is “Birdland”

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 10:56 AM

        Malicious Angelos Sinful Network

  8. Hiram Hover - May 19, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    I’m a little surprised to see Mark use ERA, which is a poor measure of BP performance.

    No matter, because by other measures too the Nats BP is pretty great.

    WHIP is 4th in MLB, at 1.16.

    Left on base is 4th in MLB, at 79.8%.

    Of the players Mark singles out, I’d just add that Barrett has done well, but that’s in part because MW has smartened up in his use of him. Barrett may have allowed only one earned run, but he allowed 5 of 10 inherited runners to score, all of them in April.

    In May, MW has used Barrett in low leverage situations, and without runners on base (often because he’s started the inning). Barrett has made 7 appearances in May, but only one with runners on base–what was already the 8-0 blow out in Oakland. All those were low leverage situations per bbref–where 1 is average leverage, Barrett’s leverage index is 0.35 in May.

    I’m not saying this to criticize Barrett–he’s done well but he’s new to the majors, and this is exactly the right way to use him and ease him in. But since some folks have criticized MW’s BP management, I wanted to give him kudos on this one.

    • NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 9:08 AM

      I agree ERA is not the best measure, especially for a bullpen. But all teams go by the same rules, so it works for me as a rough stat for ranking. For individual pitchers you have to look past ERA, of course.

      One thing about the Reds’ bullpen (mentioned this in the other thread). They may have the highest ERA, but they also have the lowest innings pitched (95, compared to the Nats 139, which is a little above average). So not only do they have Chapman back, their starters are going deep into games.

      A game like Saturday’s, where a reliever (Sean Marshall) came in and gave up a bunch of runs in a game that was already a blowout loss pumps up the bullpen’s ERA (also yesterday when Manny Parra came in with the Reds behind and gave up 4 earned in one inning), but those performances may not reflect the bullpen’s quality when the game is on the line.

  9. Joe Seamhead - May 19, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    Hey, Mark? Where’s the love for Craig Stammen when discussing the bullpen? The guy has been nothing short of the rest of those guys!

    Boz goes on about the time missed by so many of the Nats players this year but never even mentions Hairston. By his column you’d also think it’s a forgone conclusion that Ryan Zimmerman will be the next guy they stick in the outfield because he can’t play the infield.I think Zimm is a good enough player to play out there, but I seriously worry about his shoulder when he needs to uncork one to the plate from deep LF.

    Unlike some here, I don’t think Gio is a head case. He is a tough competitor that isn’t able to get it done right now due to a physical ailment.And when that happens one does to panic a little. I hope the rest does him good.

    Now Drew Storen last year was a head case for that string earlier in the year, leaving him totally frustrated and pretty much un-coachable for a while. We’re all really happy to see Drew back.Though he abandoned the song, he really is Bad Company now!

    If Detwiler can become the left handed equivalent of Stammen this team’s bullpen would truly be a sight to see.

    The key to the upcoming series against the Reds? Keep Billy Hamilton off the bases.A speed guy like him disrupts the entire defense into making mistakes, especially younger players.

    Amazing. We all are more comfortable, at least so far, with Kevin Frandsen in LF than we are with him anywhere in the infield. Who knew?

    • 6ID20 - May 19, 2014 at 10:56 AM

      List of people who have spent significant time shagging flies and picking up grounders in the outfield before games without ever appearing in left field for the Nats:

      All starting pitchers
      All relief pitchers
      Most of the coaches
      Some groundskeepers
      Mark Lerner

      The point being that shagging flies and taking grounders is about the only “baseball activity” Zimmerman can do at this stage of his rehab. Just because he’s doing it now doesn’t mean he’ll still be doing it once he’s healthy again.

      • Joe Seamhead - May 19, 2014 at 1:41 PM

        Don’t forget some of the player’s kids.too. Hey, I ain’t saying Zim is going to play LF. It’s been speculation by Kilgore, Boz and the poster formerly known as peric. I also will go on record as thinking it’s a dumb idea, but baseball managers are the dumbest people on earth, right?

  10. Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    “Section 222 on May 18, 2014 at 10:36 pm
    That was a +1 to laddie’s comment. And I seriously doubt that the staff will review the video to see if Danny could have fielded those hits that Frandsen couldn’t. They know he’s better in the field. The fact that certain balls were hit today that Espi might have fielded is pure luck.

    zmunchkin on May 19, 2014 at 8:18 am
    It is only luck if you want to say that every ball put in play that is a hit is luck.”

    Interesting discussion and yes 222 Danny’s offense is offensive but Frandsen isn’t a whiz with the glove at 2nd. I think Danny starts tonight and yesterday was just a mental break and possibly we see Frandsen just against lefties. Tonight is a RHP.

    Between Danny, McLouth, and the pitcher you have a collective trio of almost automatic outs. They better all get extra bunting practice, and earn their pay by getting every ball in their vicinity.

    Have TyMo bat 6th to give Desi some protection in the lineup. Not sure what else you do but have them work on small ball contact and hope they find green grass.

    • NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 9:17 AM

      Disagree on the “pure luck.” There is a reason MW is reluctant to use Hairston in the outfield. That’s because balls go there. Even more balls go to the second baseman. If you have a leak in your infield that is not a good thing.

      • NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 9:19 AM

        PS. It would be different if the second baseman taking Danny’s place were Danny Murphy. But much as I like Frandsen–and I do–he’s no Murphy.

      • NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 9:20 AM

        Sorry, I think I’m disagreeing with 222 and agreeing with Ghost here. Got a little lost in the quotes.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 9:22 AM

        Are you responding to 222 or zmunchkin about the “pure luck”?

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 9:49 AM

        There is also a divide between McLouth, Hairston, Frandsen/Walters in leftfield where Hairston and his .833 fielding % and poor range isn’t worth even putting him out there regardless of who is pitching.

        I would play McLouth against RHPs and give Walters starts against LHPs and do the same with Espi and Frandsen at 2nd to take advantage of Kevin’s bat against LHPs.

        Danny also has to start showing he can make the tough plays. He has 2 drops on foul popups and when you’re not hitting you have to make those tougher plays. TyMo laying out at 1st is that type of play that we need the reserves to make.

      • rmoore446 - May 19, 2014 at 11:24 AM

        Frandsen is no Murphy but then Espi isn’t either. If we had Murphy, they both would be riding the bench. But we don’t. I agree with your opinion expressed in other strings that often good teams will carry a great fielder if he can manage at least some production at the plate. If Espi could just reduce his strikeouts, put the ball in play and get close to .190 to .200 I would be satisfied. I’m pulling for him and think he will get there. But as MW says, he needs to stop chasing balls out of the strike zone.

      • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:28 PM

        Here’s how I replied to zmunchkin in the previous thread:

        “Well, kind of. What I’m saying is that the fact that 3 balls supposedly (and I haven’t looked at the tape, so I don’t know that this is true) were struck so they were just out of Frandsen’s range, but within Espi’s is basically just chance. There were others that were within both players’ range, and others that would have been hits regardless of who was playing there. So there would be no point to the staff studying those particular hits (talk about SSS!) rather than the range of the two players generally, which they probably already know.”

        NL, you have always been so enamored of Espi’s defense that you are willing to carry his horrible offense, even when he drops well under the Mendoza line. And yesterday, in making your case that Frandsen did no better than Espi would have at the plate, you ignored his productive out that drove in an insurance run in the 8th — something Espi hasn’t done since April 24. And his K rate this month is just unacceptable. I just generally disagree that 2B is a position that calls for a defensive whiz. Most MLB teams seem to agree with me. But I understand and respect that others feel differently.

        My prediction is that Zim will not play LF this year unless Espi has a huge turnaround and becomes not just a passable bat but a very productive one. I’m fine with keeping him as a utility guy, but he cannot continue to start if he keeps hitting like he has been.

  11. chaz11963 - May 19, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    The Reds bullpen is soft in middle relief, but the back end is very strong with LeClure, Broxton, and the returned Aroldis Chapman. It will be extremely difficult for the Nats to pull off one of their patented late innings come backs versus the Reds.

    • NatsLady - May 19, 2014 at 9:22 AM

      The trick will be to get a lead early and pound it to the middle relievers (which is that the Phillies did). Not exactly our specialty but at least it’s a plan.

  12. thelatencn - May 19, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    Isn’t it correct to say that the reason ERA is considered a poor way to judge relievers because it doesn’t penalilze them for inherited runners scored? But the way Davey and now MW use the bullpen that seldom happens. Like last night, everybody pitches an inning of their own, and so there’s no reason to say ERA isn’t as valid a measure of their effectiveness as it is for a starter. Right?

    • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 9:51 AM

      Exactly thelatencn however not all inherited runners are created equally. Getting bases loaded and 1 out is different in Lev vs man on 1st and 1 out.

    • Hiram Hover - May 19, 2014 at 10:14 AM

      Nats relievers have inherited 43 runners, which makes them 8 of 15 in NL, or right in the middle. So no, it’s not that rare.

      They have let 13 of those inherited runners score, or ~30%. That is 4th worst in NL.

      But 5 of those 13 runners who scored were on Barrett. Take him out, and the rest of the BP is 8 of 38, or ~21%, which would be 3d best in the NL.

      • Hiram Hover - May 19, 2014 at 10:20 AM

        PS –

        Under Davey, it was really rare. Nats relievers inherited only 120 runners all season long in 2013, fewest in the NL, and compared to a league average of 215.

        But they were worst at letting those inherited runners score-38%, vs a league average of 27%

    • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:29 PM

      Also because giving up several runs in one bad outing an inordinate effect on the ERA of a guy who has only pitched 15-20 innings so far.

  13. Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    There you go 222:

    “@AdamKilgoreWP: Matt Williams says he’s sticking by Danny Espinosa, who’s chasing pitches and slumping horribly after a great start. http://t.co/xpAd4HqKIN

    I also wouldn’t call it a great start. He hasn’t been great in Hi Lev and RISP spots the entire season.

    • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      I agree. It was a decent start, and very welcome. But great? Only by comparison to what we expected after last year.

      I’m not surprised that MW is sticking with him for now. But once Zim returns, I’d be shocked if they make him play an unfamiliar position in order to keep Espi in the lineup. A late inning defensive double switch is another story. Rendon has now played plenty of both 2B and 3B. He can easily move across the diamond in the late innings as needed.

      Have I commented recently on the cannon Rendon has from 3B? Wow.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 12:55 PM

        Again, I agree with you but wouldn’t be surprised if RZim patrols LF until Harp comes back.

        It wouldn’t surprise me to see RZim play LF and 1B against LHPs until Harp returns.

        Once Harp returns move him back to 3rd and pull him after the 7th with a lead for a defensive replacement like Matheny would do with Freese.

      • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 1:42 PM

        Once Zim and ALR are both healthy, I would expect to see Espi back on the bench. That doesn’t mean he will never start, but it will be to spell Zim and Rendon. MW has McLouth, Hairston, and Frandsen to get ABs for. And maybe even Ty-Mo. They will share LF until Harper returns, not Zim.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 1:45 PM

        And don’t forget Espi will give Desi a much deserved day off.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 19, 2014 at 12:56 PM

        BTW, LaRoche confirmed Rendon has a cannon which we knew but always worth mentioning positives again.

  14. wearenationals - May 19, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    No mention of Det. Hmmm. I see a trade in is immediate future.

    • letswin3 - May 19, 2014 at 12:11 PM

      I’ve been looking for that trade for 4 weeks now. There are several teams who need starters, and lefty starters are always in demand. Maybe we could even sweeten the pot with some “also’s” to get a second baseman who can hit???

  15. thelatencn - May 19, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    HH, it seems to me that if you have a Davey-like manager, who rarely puts relievers in during an inning — and therefore has few inherited runners — that you would tend to have more of them score, since a greater percentage of the mid-inning situations would be truly dire (multiple runners, RISP, etc.) That would be a corrallary of the policy, since other managers might pull a starter when the first man reaches, whereas a Dvaey-type would wait until the situation got worse. Would you agree?

    • Hiram Hover - May 19, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      Makes sense – definitely a possibility.

      Also, it doesn’t help when you’re turning things over to the likes of Abad (6 of 15 inherited runners scored), Krol (7 of 10), HRod (2 of 2), and last year’s version of Drew Storen (6 of 17, vs 1 of 7 so far this year, thankfully).

  16. veejh - May 19, 2014 at 12:18 PM

    No mention of hi-lev Blev? Blev has been crucial.

    • Section 222 - May 19, 2014 at 12:34 PM

      He’s been fantastic. Seems unfortunate that he gets most of his work when we’re behind.

  17. ehay2k - May 19, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    Nice threads the last few. Been traveling so haven’t been live online to comment. The bullpen has been excellent, and all the earlier fretting about Clip seems to have properly subsided. Soriano still makes me want to order nitro tablets from an online pharmacy every time he toes the rubber, but the results are hard to argue with.

    Ramos is looking good. He is so string that a little weakness in his wrist from the hamate-ectomy is not going to really change his ability to hit. Fewer HRs in the top level of the Red Porch, perhaps.

    Danny needed, and may still need, a break. With Zimm due to come back in a next next couple of weeks, Danny needs to get back in the pinch-hitting groove.

    Frandsen is no Espi in the field, but then no one is. Missed the plays that got bast Frandsen, but the one factor may be that he is also not as familiar/comfortable with the Nats’ defensive shifts.

    As for Espi, it may just be that Danny does best when he has time to sit on the bench and decompress. He gets to watch the other guys at the plate, and that is a much a help to him mentally as a few actual AB’s are physically. He also has coaches in his ear. But one thing is for certain – his approach seems to have taken a step back from the nice short sweet swing he was showing us in April. He even hit a HR with that swing so I don’t know why he is back to the full-on HR-or-strikeout approach. But the strikeouts, especially in high leverage situations, are indication of a regression to his 2013 debacle.

Archives

NL EAST STANDINGS

W L GB
WASHINGTON 55 43 --
ATLANTA 54 46 2.0
MIAMI 47 52 8.5
NEW YORK 47 53 9.0
PHILADELPHIA 43 57 13.0
Through Tuesday's games

UPCOMING SCHEDULE
WED: Nats at Rockies, 3:10 p.m.
THU: OFF
FRI: Nats at Reds, 7:10 p.m.
SAT: Nats at Reds, 4:05 p.m.
SUN: Nats at Reds, 1:10 p.m.
MON: Nats at Marlins, 7:10 p.m.
TUE: Nats at Marlins, 7:10 p.m.
Full season schedule

Mark joins Rob Carlin and Joe Orsulak every Thursday at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet for a half-hour show on the Nats, Orioles and rest of MLB. Re-airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m., Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

ON THE RADIO

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MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.

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