Nationals Arm Race

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Starters as mid-relievers Strategy finally blows up

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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.