This morning, I wrote that it might be time for Nationals manager Davey Johnson to start giving his starters a little bit of a longer leash, letting them work deeper into games when their low pitch counts and level of effectiveness dictate that another inning or two is a possibility.
Doing so would, in turn, take some pressure off a struggling Nats bullpen. But Johnson said this morning that he isn’t planning on loosening that leash on his starters just yet, instead sticking with his philosophy of easing those guys into action early in the season and trusting his relievers to hold tight leads.
“They’re going to go deeper as the season goes on,” Johnson said. “By and large, I’ve been real pleased with what I’ve been getting out of the starters. My only consideration is that guys in the ‘pen, their command hasn’t been as good as the starters’. Last year, we really attacked hitters, and this year, we’re throwing more pitches than normal.
“With the different makeup in the bullpen, with more guys that have closed, I haven’t really got in a good rotation for the bullpen. And that usually takes a couple weeks going into the season. It’s a combination of what the starters give you and the workload each guy has coming out of the ‘pen.”
The reason why Johnson chooses to protect his starters early in the season is largely because their arms aren’t used to the high pitch totals and stressful innings coming out of spring training.
In spring, guys build up their pitch counts into the 80s or low 90s, but they’re doing so not worrying about results. Instead, starters are mainly focusing on working on specific things, fine-tuning a certain pitch or attacking a certain part of the plate. Once the regular season starts, Johnson says, the mindset changes and the intensity ratchets up, meaning pitchers are throwing more meaningful, stressful pitches.
“The effort goes up, along with the pitch count,” Johnson said. “So you want to build that good base without overdoing that. And also have some guidelines on - if a guy has a positive outing, I don’t want to put him in a situation where it can turn into a negative outing. I don’t want him with that pitch limit to go out there early in the season and cough it up. I don’t want him facing the winning run. And also if I have a talented bullpen, I want to let them start an inning fresh.
“And you’re also dealing with kind of a new regime where young guys are kind of held down to a maximum (number of pitches) their first two or three years, no matter how long they’ve been in the minor leagues. Even when I first came here, the limit was 90 in the minor leagues. And then I think they expanded it to 100. And they post the number of pitches on every damn scoreboard. You can’t hardly turn around without seeing the velocity and number of pitches. So we’re kind of creatures of habit, that we’re used to when the end of our work day is when we approach a certain number of pitches.
“Like (Ross Detwiler) last night, certainly he was still throwing real good. I let him hit (in the sixth) and let him go out there in the seventh. And he was still throwing pretty good. But 90 pitches, three-run lead. I’ve got a couple (relievers) pretty fresh.”
Last night, of course, the plan backfired. Tyler Clippard came in to work the eighth, but struggled, walking three, allowing a single and surrendering a run over two-thirds of an inning. Drew Storen bailed Clippard out of a jam in the eighth but then allowed three hits and a walk in the ninth, blowing the save, and Craig Stammen surrendered a two-run homer in the 10th, leading to the extra-inning loss.
Through 10 games, Nats relievers have a league-worst 6.34 ERA, having allowed 23 earned runs in 32 2/3 innings. They’ve also walked 14 hitters, which really irks Johnson.
“I think a lot of that’s mental,” Johnson said of the bullpen issues. “I mean, sometimes you can make one bad pitch to a guy and he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. But talking to (Braves broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher) Don Sutton earlier, he said his old pitching coach used to tell him, ‘There’s more home runs come after a walk than there is home runs coming after a home run. So don’t walk nobody.’ But it’s all kind of mental to me, where you get to trying to make the perfect pitch instead of going right after them and then making better pitches.
“Since I’ve been here, that’s what basically the bullpen has done. Maybe with expectations this year, maybe we’re getting a little too fine, trying to be too precise. Instead of, ‘Hey, here. Let’s go. Hit it.’ But we’ve only played 10 games.”
Another factor to consider is that in some ways, Johnson is working with just a five-man bullpen.
Henry Rodriguez is still being eased into action early as he builds up arm strength after elbow surgery last August. Rodriguez is getting consistent medical treatment on the elbow, Johnson said, and while the right-hander is making progress, Johnson is reluctant to use him as he would his other relievers. Rodriguez hasn’t appeared in a game since Sunday.
“I’ve been watching him throw and I feel like he’s getting close to where I can start using him normally,” Johnson said. “But with leads in games and other guys throwing, their track record has been really good, I’ve gone that way.”
Then there’s Zach Duke, who has seen action in just one game this season. Duke is the lone left-hander in the ‘pen, but he’s viewed as more of a multi-inning guy than a late-inning option.
“He’s also a long man. So I don’t want to start using him as a situational left-hander,” Johnson said. “I haven’t got a good system going. It’s a work in progress.”