The Washington Nationals pitching rotation gets a lot of credit for being the best in baseball, and for good reason. They still give up the fewest runs per game of any starting staff in baseball (3.29) and they have three starters who are in the National League Top 20 in WAR for starters, according to FanGraphs. The bullpen refuses to be outdone, though.
The bullpen has three guys in the Top 15 in NL WAR for relievers: Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, and Craig Stammen. If you expand it to the Top 30, Tom Gorzelanny joins the list. Yes, that Tom Gorzelanny. More than half of the Nats current bullpen is in the top 30 in the NL, and that’s one hell of an accomplishment.
Tyler Clippard has taken over as the Nats closer since Henry Rodriguez’s meltdown and subsequent DL trip, and he’s done everything the Nats could possibly expect from him, which includes pitching in four of the last five games. Manager Davey Johnson didn’t want to overuse Clippard like he was last season, but he’s definitely solidified himself in the closer’s role until Drew Storen returns. Even once Storen gets back, it’s possible Clipp will get some opportunities as Storen gets back into the swing of things. It’s a pitching depth problem you want to have.
If Clippard is unavailable, the Nats have found a completely capable backup in Sean Burnett. Once pegged as a lefty specialist, Burnett has become so much more. He’s in the Top 10 in NL WAR for relievers and has been devastating to batters from both the left and right sides. Lefties are hitting just .200 against him this year, and he hasn’t walked a single left-handed batter all season. Righties are hitting just .182 against him. His 3.50 strikeout to walk ratio this season nearly doubles his 1.57 ratio from 2011.
Craig Stammen has proven himself to be a reliable long-reliever, but he can also come in for one inning and dominate batters. Stammen got a quick hook in his last appearance on Saturday after walking the only batter he faced, and he blew a save in the eighth inning in the outing before that on June 5. If you looked on the surface without knowing that and saw that he pitched 1/3 of an inning in his last two outings you may be concerned. There is no need for alarm here. Stammen is among the best pitchers in the Nats bullpen. I can’t imagine you thought you’d hear that back in 2010.
Finally, one pitcher deserves at least honorable mention here, and that’s Tom Gorzelanny. I was brutal with Gorzelanny heading into this season, and in the brutal 11-4 loss where Edwin Jackson gave up five runs in the first inning and then Gorzelanny gave up six runs in relief. But since that outing, he has been absolutely exceptional. In 13 games and 22 innings, he has a 2.05 ERA, a .177 batting average against, has walked five batters, and struck out 20. Gorzelanny has become a crucial piece in a critical role for the Nats success.
Without these four guys, the Nats might be in a different place now than they are. Hopefully Brad Lidge returns to form soon and Drew Storen is healthy when he comes off the DL. Adding both of those guys will transform the Nats’ bullpen further into elite status, and it will somehow get even more exciting to watch.