Nationals Make Subtle, Meaningful Bullpen Moves

Heading into the offseason, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had a tall order: to rebuild a dysfunctional bullpen.

The Nats made a strong run at Darren O’Day, who opted to stick with the Baltimore Orioles instead (as the Orioles were offering a fourth year on his contract, which Rizzo would not do). So far, Andrew Miller of the New York Yankees hasn’t been moved anywhere; he could still be an option and would be a great fit anywhere, but trading for him would cost a fortune in terms of young talent. The Nationals surely didn’t want to deal within the division to get Ken Giles, now of the Houston Astros, formerly of Philadelphia Phillies, and Aroldis Chapman is an ugly cloud of questions.

Washington seems to have found its answer to the bullpen challenge in the acquisition of four arms: Yusmeiro Petit, Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, and Trevor Gott.

Who are these guys? I’ll start with the three veterans and end with the player Nationals fans should frankly be most excited about, although all four are strong pickups for the club.

The 31-year-old Petit is probably the most familiar to Nationals fans because of his stellar work in the 18-inning epic second game of the 2014 National League Division Series. The six shutout innings he pitched are a prime example of what Washington was missing last season. In my analysis of what went wrong in the bullpen and why, I said that the injury to Craig Stammen was the first and fundamental problem that triggered a chain of instability that was never really resolved. Petit immediately becomes that Stammen-type guy – and a spot starter, too. (He nearly tossed a perfect game in 2013, losing it with two outs in the ninth.)

Petit doesn’t blow people away with pure velocity; his fastball tops out at around 88 mph. But he has a changeup, a slider and a curve that he mixes well, and maybe most importantly, locates well.

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(credit: Baseball Savant/Daren Willman)

This is a heat map of Petit’s 2015 season. We can clearly see a pitcher who does a good job avoiding the middle of the plate, spending most of his time on the corners against both left-handed and right-handed hitters.

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Last year we see a spike in HR/9, a troubling sign for any pitcher but especially for a reliever. That jump is a little misleading though – Petit has yielded 1.27 home runs per nine innings over the course of his career, so his “bad” 2015 was actually almost exactly his average mark. I tried to figure out if more of his fly ball outs were becoming home runs – but that number was only one point higher than it was during his solid, 1.8 WAR 2014 campaign.

His heat maps, to both sides of the plate, show a pitcher who is still hitting spots down and away, and not missing up in the zone more or less than usual. The home runs he did surrender were all on pitches he left out over the middle of the plate – and that’s what happens when pitchers miss spots.

I could compile statistics forever on Petit but the pattern emerges pretty quickly, which is: he is a supremely consistent pitcher. For a Nationals club that was sorely lacking in consistent performance out of its bullpen, Petit’s demonstrable steadiness, paired with his experience in long-relief, spot starting, and playoff situations, is highly valuable. Combine all that into a team-friendly deal (one year plus a club option for a second) and you have a great get for the Nats.

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