Nationals relievers have thrown a total of 545 1/3 innings this season, which works out to roughly 3 1/2 innings per game. It’s actually the fifth-lowest total in the majors, which may come as something of a surprise given how much it feels like their starters have struggled to pitch deep into games.
Here’s a bigger problem, though: The Nationals have totaled 540 relief appearances this year, 12th-most in the majors. And that also works out to nearly 3 1/2 appearances per game.
It doesn’t take an advanced mathematics degree to put those two numbers side by side and realize that every time a reliever takes the mound for the Nats this season, he typically only throws one inning, rarely more.
Which is how a bullpen gets so worn down by late September that manager Davey Martinez had no choice Sunday in Cincinnati to just leave Ryne Harper and Sean Nolin out there to finish off the last 3 1/3 innings of a 9-2 loss that still remained a close game until Harper gave up a grand slam to Kyle Farmer with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
Which came on the heels of Saturday night’s 7-6 loss in which Patrick Murphy pitched a scoreless eighth and then was asked to take the mound again for the ninth and promptly gave up the walk-off homer to the Reds’ Nick Castellanos.
“We tried to get Murphy to go (two innings), knowing that he has been a starter, he has been stretched out,” manager Davey Martinez said in a Zoom session with reporters. “If we had other guys that could come in, he probably would have only pitched that one inning.”
Such has been Martinez’s conundrum for months now. Because he regularly has to use four, five, even six relievers on any given night, his options the next night become limited. And sometimes he’s stuck with no option but to extend someone further than he prefers.
What’s the answer? It might just be the designation of one or two members of the bullpen as regular multi-inning relievers. Not everyone is cut out for the kind of workload, but some guys are. The trick is identifying who might be suited for it, and then setting things up for him to pitch in that role.
“I would really like to get one, maybe two, long guys,” Martinez said. “Guys that could do it consistently. Unfortunately this year with everything that went on, a lot of these guys we had to push to go two innings.”
Martinez often has watched a reliever deliver one clean inning on a reasonable number of pitches, then send him back to the mound for another inning and watch it all implode. Usually, those decisions are based on how much of a workload that reliever has had in recent days. If he’s had multiple days off, he becomes a candidate to throw multiple innings that night.
But in a more ideal world, the Nationals wouldn’t have to ask that many different relievers to record four or more outs. Ideally, they’d already have one or two trained to do it.
Martinez even has a prototype in mind: Seth Lugo, who has established himself in recent years as one of the Mets’ most valuable relievers because of his ability to regularly record four or more outs. Though he’s been used more as a one-inning arm this season, in 2018-19 Lugo threw 158 1/3 innings over 110 appearances.
“Come next year, we will try to find a guy out of spring training that could give us two-plus innings and try to keep him that way,” Martinez said. “There’s a guy that pitches for the Mets, Lugo. He’s done that role for a lot of years, and he’s been really good at it. Hopefully, we can find a guy like that, where he can pitch the sixth and seventh inning and get us through those two innings, then get the back end of your bullpen ready to go.”
That’s ultimately how the Nationals would like to structure their bullpen. They want a closer and a reliable setup man. And in a perfect world they want their starters to go seven innings and hand the ball directly to those two.
But if their starters continue to labor just to complete five innings, how much more valuable would it be to have one bridge reliever to pitch the sixth and seventh before the late-inning specialists take over?
It’s too late to make it happen in 2021. But it’s certainly on the Nats’ radar for 2022.