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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

It’s no secret that the Nationals bullpen is one of the weakest units in baseball this season. Fans in the nation’s capital have spent two months watching relievers cough up leads and put games out of reach, and the numbers speak for themselves. 

Washington’s team ERA among relievers is an unsightly 7.09 entering Memorial Day Weekend, nearly a full run higher than the 29th-ranked Orioles. As a unit, they’ve pitched fewer innings than any other bullpen, yet have allowed the second-most earned runs.

No one has been immune. Sean Doolittle, by far the best option in 2019, has seen his ERA balloon to 3.68. Justin Miller is the only other regular reliever with an ERA below 5, and he’s at 4.02.

It’s caused much consternation in the fanbase, and for good reason. Where did the Nationals go wrong in building this bullpen? What could they have done differently?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at four relievers who are experiencing various levels of success while no longer in Washington.

Felipe Vazquez

Vazquez has been lights out in Pittsburgh in 2019. He ranks top-10 among relievers in WAR (0.9) and top-12 in ERA (1.25). He holds the sixth-best K/9 (14.54) and is tied for the fourth-most saves in baseball with 13.

Every one of those numbers would lead the Nationals with ease. At 27, Vazquez has turned into one of the elite relievers in the sport. He’s been terrific all three years with the Pirates, and 2019 looks like his best season yet.

Of course, he wasn’t ready to be this guy in 2016 when the Nationals traded him for Mark Melancon. It was a necessary trade at the time, and one that worked out well in a vacuum. Melancon pitched well in Washington and didn’t allow a run in the 2016 postseason.

Right now, the Nats could really use a Felipe Vazquez, but the logic behind their trade at the time was sound.

Blake Treinen

Treinen has already allowed as many earned runs in 2019 (seven) as he did in all of 2018. It’s not a knock on his performance this season, where his 2.59 ERA would still lead the Nationals, but a recognition of just how dominant he was in 2018.

In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s just about impossible for a reliever to win the Cy Young. Even with just 80 innings pitched last year, Treinen finished sixth in Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP voting. 

That’s right. He was so good, he got down-ballot votes for MVP. It was a sensational year.

His usually-elite ground ball rate is down this season, which has led to some regression, but it’s still notable he put together a 2018 season that far outshines any individual season the Nats have seen.

It was clear in 2017 he wasn’t capable of performing as the team’s closer, eventually earning a demotion before being traded to Oakland.

Despite his enormous success in the years since the trade, it’s hard to question the Nationals here. Not only did it seem apparent Treinen wasn’t going to figure things out in D.C., but the trade brought back Sean Doolittle, the lone consistently great reliever the Nats have had in recent years.

Brandon Kintzler

Kintzler pitched parts of two seasons in Washington, but ultimately spent exactly one year with the Nationals. In that year, he tossed 68.2 innings while striking out 43 batters and walking 18.

His ERA with the Nationals was 3.54, too high for a high-leverage reliever. He struggled mightily in 2018 after being traded to the Cubs, but has settled down this season to the tune of a 2.96 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 24 innings.

As is the case for just about any halfway-decent reliever, the current Nationals bullpen would benefit from having him, but this isn’t nearly the loss Treinen or Vasquez were.

Shawn Kelley

Kelley was up-and-down in his time with the Nationals. His ERA was below three in 2016 and 2018, but the 2017 season was marred with injuries, inconsistency, and a tendency to allow home runs (a whopping 12 in just 26 innings).

Of course, Kelley was pitching better in 2018, but it wasn’t performance that led to his departure. 

In a blowout Nationals 25-4 victory over the Mets in July 2018, Kelley allowed three earned runs, including a home run. After the home run, he slammed his glove on the ground while staring at the Nats dugout.

The next day, he was designated for assignment as a result of the outburst and never pitched for the Nationals again, traded away a few days later. 

In his 33.2 innings since the trade, Kelley has been terrific. He posted a 2.16 ERA with the Athletics in 2018 and currently holds a 1.59 ERA in 2019 despite pitching his home games in Texas. He’s even filled in at closer with the Rangers, recording five saves so far this year.

Though his removal wasn’t for performance issues like Kintzler's or to acquire proven closers like Treinen’s and Vasquez’s were, the loss of Kelley can be felt just as hard. As is the case with each of these relievers, Kelley’s numbers would lead the Nationals bullpen in just about every category.

For the most part, these moves made sense at the time, for one reason or another. But the Nationals have yet to adequately replace most of these arms, and the 2019 team is suffering as a result.

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Evaluating the state of 2019 MLB awards races: Mid-August update

Evaluating the state of 2019 MLB awards races: Mid-August update

It's the dog days of August in Major League Baseball, and most teams have fewer than 40 games lest in the season. Still, that's plenty of time to shake things up in most awards races. Let's take a look around baseball to see who should be favored in each of the major races in both leagues.

AL MVP

1. Mike Trout, Angels
2. Alex Bregman, Astros
3. Matt Chapman, Athletics

Even with some minor shuffling behind Trout, it's the same three names here. Rafael Devers would be an obvious choice in the top three as well if he didn't struggle so mightily in the field. Chapman's all-around game keeps him easily ahead of the Red Sox third baseman in terms of both WAR and these rankings.

