Last week, the Washington Nationals made some curious decisions regarding their bullpen. They traded Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs and designated Shawn Kelley for assignment. It seemed a sign of surrender for a team that was supposed to run away with their division.
The Kintzler trade makes a bit of sense. He’s having a good year, but his peripherals don’t exactly demonstrate dominance. His 7.5 K-BB percentage ranks 101st among relievers, and his 0.39 HR/9 seems unsustainably low. In a possibly wasted season, it might prove to be a prescient sell-high move. There are also reports that Kintzler was Jeff Passan’s anonymous source, so this might have been about culture more than baseball.
The Shawn Kelley DFA is a little harder to explain. Kelley’s FIP is high at 4.55, but his strikeout to walk ratio of 6.40 is much better. The reported reason for the decision is that Kelley slammed his glove on the ground after surrendering a home run with a 24-run lead, and management perceived him to be “in the way.”
Whatever the reason, it’s odd that a team with playoff odds at roughly a coin-flip according to Fangraphs would subtract from their bullpen. It’s especially strange when their closer, Sean Doolittle, is on the disabled list. For a team that has an 11-18 record in one-run games, they need all the bullpen help they can get.
Enter Greg Holland. For any team, Holland is a peculiar choice. The 32-year-old is having the worst season of his career, walking as many batters as he’s stuck out and allowing 28 runs in 32 innings. The Cardinals released Holland the day after the trade deadline. Just about every other team could have used extra bullpen depth, but no other team wanted to even pick him up as a raffle ticket.
Holland had stretches of effectiveness this season. In his Nationals debut, he struck out three batters after walking the leadoff hitter. After coming back from the disabled list, he went six outings without allowing a run or walking anyone.
But that’s about as good as it gets.
Even in his much better second half, Holland hasn’t really improved. He’s given up 13 runs in 12 2/3 of an inning since June 19. Five of those runs came in a disaster outing against the Giants, and another five were unearned, so maybe the Nationals think he got unlucky and he’ll improve without the Cardinals defense clomping around behind him. Even so, that’s a mighty big leap of faith.
Holland hasn’t exhibited any signs of improvement or promise. Even at the end of last year, Holland’s performance fell off a cliff as his ability to miss bats diminished. At his best point this year, his strikeout percentage was half of last year’s high.
His velocity is also down a smidge from his best months of last year, too, and even that was several miles less than in previous seasons.
Even without Kintzler, Kelley, and Doolittle, it’s strange that the Nationals would even take a chance on Greg Holland. It’s unlikely Holland pitches in any high leverage situations, but it’s curious they believe Holland has more upside than the internal options of Jimmy Cordero and Trevor Gott. Gott and Cordero have both been ineffective in limited major league time this year. Gott hasn’t been good, even in the minors, but he has been about as good as Holland. Then there’s Cordero who has pitched to a 1.67 ERA and 2.73 FIP in 43 innings in triple-A. Surely, he’s just as qualified for mop-up work as Holland is now.
The Nationals must have really believed Kelley and Kintzler were adversely affecting the clubhouse culture if the Nationals would exile them without options they trust. Holland isn’t likely to help the Nationals if they’re to come back in the division or the Wild Card race, and he’s likely just a stopgap until Doolittle returns. It’s not a move that appears to be driven by any sort of logic. The Nationals are being oddly reactionary with their bullpen, and this move seems to be a simultaneous show of desperation and resignation, a sideways move that’s made more for the sake of doing something than doing something effective.