Washington Nationals Bullpen: Three Ups and Three Downs

Washington Nationals Bullpen

The Washington Nationals‘ weekend series got off to a rough start as they were shutout by the Baltimore Orioles 11-0 as Anibal Sanchez struggled in his second consecutive start. After the series opener, the Nationals blew a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning by allowing five runs. The Nationals are sitting at 4-7 through eleven games.

Before the weekend series against the Orioles, the Washington Nationals bullpen had been excellent after an NL-worst 5.68 ERA last season. Despite allowing six runs in just three and two-thirds innings on Friday night and five runs on Saturday, the Nationals have the 13th ranked bullpen in baseball with a 3.56 ERA. In addition to ERA, according to Fangraphs, the Nationals have the fourth-best LOB% of 80.5% after not allowing an inherited runner to score all season until the game on Friday. Despite a solid season thus far, there are still some areas of concern for the Washington Nationals bullpen. Here are the top three and lowest three grades for the bullpen thus far.

Washington Nationals Bullpen: Three Ups and Three Downs

Three Ups

Daniel Hudson: B

Stats: 5.03 ERA, 5.1 IP, 7 Ks, 3 Hits

The 2019 Postseason hero has continued his 2019 excellence into 2020 until a tough outing Saturday night. In his first four appearances, Daniel Hudson did not allow an earned run and allowed just one hit. In his first inning of work, he pitched a 12-pitch top of the ninth against the New York Yankees. Then, Hudson came into a high-leverage situation last Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays when he came in with the runners on the corners. Teoscar Hernandez made sharp contact against Hudson, but Trea Turner made a diving stop and turned a beautiful 6-4-3 double play.

In his third appearance, Hudson got his first save, with the help of an unbelievable grab by Victor Robles. After the catch by Robles, Hudson worked around a two-out double by Bo Bichette to close out the game. Hudson got his second save of the season in the next game after striking out two and walking one against the New York Mets in a 5-3 victory.

However, after Sean Doolittle allowed two solo home runs, Hudson walked a batter, allowed a single, and then a three-run homer for his first blown save of the 2020 season Saturday night. Hudson has had a strong start to the season despite the rough outing against the Orioles. His grade would be an A or an A+ before his blown save, but it drops to a B after the three-run performance.

Tanner Rainey: A+

Stats: 1.93 ERA, 6.2 IP, 9 Ks, 1 Hit, 2 BB (1 IBB)

After a promising first season in Washington, Nationals fans hoped that Tanner Rainey would get his command in place to become a backend staple for the Nationals. In just 48.1 innings, Rainey had 74 strikeouts last season and a 3.91 ERA. However, walks were his biggest flaw with 38. Thus far, Rainey has had a team-high seven appearances and has pitched exceptionally. In six and two-thirds innings, he has allowed one hit, which was a solo home run to Teoscar Hernandez. However, with a three-run lead, it was good to see Rainey attacking Hernandez and not walking any hitters. Another note of promise for Rainey is his bases-loaded appearance versus the Yankees. He struck out Luke Voit with the bases-loaded which shows his improved command due to not having a base open for a walk.

After the first week of the season, Rainey had pitched four out of five days, so the postponed series with the Miami Marlins gave him much needed rest. Rainey picked up right where he left off against the Mets. Following two walks by Ryne Harper to start the inning, Rainey struck out Pete Alonso and got Wilson Ramos and Michael Conforto to fly out to end the inning. Then, Rainey was superb against the Orioles as he struck out two in a flawless seventh inning. By far, Rainey has been the most impressive piece in the bullpen with his outstanding command paired with his nasty stuff, which Nationals fans saw last season.

Javy Guerra: A-

Stats: 1.35 ERA, 6.2 IP, 6 Ks, 3 Hits (not including a suspended game vs Orioles)

After being relegated to lower leverage situations in 2019, Javy Guerra has come back and has had a strong start to the 2020 season. Guerra gives the Nationals versatility out of the bullpen as he has two appearances of more than an inning. He started off the season by pitching two and one-third innings in relief against the Blue Jays, where he did not have a strikeout and had six flyball outs. Then, he got his first hold of the season as he worked around a home run to Cavan Biggio to hold the lead. The Nationals went on to win the game 6-4.

