The Most Simple Fix for the Nationals Bullpen

Jonathan Papelbon walked off the mound in Cleveland on Tuesday night with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and no outs. That’s not what you want from your closer. Papelbon put the game in jeopardy by walking Jose Ramirez and giving up a double to Tyler Naquin to begin the inning, which led to a comedy of errors that tied the score and forced a pitching change. Papelbon then watched from the bench as Francisco Lindor beat a ground ball through the right side of the infield against Oliver Perez, completing the second ninth-inning meltdown by the Nationals bullpen in as many games, each initiated by Papelbon.

On the heels of a fruitless pursuit of Aroldis Chapman and amidst continued trade rumors targeting a high-profile relief pitcher, Jon Heyman tweeted the following after Tuesday night’s blowup:

And, yeah. Papelbon probably isn’t the greatest high-leverage relief option for a contending team. Among the 32 relievers who’ve recorded at least 10 save opportunities this season, Papelbon’s ERA- ranks 28th, and while that figure did look fine just a few days ago, we can’t pretend that these last two games didn’t happen, and we can’t pretend like the red flags don’t exist either. Papelbon’s lost another half-tick off his velocity from last year, and is now down to averaging under 91 mph on his fastball. The walk rate is higher than it’s been in five years. He’s posting the worst K-BB% of his career and his lowest ground-ball rate since his early days in Boston. More and more of Papelbon’s age is showing, and he now projects as something like the fifth-best reliever on his own team moving forward.

Papelbon projects as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and he’s pitched as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and yet he’s also pitched Washington’s most important innings. Hence, the Nationals looking for outside help regarding their closer role. But, do they really need to go outside the organization? Don’t they already have an elite closer, worthy of trusting in high-leverage innings down the stretch and into the postseason? Don’t they already have Shawn Kelley?

Kelley’s taken a bit of an unorthodox route to get to where he is, having been drafted in the 13th round of the 2007 draft, not debuting until his age-25 season, and not finding a consistent home in a bullpen until ag 28. And even then, it took Kelley a couple years to really find his footing. So it’s easy to understand why the 32-year-old has just eight career saves to his name. It’s also easy to understand why he should soon have more.

Let’s just look at the last couple years, since Kelley got out of New York and came over to the National League. These last couple years, Kelley’s struck out more than a third of all the batters he’s faced. Among 118 relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, Kelley’s K-BB% ranks fifth, trailing only Andrew Miller, Kenley Jansen, Dellin Betances and Chapman himself. The ERA- and FIP- are both 30 percent better than league average. Quietly, Kelley’s been dominant.

Looking at an even split of ERA and FIP, the projections view him as one of baseball’s 10-best relievers moving forward, with near-identical projections to Kelvin Herrera and Mark Melancon. Seven of the eight relievers who project better than Kelley are currently being used as their team’s closer. The eighth is Dellin Betances.

And, despite being a slider-heavy pitcher without a consistent third offering — typically a mix that dooms a reliever to a matchup role, rather than being capable of facing batters from both sides of the plate in a more typical closer role — Kelley actually doesn’t show a platoon split because he changes the shape of his slider based on handedness, helping it have the highest whiff rate in baseball.

Kelley projects better than Papelbon, and Kelley’s been better than Papelbon, and yet there’s this:

Leverage Index, entering a game, 2016 Nationals

  1. Jonathon Papelbon, 1.65
  2. Felipe Rivero, 1.23
  3. Shawn Kelley, 1.22
  4. Oliver Perez, 1.20
  5. Blake Treinen, 1.19

If you’re not familiar, Leverage Index is a tool that uses the inning, score, and base-out state of any particular situation to measure the importance or pressure of any at-bat. In an optimized bullpen, the best reliever should receive not only as many innings as possible, but the most important innings possible. For the Nationals, that’s been Papelbon. Papelbon’s seen some of the most important innings in baseball. Kelley’s been used more like a third reliever based on his leverage, despite projecting as one of the top-10 relief options in baseball.

So, in theory, the Nationals could improve their bullpen by keeping the roster the exact same and simply shifting more of the high-leverage innings to their best relief option, which happens to be Shawn Kelley. And, really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “Make Shawn Kelley the closer.”

Because it’s not like the Nationals bullpen is a disaster or anything. Far from it. In fact, Washington’s had baseball’s third-best bullpen by ERA, third-best bullpen by FIP, and projects as a top-five unit moving forward. The other teams rumored to be in on the market’s top relief options have had either roughly average bullpens that stick out as weaknesses compared to the rest of their roster (Cubs, Indians, Giants) or had downright disastrous first-half bullpen performances (Rangers). The Nationals haven’t had those problems. The Nationals have been fine. There’s just some cause for unrest in the most high-leverage of spots, and that comes with an easy solution.

That’s not to say Andrew Miller wouldn’t make the Nationals better. There’s no bullpen or team in history that was so good Andrew Miller wouldn’t make it better. Andrew Miller would make the All-Star team better. But with the current cost of relievers as high as it is — the Royals were reportedly asking Lucas Giolito for Wade Davis — the Nationals might be better off holding onto their top prospects and acquiring a top-10 closer by simply better utilizing the one they already have. They’ve got bigger holes in the outfield and at first base, anyway.

And once Joe Ross returns from the disabled list in the next week or two and completes what could be baseball’s best rotation, the Nationals will have Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez — perhaps two of baseball’s 10-best pitching prospects, both of whom are major-league ready — without a home. If the club feels like the bullepn needs another shot in the arm at some point, beyond shifting its highest-leverage innings to its best reliever, it could easily add Giolito, Lopez — or both — to impact the club down the stretch while also limiting the workload of the system’s two most prized arms, a la Carlos Martinez or Vincent Velasquez.

The Nationals don’t have a bullpen problem. That unit, as currently constructed, is deep, features a top-10 weapon, and contains two of the most promising fallback plans a team could hope to have. What the Nationals really have, above anything else, is a leverage problem. The good news is, that’s the easiest kind of problem to fix.

We hoped you liked reading The Most Simple Fix for the Nationals Bullpen by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Sonny Price
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Sonny Price

In 2007 Vanderbilt and Austin Peay squared off in the Nashville Regional, a game that featured David Price starting opposite Shawn Kelley. Price’s line from that night: 9 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 17 SO/2 BB. Kelley’s line from that night: 10 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 9 SO/0 BB. Ever since that night I have been a huge Shawn Kelley fan. So, go Shawn Kelley!

Beer
Member

Let’s go Peay!

Sonny Price
Member
Sonny Price

The Fly is open, let’s go Peay!

Vil Blekaitis
Member
Member
Vil Blekaitis

Or in the immortal words of Forrest Gump: “I go-go-got to Peay!”