The light of these things comes from being at home when ordinarily not. Trevor Rosenthal was around for the mid-summer birth of his third child, catching all the firsts that can elude a new father when the baseball season is underway. He spent more time with his wife, Lindsey, and coached T-ball. Trainer visits, work with college kids, a slew of things other than flying from city to city and running to the mound with “300 Violin Orchestra” thumping in a stadium filled his time.
Rosenthal’s unexpected availability was tied to his rehabilitation process following Tommy John surgery in 2017 to repair his right ulnar collateral ligament. It tore after a he sent a 98-mph fastball to Freddie Freeman Aug. 12, 2017. Surgery and a release by the St. Louis Cardinals followed. As did 12 months of rehab, much of it spent on the red mound up the right field line at Maryville University in the St. Louis suburbs.
In between family time and rehab protocols, Rosenthal watched baseball. His arm felt so well after the All-Star break he began to wonder if he could pitch in the majors in 2018. Instead, he fought that notion, then later the angst that comes with watching the postseason on a couch, staying within the physical therapist-recommended process and targeting an October workout to reveal his 99-mph fastball was back.
The Nationals watched his 35-pitch workout Oct. 3 at UC Irvine. That was enough. Rosenthal and the Nationals agreed to terms Saturday on a one-year, incentive-filled deal worth at least $6 million the first year. A $14 million 2020 club option vests if Rosenthal appears in 50 or more games or finishes 30 or more. The cash pops him into a bullpen that needs a second dominant, late-inning reliever to work in front of closer Sean Doolittle. Together, if healthy, they form one of the more potent late inning duos in baseball.
“Obviously I think the plan is just being in high-leverage situations and hopefully as a team we're winning a lot of games and we have those opportunities to get on the mound,” Rosenthal said on a conference call Monday. “For me, it's not something where I need to know what exactly my role is going to be. It's something that I'm used to in the past. I've done it both ways where I just go in and I'm just going to take care of business and do my best and everything shakes out the way it should and we win a lot of games.”
Health is always the if. The Nationals believe they have existing framework to aid any pitcher who received Tommy John surgery. The process does not scare them. Still, they need Rosenthal to be the strikeout force he was prior to surgery, ideally with a corralled walk rate, in order to receive the proper dividend on their investment. They also need Doolittle, who has made more than 60 appearances just twice in his seven MLB seasons, to be at maximum availability. There’s risk in assuming both occur.
Should they, Rosenthal and Doolittle present an elite, fastball-reliant combination. Rosenthal’s Z-contact percentage — the percentage of the time a batter made contact against him on a pitch in the strike zone —was 72.7 in 2017. Doolittle’s was a flat 75. That’s optimum Kenley Jansen territory and creeping toward Josh Hader’s (68.7) dominance.
Backing the Z-contact number are two others: pull percentage and hard contact allowed. Again, Rosenthal and Doolittle shine in these categories that show they are not just getting outs, but overpowering hitters, primarily with one pitch type.
Rosenthal’s career pull percentage against is 32. His hard-hit percentage in 2017 was 26, in line with the 26.8 of his career. Doolittle ran at 33.7 and 29.5, respectively, during his 2018 All-Star season. When Jansen stormed through the National League in 2017, he did so with a 34.5 pull percentage and 25.9 hard-hit percentage. His decline this season showed in bumps in both: 43.1 and 33.0, respectively. Simply, Doolittle and Rosenthal dominate with explosive fastballs that trouble hitters even when well inside the strike zone. Contact is rare and often meager.
Yet, each continue to hunt for a secondary pitch. The type almost doesn’t matter. Call it the seed of doubt. Doolittle spent much of spring training in 2018 trying to hone a slider. He maneuvered his thumb to change his grip, threw it in counts he ordinarily would not, tested it on back fields and game mounds alike. The tinkering had little relevance during the season. Doolittle reduced his slider usage for the third consecutive season.
Rosenthal, 28, is hunting for something to play off his 98-mph fastball. He deployed a curveball until 2017, finally shelving that under the watch of then-St. Louis pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who he will work with again in Washington. He increased his slider usage once the curveball was discontinued. Rosenthal looked further into his breaking pitches during the latter parts of his year-long recovery process from surgery. He learned more about how spin rate and tilt relate to his release point. The curveball, he thinks, remains out. A breaking pitch, of some ilk, is in.
“I’m hoping over those few weeks I did that, [and] the weeks to come leading to spring training, I can dial in on that a little bit more and hopefully understand it and make some adjustments and get more of a true breaking ball, whether it’s a slider, cutter or curveball, something that I fully understand what it’s doing and able to repeat it consistently,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal will find a reconstructed Nationals bullpen -- an annual event -- when he arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., for spring training. The Nationals flipped aside international slot money to trade for hard-throwing but erratic Kyle Barraclough early in the offseason. Expect him to work in the middle innings. Justin Miller could be back. Matt Grace will return. Multiple young arms, led by Wander Suero, are again in the mix.
This time, the team is at least working top down. Doolittle is the closer. Rosenthal, healed and anxious, is being paid to setup or close on Doolittle’s days off. He can’t express enough how well the surgery and recovery went. Video from the Maryville mound shows his pop his back. The California workout was enough to earn him an immediate contract. What remains is the actual season.
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