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What happened to all the Nationals’ good relief arms?

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle throws during the eighth inning of the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs, early Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

If you’ve been watching, you know the Nationals bullpen is bad. Perhaps you’ve seen the numbers. They’re the only relief corps with an ERA over 6.00, nearly half a run worse than the next closest team, the tanking Baltimore Orioles. This, despite throwing the fewest innings of any bullpen in the league.

As a unit, they’ve stranded just 44 of 77 runners, allowing 43 percent to score. Those numbers are especially bad for Justin Miller (4 of 10 IRS) and Kyle Barraclough (1 of 8 IRS), tainting their otherwise respectable ERAs. In fact, only one reliever has even posted a sub-3.00 ERA (with the exception of newcomer Erick Fedde) this season: Sean Doolittle. Keep that barrier in mind as you read along.

Bullpens are notoriously fickle from year to year, but the drop off has been significant. Washington was 15th in MLB, right in the middle of the pack, with a 4.05 ERA as a unit last year. The Nats were 23rd (4.41) in 2017, but second (3.37) in 2016, their third straight year in the Top 10.

It’s not that there hasn’t been talent in that bullpen over the years. Anyone who has watched knows that as well. But what’s happened to that talent? Well, take a deep breath. Listed below are the numbers posted this season for other teams around the Major Leagues of every pitcher who threw in relief for the Nationals in 2016, 2017 and/or 2018:

2019 MLB stats for former Nationals relievers from 2016-18. (Source: Baseball Reference, Graphic by Noah Frank/WTOP)

Pull out Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Jefry Rodriguez, three pitchers who are now full-time starters (and are distorting the figures a bit), and the numbers are even more stark: 194 IP, 2.74 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 3.34 K/BB, 9.46 K/9 IP. If that group of relievers was its own bullpen, it would rank tops in the majors in ERA and second in WHIP and K/BB.

So, what gives? Obviously the reasons for these various players’ departures have varied (Note: all numbers below through Monday, May 13).

Blake Treinen never fully figured it out in D.C., despite flashes of brilliance, pitching to a decent 3.39 ERA but a mediocre 1.38 WHIP over four seasons. Since his arrival in Oakland, he’s been a revelation, making the All-Star team last year and posting a 1.43 ERA and 0.99 WHIP for the A’s. He was traded along with Jesus Luzardo for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017.

Felipe Vazquez was also the casualty of a need-based trade, as the Nats acquired Marc Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2016 deadline for the fireballing lefty, then known as Felipe Rivero. While Melancon was excellent for the Nats, he threw fewer than 30 innings before leaving in free agency. Vazquez, meanwhile, has a 2.16 ERA and 70 saves in nearly 200 innings in Pittsburgh, making the All-Star Team last year and threatening to do again this year, with a 0.48 ERA thus far.

Other player departures were less necessary. Xavier Cedeño was an effective LOOGY for the Nats (lefties have slashed .223/.287/.298 against him in his career), amassing a 3.38 ERA between 2013-15, but was suddenly cast off after being left in three consecutive games against right-handed batters and failing in April of 2015. Since he was designated for assignment by Washington, he’s amassed a 2.96 ERA over more than 120 innings for the Rays, White Sox, Brewers and Cubs, all while the Nats have struggled to find competent left-handed relief.

Shawn Kelly was jettisoned after it was perceived that his spiking of his own mitt and glaring into the dugout was a slight of Martinez. In 33 appearances since then with the A’s and Rangers, he’s posted a 1.76 ERA with just 16 hits and seven walks against 30 strikeouts in 30.2 innings pitched. So was Brandon Kintzler after he was fingered by management as a clubhouse leak. Kintzler had a bad finish to the season in Chicago, but this year he’s sporting a 1.93 ERA and sub-0.70 WHIP, striking out 18 and walking just four in 18.2 innings.

On the cusp of spring training this year, the Nats sold Trevor Gott for cash to the Giants. Ever since coming over in the Yunel Escobar trade with the Angels after 2015, he’d been woefully inconsistent, posting a 7.39 MLB ERA over 28 innings across three seasons, despite decent numbers in the minors. Naturally, all he’s done in San Francisco is pitch to a 2.33 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 19.1 innings so far.

Greg Holland pitched to a superb 0.84 ERA in Washington after a disastrous first half in St. Louis … and then the Nats let him walk. He’s currently posting a 1.93 ERA with eight saves as Arizona’s closer, on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. That’s less than half of what the Nats ended up giving Trevor Rosenthal, who has been such an unmitigated disaster that he’s sitting on the IL right now.

Whoever you want to blame for all of this, here’s the rough truth. As mentioned above, coming into Tuesday night, only Sean Doolittle had an ERA below 3.00 in the Nationals bullpen. Holland, Kintzler, Kelly, Vazquez, and Yusmeiro Petit all had ERAs under 2.00 for other clubs, and the former Nats relief collective from the last three years had an ERA well under 3.00 in nearly 200 innings.

With three quarters of the season to play, there will no doubt be some level of regression to the mean on both ends. But if you’re wondering what happened to all the quality arms in the Nats bullpen, the answer is that they’re all still out there — most of them are just pitching for other teams.

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