Sean Doolittle can conceivably do no wrong in the Washington Nationals bullpen – just what the doctor ordered to patch the NL East leader’s biggest hole heading into the postseason.
The Nationals closer extended his scoreless innings streak to 10 innings Thursday night, preserving a 2-1 lead for his 13th save with Washington. He struck out San Diego’s Hunter Renfroe and Austin Hedges, and induced a popup from pinch-hitter Hector Sanchez in the ninth inning.
Sean Doolittle Doing a Lot to Stabilize Nationals Bullpen
In 14 games out of the Nationals bullpen, Doolittle is a perfect 10-for-10 in save chances, with a sparkling 2.57 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a 8.4 K/9 ratio. Put simply, Washington’s trade for the 30-year-old southpaw has brought peace, prosperity, and sanity to the back-end of a Nationals bullpen whose unfavorability rating after a miserable couple of seasons and a series of big-game letdowns may have rivaled the federal government’s.
The Nationals have been presumptive NL East contenders for much of the past few seasons. But incumbent closer Mark Melancon’s departure to San Francisco via free agency this offseason reopened some old wounds for Nationals fans. The team has endured its fair share of bullpen headaches in the past three seasons, due in part to the club’s over-corrective flurry of transactions since 2014.
A Revolving Door
Veteran closer Rafael Soriano was a solid and stabilizing presence in the Nationals bullpen in 2013 and 2014. He earned saves in 75 of his 88 opportunities and held a 7-4 record, a 3.15 ERA, and a 1.18 WHIP. Due in part to this consistent performance, only three other Nationals relievers entered games in save situations in those two seasons.
In 2015, after Soriano’s departure, former closer Drew Storen returned to the role with some consistency, spinning a 1.73 ERA through 29 saves into July. However, Storen’s meltdown in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against St. Louis (granted, his third game in three days), was still fresh in the memories of the team and fans alike (and probably factored into the acquisition of Soriano to begin with). With seven other pitchers getting save chances (and five of them blowing multiple saves), the Nationals were looking to make a big splash by the trade deadline.
On July 28, 2015, the Nationals made a move to get former Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox great Jonathan Papelbon, whose acquisition unseated Storen to mixed results, as he finished 17 of his 22 games with seven saves, a 3.04 ERA, and a 1.10 WHIP.
Moving into the 2016 season, Washington stuck with Papelbon – who had a memorable run-in with franchise player Bryce Harper – and traded longtime Storen to Toronto. Papelbon saved 19 games through mid-July, to the tune of a mid-2.00s ERA, before imploding at the end of the month. Papelbon allowed a walk in four consecutive appearances, gave up four runs to San Diego on July 24 after entering a tied game in the ninth (an eventual 10-6 Nationals loss), and failed to retire a batter on July 26 against the Cleveland Indians, walking two and allowing two critical runs in a 7-6 Cleveland comeback.
Washington traded for the All-Star Melancon at the 2016 trading deadline, nearly one year after the fateful Papelbon deal. Papelbon pitched twice more in non-pressure situations before Washington released him. Melancon finished the season with 17 saves in 18 opportunities (1.82 ERA, 0.81 WHIP), and pitching 4.1 scoreless innings in the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers before signing a four-year deal with San Francisco.
When the 2017 Nationals pulled the trigger to deal for Doolittle and fellow veteran reliever Ryan Madson, they were comfortably in projected playoff position. Yet, they recognized a severe vulnerability still remained at the back-end of the game. Seven pitchers have been summoned from the Nationals bullpen in 2017 in save situations. Six of those relievers have recorded multiple blown saves. Jacob Turner blew each of his three save opportunities, and Matt Albers failed to convert four of his six opportunities. Even 36-year-old Oliver Perez was thrown out there in a save situation (he was successful).
Relievers with 2+ Save Opportunities, Nationals Bullpen, 2013-2017
|Save Opportunities||Saves||Save Percentage|
Perhaps the last straw was a gut-wrenching 11-10 loss at home against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, June 12, in which Albers allowed a game-winning, three-run home run to catcher Tyler Flowers in the ninth inning. The Braves had rallied from a 9-6 deficit after four innings to score five runs off Albers and Turner, spoiling Stephen Strasburg’s 10-strikeout performance (though he gave up six runs himself).
A month later, on July 16, Washington acquired Doolittle and Madson from the faltering Oakland Athletics for two minor leaguers and 29-year-old reliever Blake Treinen, who sported a 5.73 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP, with two blown saves in 37 games in the Nationals bullpen. Doolittle has since made 12 scoreless appearances in 14 games.
There’s been just one real scare in Doolittle’s time as closer – a 4-3 nailbiter vs. the Los Angeles Angels in Doolittle’s first game with Washington, in which he allowed a hit, a walk, and a run, but eventually slammed the door on his former division rivals. Doolittle did have a rough go after entering a game with a six-run lead on July 26 against Milwaukee. He allowed a two-run homer to Lewis Brinson, but eventually completed the inning and the game in an 8-5 win.
Doolittle’s strong performance may signify bullpen stability past this season, as he is under club control through 2020. For what it’s worth, Doolittle also has a sense of what October baseball entails, having tasted the postseason in three straight seasons with Oakland. His stats in eight games from 2012-2014 aren’t fantastic – an 0-1 record with a 4.00 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.
All that would be forgotten if he helps the Nationals earn their first playoff series victory.