Can the Bullpen Success Last?

Everyone knows how good the Nationals’ starting pitching has been – they’ve had the best ERA in the league on the backs of those starters for almost the entire season, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to change that. But quietly, the bullpen has been very successful, too. They rank 6th in the NL among bullpens, which, considering how good the starters have done, makes for quite an effective pitching staff. Here’s how they stack up:

This is all well and good, and they actually rank 6th in strikeouts as well. As I said, this team has such dominant starting pitching, that a slightly above average bullpen, which is what this indicates, is going to make them pretty impossible to beat. Except for the unfortunate fact that it might be pretty tough to sustain.

On to the Bad News

Now, we often talk about pitchers or hitters regressing to the mean – being successful (or unsuccessful) in relatively short amount of time despite their career numbers showing them to be a different player. And non-traditional statistics indicate that they will eventually go back to what they were, and they almost always do. Well, that’s not what I’m talking about here at all. I’m talking about something much less complicated than that. Let’s look at this bullpen sorted by a different, very traditional statistic:

Now that we’ve sorted by IP, we see that the only team in the NL that has thrown more bullpen innings than the Nats is the Rockies, who have done some weird crazy voodoo experimentation with 75 pitch maximums for their starters. This isn’t to say that the Nats are the only contenders who have used their bullpen a ton – the Braves are only 8 IP behind them, and the Pirates just behind them, but most contenders are in the bottom half of this list.

It worries me because bullpens do get worn out. And in the playoffs, where game are very often tight, with 1 or 2 run differences in the 9th inning, this could spell disaster for the Nats. The reason for this has to do with the youth of the pitching staff. Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez aren’t getting pulled because of pitch counts, for the most part, they are getting pulled because they lose their effectiveness late. After the 6th inning, Gio’s only thrown 12 IP in 25 starts, Jordan only 8 1/3 in 24 starts, and Stephen only 5 in 24 starts. This will be remedied with experience, but this year it is the way it goes. And the bullpen gets used quite a bit.

But Does That Really Matter?

This could very well lead to a tired and ineffective bullpen by the time October rolls around. It may not, however, be all doom and gloom for this group. It is not a traditional bullpen because they have been so effective. Rather than one of two guys taking the majority of innings, time has been split between a bunch of guys. The distribution of playing time should give fans some hope that this bullpen won’t be completely worn down by the end of the season, but so should two relievers – Mike Gonzalez and Drew Storen.

Gonzalez’s effectiveness is pretty surprising considering how much he struggled the last few seasons, but then again relievers are flukey like that. He was signed to a minor league deal in May, didn’t join the Nats until June, and has only thrown 25 IP so far this year, so he should be relatively spry (he only made one appearance in the minors). Storen is less surprising, but probably more important. Because it took him so long to get back on the roster thanks to his injury, he’s only thrown 10 1/3 innings this season. As a closer or even a setup man, he’s got a chance to be in midseason form in terms of ability and wear and tear by October, which could prove to be a key.

The Nats’ bullpen has logged alot of innings, so it would almost be expected to see them wear down by the end. But because they have such depth, if Davey continues to give them all innings and distribute the pitches between them, they could still be good well into October, despite being the most used bullpen in the NL by any team not doing some weird starting pitcher experiment.

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