Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Starters as mid-relievers Strategy finally blows up


Corbin did not like pitching in relief. Photo via Arizona republic

Corbin did not like pitching in relief. Photo via Arizona republic

The Nats had been getting lucky using Starters as middle relievers for years in the playoffs … and last night finally their luck caught up with them.

Here’s a history (dating to our first playoff series in 2012) of using starters as middle relievers on their “throw days:”

  • 2012 NLDS Game 4: Jordan Zimmermann pitches the 7th, strikes out the side.
  • 2012 NLDS Game 5: Edwin Jackson pitches 1 inning, throws just 12 of 23 pitches for strikes, walks 2, gives up a hit and was lucky to escape only giving up 1 run.
  • 2017 NLDS Game 5: Max Scherzer throws 1 inning, gives up 3 hits and a walk, gives up 4 runs (2 earned) to blow the lead in the deciding game.
  • 2019 Wild Card: Stephen Strasburg throws 3 shutout innings to bridge the gap between Scherzer and Daniel Hudson.
  • 2019 NLDS Game 2: Scherzer strikes out the side in one inning of relief of Strasburg
  • 2019 NLDS Game 3: Patrick Corbin falls apart, give sup 6 runs in 2/3rds of an inning on 4 hits and 2 walks.

So, not exactly a proven strategy time and time again.  Its hit or miss really.  And, frankly, I might exclude the Strasburg effort because it was always set to be a multiple-inning effort; the rest of these appearances all fell into the “throw one max effort inning on my starter’s in-between starts throw day” type outing.

This post may seem like hindsight is 20/20 criticism of the strategy … but its pretty easy to ask this simple question: if this is such a great strategy, then why don’t we see it done in the regular season?   I mean, we know the answer really (you don’t want to tax your starters and just add on useless middle relief innings; that’s what relievers are for) … but that’s also my point: this is what relievers are for.   You’ve got 8 guys in the frigging bullpen for the sole purpose of getting past the end of the night … but we can’t trust a single one of them now?  Is this now when the chickens come home to roost for the fact that Mike Rizzo cannot build a bullpen?  Is this the end result for a team that’s literally traded away 20 starting pitching prospects in the past few years, any one of whom could have been a home-grown relief alternative?

It looks amazing when Scherzer blows everyone away … but then it looks foolish when he coughs up 4 runs in a series decider.

So now we’re going into Game 4 … and I’ll bet dollars Davey Martinez is planning on throwing Strasburg in the 7th again (but I sure hope not if he’s going in game 5).

I think my bigger criticism of the strategy last night was the early yanking of Anibal Sanchez.  He left the game on 87 pitches, having struck out 9 through 5, and given up one run on 4 hits and 2 walks (both of which were in the first inning).  I realize he’s facing 4-5-6 for the third time … but this is the same guy who retired 20 straight Dodgers earlier this year.  If he gets through 4-5-6 then he’s got the bottom of the order in the 7th and you go to the bullpen then.  Why pull him?  I think that’s the “over managing” that irritates me most.  Its the same over managing that led to Zimmermann getting pulled at 8 2/3rds in the playoffs (and the Nats losing).  Different managers, same issue.

Look, at the end of the day, maybe it was inevitable that the potent Dodgers lineup blasted its way to a 10 run outing.  But the Nats had the early lead and had an effective starter on the mound.  I just don’t like deviating from whats working until you have to.

I like our chances in Game 4 behind an amped-up Scherzer … but who likes Corbin on the bump in game 5 now?  Have the Dodgers figured him out?  It sure seems like it.  His MO seems to be to throw 91 on the black, then bounce sliders to get you to chase; well if you don’t swing at balls that bounce in the dirt … you have a good shot of walking, as we’ve now seen displayed pretty frequently in the post-season.

I’m now hearing rumors of no Corbin game 5; instead Strasburg.  Uh, sign me up!  28 post season innings and 2 earned runs.  Yeah; throw that guy.  but we have to get there first.


23 Responses to 'Starters as mid-relievers Strategy finally blows up'

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  1. Look, the gambit with Corbin was a good move that didn’t work out. The game came down to the fact that Corbin couldn’t get Russell Martin out with two outs (this is Russell Martin with a .667 OPS – worse than Yan Gomes – and an OBP higher than his SLG; Russell Martin, who’s numbers this year are roughly similar to Jose Lobaton’s in 2016 when HE inexplicably homered in the playoffs). That AB is why the Nats fell behind.