Again, though, this award is over. Lock it in. Write it in stone. Mike Trout is the 2019 American League Most Valuable Player. No one else is even in the same ballpark (pun very much intented) as maybe best baseball player to ever walk the Earth, who just so happens to currently be in his prime. 

NL MVP

1. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
2. Christian Yelich, Brewers
3. Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves

For the second straight season, Acuna is enjoying an otherworldy August, the kind that lets us squint and see a player who can potentially challenge Trout for "best player in the universe" status. It could happen, one day. But today is not that day.

Per bWAR, the gap between Mike Trout and the next-best player in the AL is 2.3 Wins Above Replacement. In the NL? Bellinger's lead over Yelich is 2.1.

Yelich's unbelievable power surge has colored the fact that Bellinger has been, far and away, the best non-Trout player in the sport in 2019. His incredible defensive metrics, combined with a true offensive breakout, show us a player who will win multiple MVP awards before all is said and done. Bellinger could already hit for power against righties. Now? He leads baseball in home runs against lefties, while playing the best outfield of any fielder in baseball, and still crushing righties.

Last update, I said this is a two-horse race, but that wasn't fair to Bellinger. It's his award to lose, and the only chance Yelich has is finishing with a historic home run total. Even then, it probably won't be enough.

AL Cy Young

1. Justin Verlander, Astros
2. Charlie Morton, Rays
3. Mike Minor, Rangers

Verlander remains the obvious favorite, thanks to his strikeouts and sterling ERA (first and second, respectively, in the American League). It doesn't hurt that he's doing it all for baseball's best team, even despite a career-high in home runs allowed.

Morton, of course, is the one who actually leads the AL in ERA, in addition to currently placing top six in WHIP, wins, WAR, and strikeouts. Minor was left off the last update, but it's difficult to ignore his 7.3 bWAR (no one else in the AL even has 6 WAR), and his adjusted ERA+ leads the league.

In fact, Verlander, Morton and Minor are top three, in varying orders, in several of Baseball Reference's more advanced pitching metrics, including adjusted ERA+, adjusted Pitching Runs, adjusted Pitching Wins, Base-Out Runs Saved, Base-Out Wins Saved, Situational Wins Saved, and Win Probability Added. Most of those statistics are pretty in the weeds, even for sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans. But it's telling that the same three names continually pop up across the board.

NL Cy Young

1. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers
2. Jacob deGrom, Mets
3. Max Scherzer, Nationals

If and when Max Scherzer returns to the mound, he may be able to make this a true race again, but for now, Ryu looks to have a comfortable lead thanks to historic run prevention in an era defined by run scoring.

Let's give a shout out to deGrom too, who moves into the second spot with Scherzer's continued absence. It's well-earned, as the Mets ace leads the National League in strikeouts, is fourth in ERA and has allowed just one home run in his last seven outings at the time of this writing.

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Yordan Alvarez, Astros
2. John Means, Orioles
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays

This is our biggest change from the last awards race check-in. Brandon Lowe and John Means led AL rookies in Wins Above Replacement at the time of the last update, but their continued struggles/absence has created enough of an opening for a new arrival.

We were deservedly called out for leaving Yordan Alvarez off a few weeks ago, which we did simply because of his lack of games played compared to the other contenders. We won't be making that mistake again.

Alvarez has been one of the best hitters in baseball, rookie or otherwise, since making his delayed debut in June. As a hitter who came up hot and has yet to slow down for the best team in baseball, it's fair to project forward a bit rather than look back on stats accumulated to this point. If Alvarez finishes the season with anything even remotely close to his outrageous current 196 wRC+, then he's going to run away with this award, plain and simple. 

Means' WAR is still more than a full win higher than Guerrero, but it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Vladito jump into one of the top two spots before the year is up.

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Pete Alonso, Mets
2. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres
3. Mike Soroka, Braves

Well, this stinks. Tatis stays in the top two for now on the basis of his unbelievable rookie season so far. But with his season-ending injury, it appears this award has become Pete Alonso's to run away with as he continues to set home run records. It's unclear who will ultimately replace Tatis in the top three, but for now, no one else is particularly close, even in a truncated year.

AL Manager of the Year

1. Rocco Baldelli, Twins
2. Kevin Cash, Rays
3. Bob Melvin, Athletics

The biggest question here is how much voters might knock the Twins if they end up losing the AL Central to the Indians after jumping out to such a big early lead. Will voters choose to appreciate the surprising run in Minnesota, looking past a late season "collapse"? It's hard to say for sure. Any of these three still could come away with the award, considering where each sits in the standings compared to modest preseason expectations.

NL Manager of the Year

1. Bruce Bochy, Giants
2. Brian Snitker, Braves
3.Torey Lovullo, Diamondbacks

Just like in the American League, the top three here haven't changed, and each looks pretty set in some order. But unlike with the AL race, we are going to reorder these three, swapping Bochy and Lovullo.

It makes sense, considering the Giants currently sit higher in the standings. And more and more it feels preordained for future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy to win the Manager of the Year award in his final season, as he rides into the sunset of retirement.

Snitker remains an intriguing possibility as well, though the Braves likely need to maintain their grip on the NL East for him to actually win.

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Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle. 

Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1. 

This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.

Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.

Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.

There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.

That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.

It also didn’t work. 

So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.

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