Monday night in the Nation’s capital saw a story line come to a crisis moment for the Nats. Because of the injury to Drew Storen the Washington Nationals have been dealing with issues at the back end of the bullpen all season long. The question now is do they replace Henry Rodriguez, who has been filling in for Storen, or do they let him work his issues out in the ninth inning. That is an interesting question as Nationals fans have been here before when Joel Hanrahan had the same sort of confidence and control issues before being traded in 2009.
Joe Hanrahan has since gone on to become one of the best closers in the NL and an all-star for the Pirates. It is important to remember players like Hanrahan when discussing what to do with Henry Rodriguez because it demonstrates that simply getting rid of a player isn’t a solution. It is also important to look at the struggles of players like Heath Bell to understand that a closer is not a position a team should spend money on. Relievers in baseball are volatile. It is the nature of the small sample size that follows them for the entire season.
One year Jose Valverde is perfect and the next he has 5.51 ERA and a possible trip to the DL. It is the nature of pitching one inning at a time. If a starter is at the top of his game for 70 innings it is a good quarter of the season. For a reliever that is a trip to the all-star game and an award or two at season’s end.
None of this goes to solve the Nats ninth inning issues but it does explain somewhat the nature of the ninth. The one thing to continue to understand about the ninth inning, no matter how important it seems in an individual game, is that it is still only one inning. It is far more likely that a team will win when they have a lead in the ninth, no matter who is pitching.
The way to make certain those last three outs are given to the right reliever is perhaps to forget that whole closer thing unless the team has a pitcher like Drew Storen who is good enough to get anybody out. This isn’t to say to play match-ups all night and day and to make sure a lefty is facing a lefty and a righty a righty, but to perhaps adjust to which part of the order is coming up.
Say the Nationals are in a game and the middle of the order is due up in the seventh inning and they just pinch hit for their pitcher. Then bring in Clippard to work to the middle of the order and then perhaps Henry in the eighth for the bottom of the order and Stammen in the ninth to take care of the top of the order. None of that though would change how Henry Rodriguez has pitched lately. If he were to come in against the bottom of the order in the seventh or eighth inning he is still capable of walking enough batters to get it back to the top of the order.
Runs in baseball games count equally no matter what inning they come in. In the Nationals two losses against the Reds they lost by a margin of three runs, and both games featured a grand-slam. In the first game the grand-slam happened to come in the first inning and the Nationals fought all the way back before losing in extras and in the most recent loss to the Reds the grand-slam came with two outs in the ninth inning, but those four runs did the Nats in equally in each affair.
The role of a closer is starting to become a remnant of baseball’s past. It is part of a time when four man rotations went deep into games and one man would walk in from the bullpen to pitch what remained of the game and, “save,” it for his starter. Those days are over and more often than not teams use at least three relievers to finish out a game, and if they all do their job then aren’t they all each a little bit responsible for that save?