    But the Nats fell too far behind to come back because Davey inexplicably walked Max Muncy so that Wander Suero could face Justin Turner. I cannot identify a problem to which “bring in Wander Suero to face Justin Turner” is the answer. Corbin had been knocked around, for sure. And he couldn’t put hitters away. But no living breathing human being who has ever watched baseball could say “you know what, I think I’d prefer to have Wander Suero face Justin Turner with two men on rather than have Patrick Corbin face Max Muncy with one man on.” It’s inconceivable to me that Suero v. Turner even happened with men on base, much less that it was a strategic matchup sought out by Davey. Like I said, that decision is not why we gave up the lead and probably not why we lost. But god almighty, I can’t understand walking a batter intentionally so that Wander Suero can face Justin Turner. It just makes no sense.

    As for tonight, I don’t use Strasburg. This is not a winner-take-all game. To advance, the Nats need to win two games. The goal should be to try and get Scherzer and Strasburg to pitch as many innings as possible, which I think means starting Strasburg on Wednesday. I think Doo and Hudson ought to be counted on for 12 outs, which means Max needs to get at least 15 outs and ideally more.


    7 Oct 19 at 10:25 am

  2. Todd — in the situation the Nats are in, I agree with you that I probably would have tried to squeeze one more inning out of Sanchez. That said, I understand the logic, as they’ve gotten hurt several times during the season by the one-more-inning approach to Sanchez.

    While the last inning often gets Sanchez, it’s the first inning that often gets Corbin, so the thought of using him as a reliever was a bit suspect. That said, their options are limited. And Corbin almost got out of it, several times.

    Derek — you’re absolutely right that Suero for Turner was a disaster waiting to happen. Your odds are certainly better with Corbin or Doolittle against Muncy, or even Rodney vs. Turner. Suero has a long history of not looking comfortable in high-leverage situations.

    I’ll admit, I’ve never known what to think about Suero. You look at the stats, and he leads the bullpen in FIP, xFIP, and fWAR. But he’s never passed the eye test for me, just never looked comfortable in tight situations. That said, the Nats don’t have a lot of other options, and if they somehow miraculously advance, he’ll pitch in the next round.

    As for this round the Nats are basically screwed if HOF Max doesn’t show up tonight and go at least seven innings. If he can’t, do you go full “all hands” and burn Stras in Gm 4?

    All of this doesn’t matter, of course, if the hitters don’t show up. The Dodgers will be “bullpening” it, as Hill won’t go more than three or four innings.

    At some point, the Nats have to face all of this down and come off the canvas. It took the Caps basically a decade to do it. The Nats are eight years into their run now. Their biggest investments are in Max and Stras. It’s time for them to channel Ovi and put the team on their backs.


    7 Oct 19 at 1:01 pm

  3. FWIW, Suero has a better FIP in 2019 than Stras or Corbin . . . which goes to show the limits of FIP, I guess!


    7 Oct 19 at 1:04 pm

  4. Couldn’t have scripted tonight’s game better. Scherzer 1 run in 7 IP, Zimmerman bomb, Rendon 3 RBI, and a comfortable lead to hand to the shaky pen. No strasburg, no screwing around with starters.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 19 at 12:18 am

  5. Gm 4: agreed — couldn’t have scripted it any better, right down to one more Zim signature moment. Rendon drove in Trea three times. Max huffed and puffed to make it through the 7th, but he did. The Nats were better in starting pitching, better in relief, better at the plate, and deserved to win.

    The Nats now have four epic homers from their five Gm 4s: Werth (2012), Harper (2014), Taylor (2017), and Zim (2019).

    Just a reminder that Stras and Buehler squared off on July 28. Stras gave up only two hits and no walks over 7 IP, with 9 Ks. Buehler gave up 8 hits, 3 walks, 7 runs (4 earned), and threw 100 pitches in only 5.1 IP. So the Nats know they can get to Buehler.

    It just seems like the script is totally flipped this year. All the pressure is on the Dodgers, not the Nats. We’ll see if it works out. They’re a tough team and certainly aren’t going to roll over. The Nats are going to have to play a strong game to beat them.


    8 Oct 19 at 8:10 am

  6. He’s probably never going to play more than 75-80 games a season anymore, but Zimmerman shows why he still needs to be signed for another year or two.

    If your ranking most exciting moments in franchise history again that’s in the top 5!

    Mark L

    8 Oct 19 at 8:13 am

  7. Ideally, Stras can go at least seven . . . but if not, getting back to Todd’s post, who gets the call? Right now, I’d probably say Sanchez over Corbin, although the Dodgers are loaded with LH hitters. Would Max have an inning in him on only a day of rest? Based on his Gm 5 performance in 2017, I’d be skeptical, although a lot of that disaster wasn’t of his own making.

    Really, though, I think the Nats/Davey are going to be all in on Stras for this one, to the point of him allowing up to three or four runs before he gets the hook. Better options don’t exist.


