The 2016 Washington Nationals have few obvious needs. The offense, which got off to a sluggish start, has been on a tear. The starting pitching remains top-notch. The defense, which was disastrous in 2015, has been terrific this year.

Even the bullpen — a glaring question mark heading into the season — has been generally excellent. Still, the bullpen has haunted the Nats in the past and the club will almost certainly be looking to upgrade there, particularly in regard to who takes on the vaunted closer role.

At present, the story of the Nationals bullpen is as follows.

Righty Blake Treinen has a devastating sinker and erases righties, but has struggled against lefties. Lefty Felipe Rivero boasts high-octane heat as well as terrific off-speed stuff. Manager Dusty Baker has used Rivero in high-leverage, late-inning situations to great effect, but Rivero has, of late, developed a gnarly reverse split: he smothers righties, but lefties eat him up.

Yusmeiro Petit is the ultimate insurance card and not a closer, per se, and Oliver Perez is largely limited to facing left-handed hitters. Shawn Kelley has been fantastic in his set-up role, but his lengthy injury history means his pitch counts have to be watched carefully, and in any case, he can’t do everything.

Jonathan Papelbon clearly still has the mentality, the ice-in-his-veins attitude, to close out games, but his stuff is in major decline, which means his margin for error is in major decline, too.

Sammy Solis is a wild card, an unexpected addition who has come on strong, quickly. The 6’5″, 230 pound 27-year-old was promoted after Matt Belisle went on the DL with a calf injury in May.

Here’s a look at Solis in action a week ago against the Reds:

He boasts three pitches. A mid-90s fastball, a change-up and curve. Between the three, on average, there’s a 15 mph difference between his fastest and slowest offerings.

In this clip, we see him doing what good pitchers do: burying off-speed and breaking pitches in the dirt, and then getting guys to chase high heat. He got Joey Votto totally off-balance; he induced a bunch of ugly swings and weak, rolled-over ground balls.

This outing saw him go three full innings with six strikeouts and no walks in a game where the Nats had to battle back from a five-run deficit. It was particularly impressive because the stakes were so low: rather than merely eat mediocre innings in a road-game rout, Solis stabilized the game. He shut down a red-hot, talented offense in a hitter-friendly park. He took over for a struggling starter and allowed the Nats’ offense some margin of error, some stability, from which to climb back and eventually win the game, 10-9.

Two relievers, 2016 Nationals
Player IP BABIP LOB% K/9 BB/9 HR/9
A 19.0 .186 90.9 10.42 4.74 0.47
B 24.2 .315 79.5 6.93 2.92 0.73

Player A is Solis; player B is Papelbon. They’ve pitched a similar amount of innings and Solis has simply out-pitched Papelbon across the board. Particularly problematic is Papelbon’s low strikeout rate and very high batting average on balls in play. In sum, he’s not missing many bats and giving up a lot of contact. A lot of that contact results in baserunners and therefore, run-scoring chances.

Solis, meanwhile, misses far more bats, and when he doesn’t, that .186 BABIP indicates he’s generating mostly poor, easily defendable contact.

Batted ball metrics for two relievers, 2016 Nationals
Player GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
A 39.5 37.2 22.7 50.0 27.3
B 34.7 44.0 10.7 60.0 29.3

Again, Solis compares favorably. When he does give up hits, he’s giving up much less damaging contact. And where Treinen and Rivero falter, having tough splits, Solis shines. Lefties are managing a microscopic .174/.208/.261 against him and righties limp to a .174/.275/.214 slash line.

The Nationals may well look to solve the bullpen by trade. Maybe they go after Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman – both of whom have extensive resumes as closer and filthy, nearly unhittable stuff. Either would bolster a good bullpen — and both would require a king’s ransom to acquire.

Solis, meanwhile, would not cost talent or additional salary space. He’s right here, ready to go, and has shown the stuff, physically and mentally, to suggest that he can be a highly successful late-inning, high-leverage pitcher for a championship-caliber club.

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2 Responses

  1. CK

    Uh, that’s not quite how BABIP works. A player can induce soft contact, but that’s no guarantee that their BABIP will remain low. A low BABIP normally indicates that a pitcher is getting lucky on the balls hitters are hitting off his pitches. BABIP only stabilizes for a pitcher after hitters hit 2,000 balls into play against them, so it clearly hasn’t stabilized for Solis. Most likely, he should expect a BABIP of ~.300 until he can demonstrate the ability to keep his BABIP that low for 2,000 balls into play off his pitches. All that said, Solis is definitely still better than Papelbon (a 3.63 SIERA vs. a 4.23 SIERA), but Solis has some glaring flaws as well. Most noticeably, a 13.2 BB% that is way too high. In addition to getting lucky in BABIP, he also appears to getting lucky with LOB%, since he’s at 90.9% at the moment and the league average is ~70-72%.

    If we’re talking best RP in the Nats bullpen, it’s by far Kelley:,4,5,11,7,8,13,-1,36,120,37,121,38,40,43,44,48,51,-1,6,45,62,122,42,-1,59&season=2016&month=0&season1=2016&ind=0&team=24&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=21,a. Rivero has pitched quite well too, despite his poor ERA.

    Finally, you should use K%, BB%, and HR/FB% because worse pitchers will often face more batters per inning than better pitchers, meaning a pitcher who strikes out two of six batters in an inning will have the same K/9 as a pitcher who strikes out two of three batters in an inning. The percentage stats are more useful because they are measuring the percentage of batters and not the percentage of outs.

    • Alex Yalen

      Great comment. Your points about BABIP are especially well-taken, and I will be more careful in the future.


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