Is this the worst Nationals bullpen in organization history?
A simple question with a simple answer: yes.
But, how bad? Why? What was the process to get here?
First, this season’s ugliness. The Nationals come to a rest Monday in a rare off-day with a 6.34 bullpen ERA. That total has a choke hold on last place in Major League Baseball, positioning Washington almost half a run behind 29th-place and not trying Baltimore. Minnesota resides in the middle of the pack, yet is more than two runs ahead of the Nationals.
How much is this year an organizational outlier? Here’s the rundown of bullpen ERA since team became annually competitive:
2019: 30th overall, 6.34 ERA
2018: 15th, 4.05
2017: 23rd, 4.41
2016: 2nd, 3.37
2015: 10th, 3.46
2014: 4th, 3.00
2013: 17th, 3.56
2012: 7th, 3.23
The Nationals have attempted to cure their past bullpen problems in a variety of ways. They tried to pay closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen hefty sums, but were turned down. They used a homegrown closer, Blake Treinen, but that didn’t work (and Treinen has been one of the league’s best closers since being traded to Oakland in 2017). They made a trade -- Treinen, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse -- for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. The immediate returns were beneficial. The long-term assessment of that trade will rest with Luzardo, who MLB Pipeline labels the top left-handed pitching prospect in the minor leagues. Luzardo roared through spring training this year before a left shoulder strain stalled him in March. Doolittle and Treinen have been a wash this season.
This bullpen was constructed through low-cost investment. Matt Grace, Wander Suero and Justin Miller make just above the league minimum. Tony Sipp has a base salary of $1 million. Kyle Barraclough makes $1.725 million. Doolittle is underpaid at $6 million. He’s ninth among National League relievers in WAR and tied for 36th in 2019 base salary for relievers.
Trevor Rosenthal is the bullpen’s most expensive -- and ineffective -- piece, but he is actually a cost savings in a way. Rosenthal and Barraclough combined make almost $5 million less than Kintzler and Madson did. Plus, the competitive balance tax (luxury tax) threshold has risen, further driving down cost. The Nationals went cheap in the bullpen this year. They have paid for it on multiple levels.
It’s not just ERA: The Nationals are 21st in strikeouts per nine innings; 24th in walks per nine innings; 29th -- by 0.1 percent -- in left on base percentage.
Grace has allowed as many homers in 18 innings this season as he did in 50 innings in 2017, when he was a slightly above league average reliever. Barraclough is allowing more than a hit per inning following his worst season in the majors, which was also his fourth consecutive year of ERA-plus decline.
The starters have allowed 108 earned runs -- in part because the bullpen so often lets inherited runners to score. The bullpen has given up 79 despite throwing the fewest innings of any bullpen in the major leagues.
So, back to the opening question: How bad is it? It’s the worst it has ever been, and it’s not close.
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