Relievers’ lofty spring ERAs not a concern in Nats camp

VIERA, Fla. - It’s here. The final day of spring training is here. Boy, these seven weeks really have flown by.

I’m kidding. They really haven’t. It’s time to get out of here and get some meaningful games under way.

I’ve jammed all my clothes into a couple bags, left some condiments in the fridge in my hotel room and am about to head out the door and make the drive over to Space Coast Stadium for the final time this spring. If you’re on the east coast of Florida and need some barbeque sauce or pasta, feel free to swing by my empty hotel room and grab what’s left.

Following yesterday’s game, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said that closer Rafael Soriano “looked a little rusty” in his inning of work. Soriano allowed a hit and a walk with one strikeout in a scoreless ninth. He’ll take the mound again today in the Nats’ Grapefruit League finale against the Mets for his eighth appearance of spring.

It’s a small sample size (just 5 2/3 innings, actually), but Soriano’s numbers this spring aren’t too pretty. He has a 9.53 ERA, having allowed six runs on 10 hits. But the Nationals’ new closer isn’t alone.

Craig Stammen has a 6.59 ERA this spring. Zach Duke’s ERA is 5.11. Drew Storen’s is 5.06. In fact, only one reliever guaranteed a spot in the Nats’ bullpen (we’ll leave J.C. Romero and Henry Rodriguez out of this group for now) has a spring ERA below 3.75. That’s Tyler Clippard, who has been nearly unhittable this spring, throwing nine scoreless innings with two hits and a 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

If you think Johnson is concerned about the way his relievers have been pitching this spring, however, you don’t know how the 70-year-old skipper operates this time of year.

“If I remember, last spring it seemed like our starters didn’t throw that well either,” Johnson said.

He’s right, of course. Johnson’s six starters last spring (we’ll throw both Ross Detwiler and John Lannan in here) posted a combined ERA of 4.74. In the regular season, not one of those six guys had an ERA above 4.13 and four posted ERAs below 3.50.

We keep talking about how stats only mean so much in spring, and it might sound like a broken record. But there are more important things to worry about in spring than numbers, especially when it comes to pitchers, who are trying to build up arm strength and fine-tune certain pitches.

“It’s more getting your arm in shape and peaking for the season,” Johnson said. “In a lot of their cases, I wanted them to work on certain things. You know, like (Ryan) Mattheus. I wanted him to throw (offspeed pitches) and I don’t care what the outcome is. But any time you’ve been hit as a pitcher, you have concern. But I never put too much emphasis on that in the spring. I don’t really match them up. Mostly just trying to keep their arm nice and loose and in shape for the fastball.

“If 30 games into the season we’re like this, yeah, I’d be worried.”

He’s not alone. Storen has said countless times that he’s far from concerned about his spring stats. While Mattheus made sure to point out that he needs to pitch better, he knows that working on his offspeed pitches in spring will affect his results because he thrives when playing off his power fastball.

Even more so than starters, there are a number of factors that can go into relievers struggling statistically in spring. Relievers are often used in innings and situations they aren’t used to working; for example, a closer being used in the fifth inning, when there’s typically far less adrenaline flowing. That can throw some guys off.

If a reliever is used later in the game, he often has to deal with facing hitters that he’s never seen before, usually minor leaguers who have come on as replacements for the veterans. It’s tougher to get geared up for an appearance or have a gameplan to attack a guy when you’re facing a hitter wearing a jersey number that’s in the 80s whose name you’ve never heard.

It might all sound like a bunch of excuses, but believe me, these things matter to pitchers.

Consider Storen’s case in 2011, when he got absolutely shelled in spring, posting a 11.12 ERA in 11 1/3 innings. He allowed 24 hits, 14 earned runs and batters hit .407 off him in spring games. Storen then went out and pitched to a 2.75 ERA in 73 regular season games, recording 43 saves in 48 chances.

There’s no guarantee that when the real lights come on starting April 1, the guys in the bullpen will immediately put it all together. But for now, Johnson isn’t worried, and neither are the guys doing the pitching.

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