Finally, in his last three appearances, Guerra has allowed just two hits and struck out four in three scoreless innings with two holds. One of the things about Guerra that Dave Martinez has to love is his willingness to attack hitters. He has yet to allow a walk and has thrown 67% strikes so far this season

There could be an argument for Ryne Harper in this spot, but Guerra has been excellent to start the season and has just allowed one run. If Guerra can continue this performance throughout the season, he should work into higher leverage situations, especially with the struggles of Sean Doolittle.

Three Downs

Sean Doolittle: D-

Stats: 18.00 ERA, 2 IP, 5 Ks, 1 Hit

After being overworked last season and posting a 4.05 ERA, Sean Doolittle has not looked like himself and is off to an awful 2020 season. Doolittle, who typically relies on a low-to-mid 90s heater up in the zone for his outs, has seen a substantial drop in velocity as his fastball was down to 89 miles per hour against the Orioles. In his first appearance against the Yankees, Doolittle allowed hard contact as he allowed one run and took the loss. After a two-out performance against the Blue Jays, where he retired the only two batters that he faced, Doolittle’s struggles came to the forefront. In a 2-1 game in the seventh, Doolittle issued a leadoff walk and then a single. Then, Dominic Smith hit an RBI double which ended Doolittle’s night. Luckily for Doolittle, Kyle Finnegan stranded two runners, so he only gave up one earned run.

In his roughest outing of the year, Doolittle allowed back-to-back home runs to Pat Valaika and former National Pedro Severino Saturday against the Orioles. His fastball seemed to have no life and was down to 89. Skipper Davey Martinez said that the Nationals would “reassess” Doolittle’s role in the bullpen, as Doolittle said that he feels fine physically. Especially with the injury to Will Harris, the Nationals have a hole in the backend of the bullpen next to Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey. However, Doolittle had similar struggles last season and came back to have a fabulous postseason.

Health: D

The Nationals have battled injury and the coronavirus in the starting lineup and rotation, and the bullpen has been no different. Before the season started, they placed Roenis Elias, who battled hamstring injuries last season, on the 60-day IL due to a left flexor elbow strain. Elias, another left-hander, could allow for the Nationals to use Doolittle in lower leverage situations as Sam Freeman is the only other left-hander in the bullpen. In addition to Elias, Wander Suero was also on the IL before the season started. Suero led the team with 78 appearances last season and missed the first week of the season. Since he returned, Suero struggled in his second appearance, allowing four runs in just one inning of work.

Another bullpen piece who found himself on the IL was Will Harris. Harris was placed on the 10-day IL with a groin strain. He was a key offseason signing for the Nationals as he signed a three year, $24 million dollar contract. Despite getting off to a rough start, the Nationals need Harris back in the bullpen to take the load off Rainey and Hudson. A healthier bullpen would lead to many more options for manager Davey Martinez as overworking arms could lead to similar fatigue issues that the Nationals faced last season.

Will Harris: C

Stats: 6.75 ERA, 1.1 IP, 2 Ks, 3 Hits

Although this may be harsh on Will Harris, who has appeared in just two games, he has been disappointing thus far for the Nationals. In his first appearance, Harris blew a save as he allowed a solo home run to Luke Voit. Last season, Harris had just one blown save in 60 innings of work. Against the Blue Jays, Harris allowed two unearned runs as he allowed two hits and issue a walk. After the series against the Blue Jays, the Nationals placed Harris on the 10-day IL with a groin strain.

When Harris returns from the IL, there may not be time to ease him into high leverage situations with the struggles of Sean Doolittle. The Nationals need Harris to become a reliable setup man for Daniel Hudson like he was last season with the Houston Astros where he had a 1.50 ERA in 68 appearances.

Outlook

The Washington Nationals bullpen was off to a scorching start until the weekend series with the Orioles. In addition to the names mentioned above, Kyle Finnegan has pitched well, and he has yet to allow a run, and Sam Freeman has also not allowed a run. However, Freeman is battling command issues. The Nationals hope to get Will Harris back into the mix to build a Harris/Rainey/Hudson final three innings as Sean Doolittle tries to regain his 2018 form. As they sort out the backend, the middle relief corps has pitched well for the Nationals thus far with Guerra, Harper, and Freeman. With the lineup struggling, the Washington Nationals bullpen needs to hold leads late in games as they do not have the same offensive firepower as years past.

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