Commentary

Nationals' bullpen quite valuable

Updated: June 16, 2010, 11:25 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's amazing how quickly bullpens change in this game.

Relief Efforts
Case in point: If someone had told you during the preseason that, as of the morning of June 10, the major league's leaders in both saves and relief wins would be Washington Nationals, surely you'd have told that someone that he or she was crazy. To think, six months ago to the day, the Nationals' bullpen looked destined to be headed by Brian Bruney and Mike MacDougal. Both of those relievers have since been cut, replaced at the back end by what has been a surprisingly productive trio of right-handers: Matt Capps, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

Clippard leads all major league relievers in wins (eight), and he has a 1.58 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP and 47 K's (among relievers, only Carlos Marmol has more), helping him to the No. 3 spot among relief-eligible pitchers on our Player Rater. He also hasn't been scored upon in any of his past 11 appearances.

Storen, the No. 10 pick overall in the 2009 amateur draft, has a 1.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and .200 batting average allowed in his first 11 big league appearances. That comes on the heels of 41 games in the minors the past calendar year, during which he managed a 1.68 ERA, a 0.82 WHIP and 10.73 strikeouts per nine innings.

But not all has been consistently rosy in the Nationals' bullpen, because while setup men Clippard and Storen are in the midst of hot streaks, it's closer Capps in a troublesome funk. One of the best fantasy closers in April, going a perfect 10-for-10 in his save chances with a 0.68 ERA in 12 appearances, Capps struggled somewhat in May, going 7-for-8 in his saves but also adding a loss, plus turning in a 5.73 ERA and .318 BAA in his 12 appearances.

Capps' issues have only increased since the calendar turned to June, as he has blown three saves in six chances, affording opposing hitters a .385 batting average and two home runs among 28 total faced, resulting in a 5.40 ERA in his six appearances. Go back to May 17, the beginning of his funk, and Capps is just 6-for-10 in save chances with an 8.10 ERA and a .423 BAA in 12 appearances.

Although manager Jim Riggleman has given Capps a vote of confidence -- something people seem to dread these days -- those trends in the Nats' bullpen can't be ignored. They expected to be paper thin in the late innings heading into the season but suddenly boast one of the deeper relief corps in the game and have the quality alternatives to afford Capps a brief stint in middle relief to work on his problems.

As the Washington Post notes, Capps' problem is command of both his fastball and slider, particularly the latter. When he served up a three-run home run to Scott Rolen this past Sunday, it came on a slider. As Inside Edge reveals, opponents are batting .321 with a .607 slugging percentage against Capps' slider this year, significant in that during his career year of 2007, those numbers were .192 and .342. As for the fastball, in the past 30 days Capps has allowed .390 and .561 numbers against the pitch; in 2007, his numbers were .231 and .298.

In other words, if you're a Capps owner, handcuffing his setup man is a necessary strategy right now. While it does make sense for the Nationals to keep Capps in the closer role in an attempt to boost his trade stock leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, this team also wants to remain competitive. After all, it's currently surrounded by Stephen Strasburg buzz, and the last thing the Nationals want to do is displease fans by blowing future Strasburg leads because they're trotting out the least productive reliever of those three in the ninth.

Who is that handcuff? Ah, that's both a matter of experience and the team's standing in the playoff race. Clippard has the former, and at this stage of year with his performance the past year and two months, he's likely next in line. In addition, the Nationals are five games out in the National League East race and six in the wild-card race, meaning it's hardly time to begin thinking about 2011. In the event Capps gets traded, Storen might be slowly worked into the role after Aug. 1, with his sights on winning the job next Opening Day. That's the tough part about forecasting saves; you can't always tell which pitcher will be chosen to close next, and it's not unthinkable that, from today forward, the three pitchers split the Nationals' remaining saves evenly.

But count on this: Both Clippard and Storen can help you in ERA/WHIP/K's, and any possible saves from either would be a welcome bonus.

Orioles' "closers" on the mend

While the Baltimore Orioles suffered yet another loss Wednesday, marking the 12th time in their past 13 games that they had lost, at least the news on their closers was positive. According to the Baltimore Sun, Opening Day closer Mike Gonzalez tossed a scoreless inning in an extended spring training game Tuesday, while Alfredo Simon, Gonzalez's eventual successor, reportedly has been throwing and running without pain recently and, according to Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, might be activated before the end of the team's current homestand, which concludes Sunday.

