WASHINGTON -- The use of months to measure baseball is arbitrary. Slumping hitters don’t just get hot because the calendar flipped. Lights-out pitchers don’t suddenly go in the tank because the end of the month became the first of the month. And yet we love to use months to quantify baseball. To separate it. To give clarity and perspective to statistics that otherwise might lack clarity and perspective.
Through that prism, let us examine the Washington Nationals Bullpen 2.0, which is exactly one month old today. Technically, the makeover started on July 16, when GM Mike Rizzo acquired relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland A’s. But the transformation wasn’t complete until July 31, when Rizzo pulled the trigger on a deadline buzzer-beater that brought Twins closer Brandon Kintzler to D.C. Since then, Washington’s pen has looked markedly different. The question is, with a month left in the regular season (there I go again with the months thing), is it different enough to help the Nats advance in October?
Through the first four months of the season, Washington’s bullpen was far and away the weak link on an otherwise loaded squad. After whiffing on a big-name closer in the free-agent market over the winter, there was nobody holding down the back end. Dusty Baker tried Blake Treinen. He tried Shawn Kelley. He tried Enny Romero and Matt Albers and Koda Glover. He even tried Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. (OK, so I made up those last two.) Point is, Baker’s bullpen spent the first half of the season without a legit closer and everything snowballed from there. Nobody knew their role because nobody had a set role. And it showed.
Through July 30, Washington relievers posted a 5.07 ERA that was the worst in the NL and 29th in the majors. They had 14 blown saves and were a key reason why the Nats had lost six games when leading after eight innings (two more than all of last season). To paraphrase the Run DMC classic “Peter Piper,” Baker’s bullpen was bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good.
Over the past month, it has been a different story. Since Aug. 1, Nats relievers have worked to a 3.80 ERA that’s the 10th best in baseball. Not great, but a huge improvement over the first four months of the campaign. More importantly, they’ve blown only one save in August, and the team has yet to lose a game in which it led heading into the ninth inning, both signs of just how strong the back end of Baker’s bullpen has become.
After serving as an atypical closer in Minnesota, Kintzler -- a low-strikeout hurler who relies on a grounder-inducing sinker -- has evolved into Baker’s seventh-inning guy. “He fits that role beautifully,” said a scout from a team currently in playoff position. Since coming over from Oakland, the 37-year-old Madson -- who was out of baseball for three years following 2012 Tommy John surgery -- has locked down the eighth inning and been almost unhittable, tossing nine scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts and just one walk. “He’s even better than he was before the TJ surgery,” said the scout. Then there’s Doolittle, who’s 13-for-13 in save opportunities since becoming a National. Said the scout: “He’s been lights out.”
The net effect of Baker’s new three-headed monster is a complete shift in mindset when it comes to games that are close and late.
“Doolittle being able to shut down the ninth has been huge,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “Everybody’s comfortable with the roles they’ve fallen into. Everybody in the dugout wholeheartedly believes that we're going to win the game.”
More often than not, that’s what happens. Of the 19 games Doolittle has appeared in, the Nationals have won all of them. They’ve won eight of the nine contests in which Madson has appeared, 13 of the 14 in which Kintzler has worked. The bad news is, when relievers other than those three take the hill, the results aren’t as good.
For as filthy as Baker’s big three have been, the rest of Washington’s pen still has question marks. Although Albers (1.74 ERA) has been one of the game's most underrated relievers this season, Kelley, who excelled last season in setup duty, has spent most of the season injured or ineffective. He's carrying a 7.48 ERA and has allowed 11 home runs in 21⅔ innings. Glover and Romero are currently on the shelf. Veteran lefty Oliver Perez has been solid, but is purely a situational guy at this point, and fellow southpaw Matt Grace would likely be in the minors if everyone were healthy. “It's a little shaky and rocky in there,” said the scout. “The seventh, eighth and ninth are covered, but you can't rely on those other guys.”
On top of that, Madson’s dealing with a sprained finger that’s sidelined him for the past couple of weeks. And the undersized Kintzler, who has appeared in 59 games, is starting to show signs of wear and tear: After giving up just one earned run in his first 11 games with the Nats, he has allowed four runs on seven hits over his past three outings, causing Baker to dial back his usage. Said the scout: “You gotta be a little careful with him.”
The bottom line is that, a month into Extreme Makeover: Nats Bullpen Edition, reviews have been pretty positive. Will Washington’s relievers go down in history as the most intimidatingly airtight group in the history of playoff baseball? Not likely. But with a stout starting rotation (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez) and a stacked lineup that’s getting healthy at just the right time, a good bullpen might be enough to get the Nationals over the hump and help them win their first playoff series since moving to Washington (and then some). And a good bullpen is what they have.