The Nationals shored up their bullpen by snagging Papelbon, but did they really Jonathan Papelbon finally got what he wanted. A one-way ticket out of Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, the Phillies traded their disgruntled closer to the Washington Nationals, where he’ll assume the closer’s role from incumbent Drew Storen, in an attempt to make Papelbon more “gruntled.” It’s an interesting move for the Nationals, a team that has suffered some recent bullpen meltdowns, but did already have an established closer.
Coming into Tuesday night, Nationals relievers had compiled a respectable 3.39 ERA, seventh best out of 15 teams in the National League. Their 8.47 strikeouts per nine innings was fifth best, their walk rate of 2.67 was second best, and they have the fourth most fWAR out of any NL bullpen, at 2.9. On the surface, these are decent statistics for a division-leading baseball team.
But the ‘pen has blown 12 saves so far this year, tied for seventh most in the National League, and some of them have been recent and ugly. Over the last two weeks, their bullpen ERA was 10th in the NL at 3.98, and over the last seven days they’ve really struggled, with an ERA of 4.86, 11th in the National League. And on the season, the Nats have used 18 different pitchers in their bullpen, as they try to find a combination that works.
While Storen has been a beast (more on him in a moment), the Nats certainly have some weak links in that ‘pen, especially in the set-up role. Tanner Roark, one of the guys they’ve tried to use in that spot, has a 4.28 ERA and an fWAR of -0.2. Aaron Barrett has big-time strikeout stuff, but an ERA of 4.21. Blake Treinen’s 4.39 ERA has also been a problem for Washington, and the man they signed in the offseason to be their bridge to Storen, Casey Janssen was hurt to start the year and struggled upon his return. He has since righted himself a bit in more low leverage situations.
So in an effort to strengthen the back of the bullpen, they brought aboard Papelbon, who has been outstanding this year. In his fourth season with the Phillies he’s had his best year, with an ERA of 1.59 in 37 appearances. That would be his lowest ERA in any season since his 0.92 ERA in his first full season with Boston back in 2006. He’s not the strikeout pitcher he once was, although he is still averaging more than a strikeout per inning (9.08 K/9), with a career-high ground ball rate of 51.9%, far above his career mark of 38.9%.
With a decreased fastball velocity, Papelbon has learned to use his slider and changeup more effectively, inducing weaker contact, fewer fly balls and more balls on the ground. He is 17-for-17 in save chances so far this year, and gives an inexperienced Nats bullpen a playoff-proven closer who has thrown the final pitch of a World Series before. In seven postseason series throughout his career, Papelbon has an ERA of 1.00 and seven October saves in 21 playoff innings.
Which brings us to Storen, who has been dominant as the Nationals’ closer this year. In 36 1/3 innings he has an ERA of 1.73, averaging 10.9 K/9 and a WHIP of 1.018, converting 29 saves this season. However, in order to get Papelbon to waive his no-trade clause to come to Washington, the Nats had to guarantee that he would be the closer. So now, Storen will be demoted from the closer’s role for a third time, presumably becoming one of the game’s most dominant set-up men.
Perhaps the Nationals were still a bit nervous about Storen’s playoff past. In the 2012 NLDS, Storen pitched in four games (four innings) and gave up four runs on three walks and three hits for an ERA of 9.00, blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning of the clinching Game 5 against the Cardinals. Two years later, in 2014, he appeared in two games in the NLDS against the Giants and once again was unable to hold a lead in Game 2 of that series, eventually helping to put the Nats in a two-games-to-none hole from which they would not dig out.
If Storen can handle his demotion well and give the team the same type of performance in the eighth inning that he’s been giving them in the ninth, the Nats will boast a feared late-inning duo, shoring up an area of the team that was somewhat of a weakness, especially with the playoffs on the horizon. But if he doesn’t, it could end up doing more harm than good.
Did the Nationals have to do a deal with Papelbon? Their statistics say no. Overall, the Nats bullpen has been OK. But his addition does give them a much-needed veteran presence that can help get them through a grueling summer, but also provide a little more confidence should Washington get to play October baseball once again.