Not that the news was entirely positive. According to the Sun, Gonzalez was still hitting merely the mid-80 mph range on the radar gun during his outing, drawing eerie comparisons to reports midway through spring training, which had his velocity down by a substantial amount. Diminished velocity -- later explained as a product of left shoulder inflammation -- was largely responsible for his two blown saves in three opportunities plus an 18.00 ERA and .556 BAA in those three outings. Gonzalez is still a decent distance from activation and probably a bit farther from being a trustworthy fantasy closer.

Simon, meanwhile, always could require a rehabilitation assignment, pushing back his return date. However, once ready, he's expected to reclaim the closer's role from Will Ohman, who blew his only save chance and has a 14.54 ERA and .421 BAA in six appearances since Simon landed on the DL.

But does it really matter who closes in Baltimore?

This Orioles team is on pace for just 44 wins, or 28 more, and at that rate, at best they'd provide their closer only 28 more opportunities. While fantasy experts everywhere talk about how a team's win-loss record doesn't matter when it comes to expecting saves from its closer, history shows that bad teams -- think terrible, all-time-worst caliber teams -- do have an adverse effect on saves totals.

Since the save became an official statistic in 1969, 34 teams have suffered a 100-loss season. Not once did a closer on any of those teams notch as many as 30 saves; Juan Acevedo holds the single-season record for saves for a 100-loss team, when he saved 28 for the 2002 Detroit Tigers. Only 11 of those teams had a closer reach the 20-save plateau, and the leader in the category for those teams averaged 17.1.

So while Simon's owners might want to keep him around in the hopes he can rack up a few more saves while Gonzalez recovers, keep in mind that Simon actually recorded the Orioles' last save … all the way back on May 21, 17 games ago.

Middle reliever spotlight: Kyle McClellan, St. Louis Cardinals

Although most people tend to think of Jason Motte as the Cardinals' next-in-line to closer Ryan Franklin, don't underestimate McClellan's role in that bullpen. After two strong yet unspectacular years in middle relief, McClellan this season leads Cardinals relievers in ERA (1.67), holds (five) and strikeouts (26), and don't overlook that when Franklin most recently needed a day off, it was McClellan, not Motte, who got the call in the closer's stead.

That holds total might be disappointing to those owners whose leagues count them, as the Cardinals have been divvying them up evenly thus far. But at the rate he's pitching, it might not be long before McClellan stakes a claim to the regular eighth-inning role. Not that Motte has struggled, although he has a 3.29 ERA and only two holds in his past 14 appearances, but McClellan's performance in his past 14 games is extraordinary; he has a 0.61 ERA, three holds and a .140 BAA.

Upgrade your roster

Add: John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Drop: Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers

People apparently are still clinging to the past when it comes to Brewers relievers, as these two pitchers' ownership percentages are nearly identical. Axford is claimed in 43.2 percent of ESPN leagues, Hoffman in 40.9 percent, and if you flash back only a couple of days, it was Hoffman who was owned in more, despite the fact that he hasn't recorded a save since May 7. Why so faithful? Is it merely that he's the all-time leader in the category? Hoffman might have a 4.50 ERA and .238 BAA in six appearances since being demoted from the closer role, which is at least improved upon his dreadful 13.15 ERA and .356 BAA in 14 appearances as the finisher, but can that really be termed substantial improvement? According to Inside Edge, opposing hitters this season have slugged .619 against his changeup, typically his most lethal pitch, as evidenced by .226, .284 and .229 numbers against it working backward the past three seasons. Axford, meanwhile, is 4-for-4 since getting his first save chance May 23, and while his 4.50 ERA and .324 BAA are somewhat disconcerting, understand that the Brewers have been demanding a lot from him in his new role. In two of his past four outings, he was asked to pitch more than an inning, and he has thrown 25 or more pitches in three of his past seven games. Hoffman might yet steal back his job at some point, demonstrating managers' tendencies to trust "experience" in the role, but the way these two have been used lately, it looks like Axford has at least as good a chance staying in there.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

ALSO SEE