I had a question earlier this week on the Nationals bullpen. It was a simple one: Exactly how many ninth-inning blown saves have they had and where does that compare to the league average? The Nationals have 14 total blown saves, but because a lot of old-timey baseball stats are dumb, that counts a blown lead by a reliever in any inning and not just the ninth. The answer for how many ninth-inning blown saves has to be found by looking at how many times the Nationals had a lead entering the ninth inning and then didn’t. The answer for that is six.
The Nationals have entered the ninth inning ahead 44 times and ended the ninth inning tied or behind six times. Not all of those are save opportunities since that requires a lead of three runs or less, and it is unknowable from just that date but since the Nats have 20 saves as a team, we can assume that they’ve had 26 ninth-inning save opportunities. That means their percent of blown saves is 23 percent.
Now to figure out where that compares to the major league average. Doing the same sort of thing, we can look up and see that major league teams have entered the ninth inning with the lead 1088 times and ended the ninth inning tied or behind 72 times. Divide that by 30 and the average number of ninth-inning blown saves by a team is 2.4, the average team has 20 saves and the average percent of blown saves is 10 percent. That means the Nationals bullpen is 13 percent worse than the average major league bullpen at holding a lead.
I could have simply looked at their major league-worst 5.19 ERA and known that the bullpen was bad, but I already knew that. I wanted to know if it was really blowing more games than an average bullpen or if I was projecting my perception of the bullpen onto a reality that didn’t exist. It turns out in this case that perception is indeed reality, and the Nationals bullpen is bad and is costing the team games - and not just the games where they are ahead. A bad bullpen unties tie games in the late innings and turns narrow deficits into insurmountable ones. It is impossible to know exactly how many games the Nationals bullpen has cost the team, and it is probably a smaller number than people think due to walk-off wins and the like, but it is costing the team.
The trade deadline is finally fast approaching and the Nationals have work to do to fix the bullpen. It can’t all be done with trades, though, or it might take an unconventional trade or two. Here is something interesting: The Nationals’ relief pitching has allowed the eighth-fewest runs per game in the major leagues. Now that is because the starting pitchers are pitching a ton of innings and a better bullpen would get those guys more early nights off to help put less strain on their arms. Also of note here is Joe Ross pitched only 105 innings last season. That Nats may not want to increase his innings much over 150 at this point in his career and at 70 1/3 innings pitched, he’ll reach that limit well before the season ends. Unless the Nats can limit his innings by maybe acquiring a starting pitcher at the deadline and moving Ross to the bullpen.
That move might not solve the Nationals’ closer situation, but it does help give them a better option out of the bullpen while limiting Ross’ innings. Plus, the quality of starting pitchers available at the deadline is better than the quality of relief pitching. Ask yourself this question: If you have to trade Victor Robles, would you rather do it for Raisel Iglesias or Gerrit Cole? AJ Ramos or José Quintana? I’m not sure if making either of those trades slams the door on the Nats getting a closer, but I do know that Robles is worth more than a relief pitcher. The problem is a relief pitcher is worth more to the Nats than any other team in baseball. A bottle of water isn’t worth $99, but you tell that to the man dying of thirst in the desert.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.