Ryan Sullivan: Grace is best-kept secret in Nationals ‘pen

Recently, an entertainer in World Wrestling Entertainment named Buddy Murphy began calling himself “professional wrestling’s best-kept secret.” With all due respect to his creative catchphrase, I believe we should start calling Nationals reliever Matt Grace “D.C. baseball’s best-kept secret.”

Last season, Grace was quietly effective for the Nationals, producing a 4.32 ERA, 1.360 WHIP and 31 strikeouts against 18 walks over 50 innings pitched. An eighth-round pick by Washington in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft from UCLA, Grace steadily rose through the Nats’ minor league system before reaching the majors in 2015. The 29-year-old Grace does a solid job minimizing home runs and inducing ground balls, with a career 61.1 percent groundball ratio. Grace is especially effective against left-handed hitters, allowing a meager .232/.315/.235 batting line in 2017. In addition, Grace brings a unique element to the Nationals relief corps, notably his ability to throw multiple innings, as he threw two or more innings eight times in 2017. Grace does not overwhelm with his pure stuff, as his sinking fastball sits around 91 mph, and he has a good but not great slider; however, he locates his pitches well and has some natural deception in his delivery to disrupt opposing hitters’ rhythm.

Now the 2018 season has arrived and Washington has a new, forward-thinking manager in Dave Martinez at the helm. And certainly there is little question that Washington’s “A” bullpen consists of Brandon Kintzler in the seventh, Ryan Madson in the eighth and Sean Doolittle serving as the closer to finish games. However, the inconsistency of left-handed relievers Enny Romero and Sammy SolĂ­s leaves an obvious void in the bullpen for a left-handed relief specialist. Furthermore, the composition of Washington’s current bullpen lacks anyone experienced pitching multiple innings on a consistent basis. Already this season, we have seen Martinez use Grace in four of the team’s first six games, both in a multi-inning role to finish a game and in the middle innings to combat a tough left-handed hitter.

The National League East is filled with many top left-handed batters - namely Freddie Freeman, Jay Bruce and Michael Conforto - and Grace should see plenty of opportunities this summer to try and neutralize these talented lefties. Also, Washington’s lack of a solid No. 5 starter and the absence of a true long reliever should also give Grace multiple opportunities to pitch this season. Therefore, the team’s bullpen will be counting on Grace’s ability to both neutralize quality left-handed hitters and occasionally pitch multiple innings in 2018.

Much like a Swiss Army Knife, you do not realize how valuable Grace’s versatility is until you need him and the Nats will be counting on him as a vital component of their relief corps this season. Now, is there any chance we can convince him to enter each game to a loud “shushing” sound?

Ryan Sullivan blogs about the Nationals at The Nats GM and runs The Nats GM Show podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @NatsGMdotcom. 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 roster of writers.

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