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The Nationals didn’t need a closer but named one anyway

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In a day and age where the “closer” position is unnecessary, the Nationals had the perfect opportunity to begin the 2017 season without one. And they blew it.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals
Blake Treinen was named the Nationals’ closer on Thursday.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The argument is simple. Oftentimes, in major-league games, the final three outs are not the most important. Win probability and leverage index tell us that there is usually a spot earlier in the game, potentially around the sixth or seventh inning, where the use of a team’s best reliever is advantageous. And, for the vast majority of Major League Baseball teams — except for the Indians — the team’s best relief pitcher is in fact their closer.

Why do teams save their best reliever for the final three outs? It’s simple. To accumulate saves, yet another meaningless statistic in today’s game.

But, for young players, saving games is the only way to get paid. In arbitration, especially, players have lost out on lots of money just because they aren’t the team’s closer and have not racked up the high save numbers that closers generally do. Dellin Betances’ case in February is a prime example. So, when egos arise where players want to pitch only that elusive ninth inning as a result, it’s hard to blame them for wanting this. (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Papelbon.)

With all that said, we come to the Washington Nationals bullpen. The Nats do not have any Papelbons this year, meaning they do not have a player that would assume the closer’s role just because they are the closer. They do, however, have a good trio of lively arms at the back of their bullpen: Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover.

A closer by committee, though, doesn’t suit Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who announced on Thursday that Treinen will serve as the team’s ninth-inning man to begin the season. By doing this, Baker misses out on a huge opportunity. Here is what he told the Washington Post in February:

“I don’t like [closer]-by-committee,” said Baker, reiterating a previously stated aversion to that approach, “because when the phone rings I want guys to know, mentally, when they might be in the game.”

So, because Baker wants “guys to know when they might be in the game,” he decided to name a closer. By doing this, Baker and the Nationals are holding the league back. A successful experiment with a closer-by-committee could give the Nationals a huge advantage come playoff time and down the stretch. It would allow them to use their best reliever in the highest leverage situation, a major key in winning close games. If that’s not enough, other teams would likely start emulating the Nationals’ strategy, and it wouldn’t be hard to see this as a regularity within the next decade or so.

It’s not like the Nationals didn’t have the guys for the job. They have Kelley, an experienced right-hander who’s missed bats for his entire career. They have Treinen, a sinker-baller that has flirted with 100 mph and shows Zach Britton-type qualities, albeit with more walks. And they have Glover, another high-90s fastball player with a sharp slider and decent control. While Washington isn’t alone in sticking with the rigid late-inning roles that have long defined baseball, it does stand apart in its ability (and refusal) to break from the norm.

Here is how the three are projected to perform this season, per FanGraphs’ Depth Charts:

Nationals’ potential closers, projected

Name Innings ERA K% BB% WAR
Name Innings ERA K% BB% WAR
Blake Treinen 65 3.39 23.0% 9.0% 0.8
Shawn Kelley 65 3.20 29.0% 7.7% 1.4
Koda Glover 55 3.65 24.6% 8.2% 0.6
FanGraphs Depth Charts are a combination of Steamer and ZiPS with playing time allotted by FG’s staff.

As you can see, all three of these guys are pretty lethal. They’re high-strikeout, medium-walk pitchers that all have zero closing experience, boasting a combined 12 career saves among the three. They all have at least one weakness, too, which makes none of them a phenomenal option to begin with.

Glover, first off, is inexperienced, even more than the other two. With just 19 23 innings to his name to date — and a 5.03 ERA in those innings — he likely was not going to jump right into his first full big-league season as the closer. And, while he might be the closer for this team in the future, it did not matter how good of a spring training he had (or how fluky that spring training might’ve been).

Kelley, on the other hand, struggles to keep the ball in the park. He allowed 1.40 home runs per nine innings last year, a good 0.3 more than league average. His home run per fly ball rate of 13.8 percent was also 1.8 percentage points above the league average of 12 percent. Those long balls could cause a late lead to evaporate in a hurry.

And, lastly, Treinen struggles in medium and high leverage situations, exactly what he could be dealing with as a closer. For his career, he’s allowed 40 earned runs in 83.2 innings pitched in those conditions, a 4.30 ERA. Treinen has kept his career ERA down by dominating when the stakes aren’t as high. Plus, his issues with control — he walked 11.8 percent of the batters he faced last year, one of the highest rates among qualified relievers — could hurt him even more in these situations.

But, problems aside, how nice would it have been for the Nationals to have any of these guys available for their most dire situations? Believe me, there will be a game this year in which Nationals are tied and they bring in, say, Joe Blanton (though he’s not too bad now) in order to save one of these players for later in the game.

Having the entire triumvirate flexible for any situation would have made the Nationals a much better team in 2017. And it’s a shame that poor management — naming a “closer” by the traditional standards — is what will hold them back.

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Devan Fink is a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.