    8 Oct 19 at 8:16 am

  8. Mark — I think they’ll work something out with Zim, but the max he’s worth is probably 2/$8M, and that may be stretching it. If they’re paying for a generic 1B with some pop who can probably play only half a season, that’s more than market value. There’s basically been no market for the 1B boppers, which is why the Nats have gotten guys like Lind and Adams so cheaply.


    8 Oct 19 at 8:20 am

  9. KW, I would be willing to use Doo and Hudson for 6 outs each, so Strasburg needs at least 5 IP to make that math work. The important question, I think, is whether there are other pitchers on the roster you’d prefer over Doo and/or Hudson for their second innings. I think probably not, with the possible exception of Corbin.

    I guess my strategy would be Stras > Doo/Hudson depending on matchups > the other of Doo or Hudson > Corbin if necessary > Sanchez if needed in extra innings.

    Ideally Stras is able to go 7 and you don’t need to try to stretch Doo or Hudson, or think hard about it. But you can’t count on that.


    8 Oct 19 at 9:43 am

  10. Obviously, it didn’t work in Game 3, but I have a lot of respect for what Martinez has been trying to do in this series. To your question, Todd: “If this is such a great strategy, then why don’t we see it done in the regular season?” Which you answered: “This is what relievers are for.” My rebuttal would be: But that hasn’t *worked* for most of the season. We have great starters and a strong lineup, but (as you noted) Rizzo cannot put together a bullpen. So instead of being a robotic Matt Williams, who pitches his 7th inning guy in the 7th, his 8th inning guy in the 8th, etc, regardless of circumstances or stakes, Martinez is managing every game like there’s no tomorrow. And it’s gotten the team through the wildcard game and to a decisive Game 5 against a heavily-favored opponent. I was getting pretty skeptical of Martinez this year, despite what a decent guy he is personally. But I’m pretty impressed with his creativity in this series. Should he have left Sanchez in for the 6th in Game 3? Sure, definitely, in hindsight, but only because Corbin couldn’t get one more strike. So, did pulling Sanchez for Corbin work? To quote Michael Douglas in the criminally underappreciated “The Ghost and the Darkness”: “No, in point of fact it didn’t. But it was still a good idea.”

    This strategy isn’t sustainable indefinitely (the starters’ arms will fall off), but I feel like the goal was to get this team to the LCS, then see what adjustments need to be made thereafter. At this point, it all comes down to Stras and our lineup; and, win or lose, we couldn’t ask for a better setup for a Game 5.


    8 Oct 19 at 10:11 am

  11. I wonder if the “starter as middle reliever” strategy doesn’t really depend on the arm. Corbin is a starter; he depends on guile, command, etc. He can’t amp it up to 97 and paper over slight misses.

    Strasburg can. Scherzer can. Zimmermann could. perhaps its just that simple; if you can throw upper 90s when needed, you are a good middle relief candidate.

    I’m also of the opinoin that the Dodgers solved Corbin. And every team has advance scouts; if we advance, that’s got to be a concern for a 7 game series where the opponent sees him twice.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 19 at 10:27 am

  12. The “solving” Corbin thing is a good question.

    But honestly, “Identify the sliders in the dirt and don’t swing at them; make him throw fastballs in the zone” must have been part of the book on Corbin since he’s been in the league. And no team has been able to execute that strategy consistently against him at least in recent years, including the Dodgers (remember the 0.59 ERA in his last 5 starts against the Dodgers going into the NLDS?). So is this just a fluke of bad pitching by Corbin? Is he tipping in a way he wasn’t before? Perhaps, but both of those things should be solvable going forward, hopefully into the NLCS!


    8 Oct 19 at 12:06 pm

  13. NG: agree in theory. I cannot explain/correlate his amazingly good ERA/splits versus LA in 2019, 2018 versus what we’ve seen so far in this series. SSS could be an obvious excuse … and yes I realize he was 2 outs, 2 strikes, yadda yadda. Gotta finish. He’s not finishing.

    Tipping? maybe. time for our crack staff to do some video investigation and stat.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 19 at 1:05 pm

  14. Agree, the problem is not finishing with 2 strikes, and he’s not finishing because the Dodgers are not swinging at his put-away pitch, the slider. Went back and looked at the 6th inning in game 3, I count 7 sliders the Dodgers took for balls with 2 strikes. 4 more were put in play or hit foul, and only one swing and miss (Pollack). This from a guy who the last two years had a 50%+ whiff rate on that pitch. That’s the $64K question for the Nats scouts: why aren’t the Dodgers swinging at Corbin’s slider?


    8 Oct 19 at 1:31 pm

  15. great analysis.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 19 at 2:44 pm

  16. I think the fundamental “problem” with using Corbin in relief is that he’s notorious for struggling in his first inning of starts. He certainly did during his first inning of Gm 1, when he also couldn’t put guys away, but he found his grove and followed with five scoreless innings through the same lineup multiple times.

