After getting thrown into closer role, where does Finnegan fit?

PLAYER REVIEW: KYLE FINNEGAN

Age on opening day 2022: 30

How acquired: Signed as free agent, December 2019

MLB service time: 2 years, 0 days

2021 salary: $582,400

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2023, free agent in 2026

2021 stats: 5-9, 3.55 ERA, 68 G, 11 SV, 66 IP, 64 H, 39 R, 26 ER, 9 HR, 34 BB, 68 SO, 2 HBP, 1.485 WHIP, 115 ERA+, 4.52 FIP, 0.1 fWAR, minus-0.6 bWAR

Quotable: “Don’t get me wrong, he’s been a godsend for us. He’s handled the ball for multiple innings, been a five-out guy, done everything we asked him to do. I just want him to finish up strong and go into the winter knowing if need be next year, he can pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth inning for us, through October. Not just September, but we’re looking for guys who can pitch through October for us.” - manager Davey Martinez

Thumbnail image for Finnegan-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: On the heels of a surprising rookie season, Kyle Finnegan entered this campaign as a member of the Nationals’ opening day bullpen, but not projected as one of their top late-inning arms. By August, the right-hander would suddenly find himself pitching the ninth inning as their closer.

Finnegan’s season got off to a sluggish start; his ERA stood at 5.16 through his first 17 appearances, his WHIP at 1.563. But he began to find his groove in mid-May. And over a 43-game stretch from May 17-Sept. 12, he posted a 1.69 ERA and 1.289 WHIP, slowly working his way up the depth chart into more prominent bullpen roles.

A setup man for Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson by midsummer, Finnegan was thrust into the closer’s role after those two veterans were traded at the end of July. And he thrived for a nice stretch, converting nine of his first 10 save opportunities and often serving as Martinez’s only trustworthy reliever.

The heavy workload, though, might have gotten to Finnegan. He struggled down the stretch, unable to consistently get ahead of hitters and unable to keep them from making loud contact. He suffered two blown saves and took three losses during the final three weeks and saw his ERA jump nearly a full point as a result, leaving his season totals looking less impressive than they did in mid-September.

2022 outlook: The Nationals didn’t necessarily ever envision Finnegan as their closer-in-waiting. His ascension to that job was a product of the departures of Hand and Hudson and the injury and demotion of Tanner Rainey. And once Rainey was healthy and effective again, he took over ninth-inning duties in late September.

That doesn’t mean the Nats don’t still envision Finnegan holding a prominent role in their bullpen. Rainey may enter spring training ahead of him on the depth chart, and there could be other veterans acquired before then, but Finnegan at worst seems ticketed for a setup job heading into 2022, with an opportunity to prove he deserves high-leverage assignments again.

In order for him to enjoy more than fleeting success, Finnegan needs to get back to what made him appealing to the Nationals in the first place: His ability to induce ground balls. Opposing hitters topped balls into the ground only 34.9 percent of the time this season after doing it at a 42.4 percent rate in 2020. Eight of the nine homers he surrendered this year came off sinkers, which he too often left up in the zone.

At his best, Finnegan throws his sinker at the belt or lower, then uses his slider and splitter to induce even more weak contact (or no contact at all). If he can do that with consistency, he has the ability to be a good late-inning reliever for years to come.

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