The Nationals have a bullpen problem, but likely not the one you've been reading about for the past three months. No, they have a pretty good internal option for closer, the problem is they have few reliable relievers beyond that and time's running out to acquire some.
The closer? Shawn Kelley of course, who put up another sneaky great season and can count himself among the better relievers in baseball.
When I rate relief pitchers the two main stats I look at are strikeout rate and walk rate, big indicators that can stabilize over a smaller sample size. They're also the two main objectives for a reliever, get guys out without giving up run opportunities and keep guys off the bases. I consider the ERA and FIP secondary for relief pitchers since they can often get lucky in limited appearances. Finally, I check three more stats to see how fluky the numbers are: swinging strike rate and contact rate to see how well they can miss opposing bats and average leverage index to get an idea of the pressure they pitched under.
Here's Kelley's percentile rank (higher always better) among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched last season:
That's right, Kelley had a higher strikeout rate than 96 percent of relievers last season and a walk rate lower than 91 percent, those are elite numbers. The ERA and FIP ranks around 82 percent are also solid. These numbers point to Kelley being an elite out reliever who won't put extra runners on base as he works through an inning, both key for stress-free ninth innings.
The only troubling number for Kelley here is the average leverage index for his appearances, which was higher than just 52 percent of relievers, meaning he wasn't facing many high stress situations while amassing these numbers. However, taking a quick look at his wOBA against by leverage index last season (admittedly minuscule samples), there isn't much of a difference between his low leverage appearances and the times he did face a high leverage situation. In 2016, he gave up a .288 wOBA in low leverage situations, .210 in medium leverage and .271 in high leverage spots. This is relatively in line with, and a bit better than, his career numbers of .296, .281, .298.
The most commonly cited reason for the Nationals being wary of naming Kelley the closer has nothing to do with performance, but usage. The argument goes that with two Tommy John surgeries under his belt, Kelley has been treated lightly with higher rest rates. A treatment that wouldn't be able to be continued if he were the closer. However, comparing his days rest between appearances last year to the top closers in baseball, there isn't much of a difference. Especially when you account for the fact that Kelley wasn't a closer himself last year.
Kelley pitched on zero or one day's rest 36 times which would place him tied for 5th among the group above, just one behind Zach Britton at 37. While he might not be able to reach the usage rates Jansen and Melancon did, he should be able to pitch frequently enough to serve as a closer without too many unavailable days.
So if closer isn't the bullpen issue, what's the problem? Well this is the rest of the bullpen: Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The best three guesses we have to fill those shrug emoji spots are Koda Glover, Trevor Gott and either Rafael Martin or Matt Grace, an uninspiring group at best. Glover struggled mightily in his brief debut last season, Gott never managed to crack a bullpen that had a need for good middle relief and Martin and Grace have been awful in multiple small stints.
Which isn't to say the three named members of the bullpen are all that good either. Here's Treinen, Solis and Perez's percentile rankings in the same stats we just saw for Kelley.
The first thing you notice is the abhorrent walk rate rankings. That's right, 91 percent of relief pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched last season had a better walk rate than Solis. Perez's 21st percentile ranking looks amazing in comparison to the younger two. Overall, that bodes poorly for Nationals fans who are trying to get over past traumas of relievers coming in for one out and walking the batter.
Perez comes out especially poor here, with objectively awful numbers across the board. You can argue that his only job is to get left handed hitters out, but he didn't even do that, giving up a .319 wOBA to opposing left handed hitters. That was worse than even noted left handed hitter struggling Treinen's .309. Frankly, it should be a bigger question whether or not he should be on the team at spring training, let alone opening day.
Solis has a decent strikeout ranking and that's backed up by some again decent ranks at making opposing batters swing and miss. The ERA and FIP numbers are great, but should be taken with a heavy grain of salt considering the peripherals. Treinen's bright spot is the ERA, but pretty much everything else screams fluke. He gets all of his value out of inducing groundouts (a 65.9% groundball rate), but that's a difficult tightrope to walk, especially when giving out so many free passes. Both can likely continue to be solid middle relievers, but I would be wary of going into the season with them as my second and third best relief pitchers.
The bad news is the Nats have missed their opportunity to get serious upgrades on the free agent market. Considering how many other eggs they've put into the Bryce Harper 2018 window basket you have to wonder why they didn't put a higher valuation on Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon in order to cement a world-class top two with Kelley. Even if they didn't want to spend big, they could've looked at Koji Uehara (1 year, $6 million), Brett Cecil (4 years, $30.5 million), or Junichi Tazawa (2 years, $12 million) who all had strikeout and walk percentile rankings above 70% (Cecil and Uehara were both over 80%) and were fairly cheap.
Not all is lost however as there are still some solid relievers out there who can shore up the Nats’ non-existent middle relief corps. While they can't go the super bullpen route that's currently in vogue, they can create a cavalcade of decent relievers and hope one or two have a career year to get them the rest of the way. Below are the best options on the free agent market (plus two trade candidates they've been tied to) along with their 2016 percentile rankings.
Logan brings similar walk issues as the rest of the Nats pen, but he has a great strikeout rate backed up by elite swinging strike and contact rate ranks. This is a pitcher who won't let the ball get in play often. His .215 wOBA against is substantially better than either of the Nats existing lefties, but you don't want him facing righties too much (.305 wOBA against). The other lefty, Blevins, is an old friend for Nats fans. His departure from the Nats was messy, so a reunion is likely not in the cards. However he pairs a great strikeout ranking (albeit with not as good contact rates) with an average walk rate, better then you can say for any of the Nats relievers besides Kelley.
On the right handed side, however not much better overall. Romo had an injury shortened 2016, but he still put up good rankings on the strikeout and walk rate sides, while backing it up with great contact rates. Frankly, he's the best reliever still on the market and the Nationals should be doing all they can to sign him. Even if he's taken some steps back from his closing days he'd still easily be the second best reliever in the Nationals bullpen with room to spare. I made fun of Blanton a few times during the NLDS but he put up a decent season in his new relief role. Ranking in the 64th percentile for strikeout rate and the 53 for walk rate, he certainly won't set the world on fire, but they are reliable numbers for a reliever that can hold down the back half of the Nats pen.
The two main relievers the Nationals were linked to in the trade market earlier in the offseason were Alex Colome from the Rays and David Robertson from the White Sox. It's questionable whether they're still in discussions for either of them, but I wanted to include them anyways. Colome at 28 years old is the jewel here, putting up an elite strikeout rate and swing and miss rates while pitching in some of the highest leverage situations in the bigs. Robertson is almost the complete opposite here, with a horrid walk rate ranking, for the price of his contract and what the White Sox are supposedly asking forhim, it's a good thing the Nationals have decided to steer clear.
It won’t be the best bullpen in the game, but putting Logan, Romo and Blanton alongside Kelley, Treinen and Solis will give a solid top six bullpen arms. That also allows a spot for either a hopeful bounceback year for Oliver Perez, or, preferably, for the young guns to rotate in and find another diamond in the rough.