    I don’t think we’ll see Corbin in Gm 5, despite the lack of LH bullpen options. Derek is probably right that Doo and/or Hudson will be on the hook for multiple innings if necessary. The good news is that Stras has gone at least 6 IP in 8 of his last 9 starts and he’s on full rest. Davey rode Max for an inning past his expiration date to get through the 7th, and I assume he’ll push Stras the same way, for better or worse, although I’m sure the Dodgers will be working the counts and trying to run up his pitch total.

    In the other dugout, I find curious the chatter that the Dodgers may be looking for two or three innings out of Kershaw on Wednesday. In his prime, Kershaw has been the greatest pitcher of this generation, but he sure looks hittable now, and the Nats have a RH-heavy lineup. Baez and Kelly have already given up multiple-run outings in the series, though, so their RH setup options aren’t great. We’re not the only ones who don’t completely trust our relievers.


    8 Oct 19 at 3:07 pm

  17. Short rant: I wish folks — even a lot of Nat fans, but especially the national press — would stop referring to how obviously superior the Dodgers are. Since 5/23, their records are exactly equal: 74-38. If we were talking about a 30-game sample size, it would be meaningless, but a 112-game sample means something, particularly when you factor in that the Nats played a lot more high-leverage games in that period than the Dodgers did.



    9 Oct 19 at 9:49 am

  18. It’s funny, we think this “use starters as relievers in the playoffs” idea is new, but it’s not. I was reminded of another example…in this franchise’s history. 1981 NLCS, Game 5, Dodgers v. Expos.

    After Ray Burris gives the Expos 8 innings of one-run ball, Expos bring in their ace Steve Rogers to pitch the 9th. He gives up a 2 out homer to Rick Monday. Fernando Valenzuela threw 8 2/3 for the Dodgers only to give way to another starter, Bob Welch, for the save. Dodgers win 2-1 and advance to the World Series.

    BTW, the Dodgers starting left fielder and 3-hole hitter in that game was one Dusty Baker.


    9 Oct 19 at 10:16 am

  19. As Boz often reminds us, Walter Johnson won Gm 7 of the 1924 World Series in relief, pitching four innings after just one day of rest.

    Pitcher usage has evolved, of course, and continues to evolve with this whole bullpenning fad. Frankly, the addition of the 26th man to the rosters in 2020 will encourage it even more. At the same time, pitchers aren’t abused in the way they were even back in 1981. Fernando threw 95 MLB complete games before the age of 27, at which point his arm essentially said “no mas.” For comparison, Scherzer in 12 MLB seasons has a total of 10 complete games.

    Getting back to the Walter Johnson example, the issue with bullpenning that teams seem to be getting wrong is that the latest innings are the highest leverage ones. If you’re only going to use a guy for three or four innings, why not bring him in in the 6th and have him finish the game. Isn’t Buehler better than Jansen and Baez? Isn’t Stras better than Doo and Hudson?


    9 Oct 19 at 11:16 am

  20. I’ve got a couple of candidates for what we’ll call the “finisher,” a pitcher who goes multiple innings to finish a game. (That used to be a “thing” back in the ’60s and ’70s but went out of fashion as one-inning and match-up guys emerged, and after Mike Marshall’s arm nearly fell off after appearing in 106 games in a season.) Anyway, I think Max has one or two more good seasons in him as a starter, but then do you re-sign him to hobble along late in his career trying to make it through five innings? What if you put him at the back end and asked him to throw upper 90s for only two or three innings at the end of games a couple of times a week?

    The other type of candidate would be someone like Joe Ross, who seems to get clobbered the third time through the order. Those type of pitchers typically end up as swingmen/middle men, but they’d be more valuable if they were actually finishing the last three innings of games.

    Just a thought. I do think we will see more evolutions in pitcher usage over the next few years. I also wonder whether the old-school, seven-inning, $150M+ starter will become more of a dinosaur.


    9 Oct 19 at 12:51 pm

  21. On KW’s rant … most of the baseball press i’m reading is talking about how the Nats were the worst match up for the Dodgers, or talked about the identical records… it must just be lazy media who look at 162 game records and/or divisional leads and make the claim that this is some sort of huge upset.

    Todd Boss

    9 Oct 19 at 2:52 pm

  22. I didn’t see what happened at the start of Braves-Cards but am shocked by the score. I thought the Braves were the significantly better team and would win in less than five.

    As for our series, I’ve seen a number of things that refer to the Dodgers as significantly better because of their season record. They have some hitters with video-game stats . . . but also a lot of K’s, which tend to haunt you in the postseason against better pitching. We’ll see. I’m hoping from an epic performance from Stras.


    9 Oct 19 at 7:04 pm

  23. Holy sh*t they did it! More tomorrow.

    Todd Boss

    10 Oct 19 at 1:09 am

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