The Nationals are right in the thick of a playoff race. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that it is a race at all right now. The Nats were expected to easily win the NL East, but so far they are tied with the Phillies at 3.5 games behind the Braves. They are still the most talented team in the division, so they are still the favorites to win it. FanGraphs gives them a 77.6 percent chance at doing so.
Of course, the Phillies and Braves are not the Nationals’ only competition in the NL. The Cubs and Brewers have been going back and forth in the NL Central. The Diamondbacks are currently leading the NL West. One of the advantages that those three teams have is outstanding bullpens. The Nats’ bullpen is not so bad either, ranking fifth in the NL with a 3.84 RA9 and 24.6 K%, but behind the Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Brewers. Working in their favor is the fact that the bullpens for the Cubs and Brewers do struggle with their control. The Nats’ bullpen is tied with the Padres for a league leading 7.9 BB%.
Of the NL bullpens outperforming the Nats in terms of RA9, the Nats do have the advantage of not taxing their bullpen as much. Their relievers have combined for only 211 IP so far this season, the lowest in the NL. Only Cleveland and Houston have received fewer innings from their bullpens.
At this pace, perhaps the Nationals’ bullpen will be fresher for the playoffs than the competitions’ bullpens. While preferable, the Nats know how impactful a talented bullpen can be for the playoffs, so they went out to improve the talent.
The Nationals acquired Kelvin Herrera from the Royals in exchange for prospects Blake Perkins, Yohanse Morel, and Kelvin Gutiérrez (yes, a Kelvin was traded for another Kelvin). Herrera is in a contract year, so he is just a rental.
Herrera is a good acquisition for a bullpen facing some question marks, despite its strong performance to date. Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler have been struggling with injuries this year. Kintzler is currently on the disabled list with a forearm flexor strain. They have both been underwhelming. Madson has a 4.74 RA9 and an unremarkable 23.4 K%. Kintzler has a 4.45 RA9 and subpar strikeout and walk rates.
In terms of the strong points of the Nationals’ bullpen, Sean Doolittle has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year. He has a 1.47 RA9 and has struck out 39 percent of hitters faced. He has done this while barely walking anybody. His 2.7 BB% is almost as good as Herrera’s 2.1 BB%!
Even though he has only made ten appearances, I’d be remiss not to mention Justin Miller. Our friends over at Federal Baseball wrote about him recently. At the time that was written, he had yet to give up any runs, but then of course he gave up a run in each of his two subsequent outings. He still has an outstanding 1.42 RA9 and has already been worth over half a win. Perhaps even more impressive is that he has struck out over half of the hitters he has faced while walking none of them! This is all from somebody who has not pitched in the majors since 2016, and who had a 5.20 RA9 over 82 career appearances.
As for Herrera himself, he is having an excellent year. His 23.2 K% is nothing special, but his 1.05 RA9 is, and as mentioned already, he has one of the best walk rates in baseball. However, he did have a poor 5.01 RA9 last year. That is hard to explain even with the forearm strain he suffered. He had a 2.47 RA9 over the three years prior.
This is all to say that it is hard to project Herrera’s performance going forward. To be honest, it is always hard to project reliever performance because it tends be quite volatile as a result of always pitching in small sample sizes. That being said, his fast ball still averages 97 mph. The best information we have indicates that he will make the Nats’ good bullpen even better.
The Royals have one of the worst records in baseball, so it is no surprise that they traded away a good reliever in a contract year. None of the prospects they received are likely to be impact players, though. One could criticize the Royals for not holding out for more, especially with the trade deadline still several weeks away, but I would not blame GM Dayton Moore for believing this is the best he could get. The days of getting a Gleyber Torres in exchange for an Aroldis Chapman rental are long gone, and Herrera is no Chapman.
The demand in the reliever market is just not very strong right now. I have already mentioned the great bullpens of the Brewers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks. Check out this list of team bullpens sorted by RA9. Nine of the top eleven teams are at least in the hunt for a playoff spot, if not virtually guaranteed one. Short of catastrophic injuries, there might not be much of a market for high end relievers.
The Nationals did well in improving their bullpen without giving up any prospects that they are going to miss. As for the Royals, it is fair to call the return light, but given the market, it might not have been possible to do much better.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.