Nationals: Does the bullpen tank the possibility of a postseason run?

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 13: Daniel Hudson #44 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park on August 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 13: Daniel Hudson #44 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park on August 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

The Nationals Achilles Heel is the bullpen, full stop. Are Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson enough to sustain a run in October?

When the Washington Nationals clinched their fifth playoff berth of the last eight seasons on Tuesday night, it was Daniel Hudson coaxing the final three outs. Suffice it to say, Hudson would have been very far down the list of likeliest people to grab that save at the start of the 2019 season. Heading this make-believe list, without a doubt, would have been Sean Doolittle.

On Wednesday night, Nats faithful saw Doolittle back in the closer’s role for the first time since returning from injury. Doo struck out the side in a three-run game to keep the Nats a game ahead of the Brewers in the race for home-field advantage in the Wild Card game.

Two seasons ago, when GM Mike Rizzo made his annual rounds looking for bullpen firepower, it was Doolittle who came to reinforce the defenses. Ever since, he’s been the one performative constant in a shapeshifting, unstable collection of relievers.

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This season, rampant incompetence throughout the bullpen ranks led to Doolitte’s overuse, which led to knee tendinitis, which led to two blown saves and a 22.50 ERA over his final five appearances in August. Or maybe the performance dip prompted the tendinitis. Either way, the saga ended with a stint on the IL (and probably a mental complex about pitching at Citi Field, but we’ll shelve that until next season).

The 32-year-old already has a career-high 28 saves, but as the playoffs loom, manager Dave Martinez has been gifted some wiggle room in how he wants to deploy their nominal closer.

Before Wednesday night, he’d been eased in with some lower leverage innings and left-on-left individual matchups. Martinez wisely took the opportunity to shift Doolittle from a traditional closer’s role and let him play fireman for a time. It’s worked, too, with just one hit surrendered in seven appearances.

Still, he’s going to pitch in the eighth or ninth inning to protect a lead, as he did in game one of Tuesday’s doubleheader.

He pitched the eighth inning, taking on two lefties and working through the heart of Philly’s lineup to earn his second hold of the season. With a 3-1 lead and Cesar Hernandez, Bryce Harper, and Rhys Hoskins due up, Doolittle iced the heart of Philly’s order, even if the gold star went to Hudson for recording the final three outs.

Remember, the training-wheel approach for Doolittle wouldn’t have been possible without Hudson. He’s invaluable. He’s water in the desert. After five months of a historically bad bullpen, Hudson is a different species.

The former White Sox and Diamondbacks farmhand notched a pair of two-inning saves last week, then followed up with a feat Doolittle accomplished against the very same Phillies squad earlier this season: he earned the save in both games of a day-night doubleheader.

Since coming to Washington, Hudson’s appeared 22 times for a total 23 innings. He’s 2-0 with 5 saves, 3 holds, 2 blown saves, 1.57 ERA/3.87 FIP, 0.8 bWAR/0.4 fWAR. He took on the bell-cow burden pretty soon after his arrival, seeing game action 15 times from Aug 3 to 30.

Come September, Martinez let up on the gas, but Hudson’s role only solidified as Davey’s most reliable back-end arm.

Now that Doolittle is back and out of the shrink-wrap, the Nationals will embark on a do-or-die elimination playoff game with what feels like a veritable bounty of reliable arms: two.

For those nervous knitters out there in the DMV, stock up on extra skeins now because there’s still plenty to fret over. With change comes uncertainty: Doolittle may be asked to perform in this new role in the most important game of the season. And that’s not the only new wrinkle he brought back from the injured list.

His mechanics are a work in progress. He returned to the hesitation toe tap he abandoned early in the year to keep his mechanics in working order. On Wednesday night, the tap was gone. And this: his velocity was back.

Doolittle’s also been throwing, wait for it, more than one pitch. Fastball usage is down to a barely-even-worth-it 76.6% from 88.4% on the year. Until his trademark heater warms up a little, Doolittle is spending more time with his secondary offerings, a slider to lefties and a changeup-looking split-finger to righties. New role, new motion, new usage, good ole fashioned Doo.

On Hudson’s end, it’s fair to be suspicious. His .231 BABIP and a chunk of dead air between his ERA and FIP suggest he’s been a lucky duck. That his bWAR doubles his fWAR might suggest the same.

But it might not. (I know: analytics, oy, everything is a thing unless it’s actually the opposite of that thing or not even a thing at all).

With 7.05 K/9, he’s either not missing bats or pitching to contact more, depending on your outlook on life. Whyever it’s happened, the additional contact more often than not has turned into fly balls, and those fly balls are getting caught.

It helps pitching in front of a rangy trio of outfielders captained by the 21-year-old rookie who leads all of baseball in Outs Above Average. Victor Robles and Hudson may not speak the same language (or, they might), but Robles is Hudson’s new best friend. Take the clinching out from Tuesday’s nightcap as Example A:

The Nationals bullpen remains their biggest liability heading into October, but if Doolittle and Hudson are their best selves (who isn’t in the fall?), that might be enough.

For these Nationals, the formula to 27 outs in October can be simple: Max Scherzer/Stephen Strasburg/Patrick Corbin/Anibal Sanchez for six or seven innings, Doolittle for three outs, wherever they may be, which leaves six outs for Hudson…or the others.

That’s too much to ask of Hudson over multiple playoff series. But like money to pay for health insurance from your parents, the Nats are probably going to ask it of him anyway.

dark. Next. Nats Bullpen Battle Royal

The competition for the non-Doolittle chairs in the bullpen has been a straight-up battle royal. Nobody’s unscathed, but few remain. Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, Javy Guerra, Austin Voth, Erick Fedde or Joe Ross will have to get three outs a game. Occasionally, obviously, more. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

But don’t be surprised if it is.