On Sunday, the Washington Nationals acquired veteran relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the Oakland Athletics. What exactly will Madson and Doolittle bring to the beleaguered Nats’ bullpen?
It’s no secret that the Nationals needed relief help for the season’s second half. As of Sunday, the Nationals ranked dead last in baseball in reliever ERA with a 5.34 mark. Opposing batters have hit .280 with an .825 OPS against Washington relievers. Washington is seventh in MLB in blown saves with 14 and the Nationals’ 61.11 save percentage is 10th-worst in baseball. Those numbers, combined with Washington’s recent postseason history of dramatic bullpen meltdowns, have made adding relievers a priority in the nation’s capital.
Though the A’s bullpen as a unit has had similar struggles this season to Washington’s, Madson and Doolittle were not complicit in those struggles. Madson has a 2.06 ERA and a 2.43 FIP in 39.1 innings in 2017. He has a 39:6 strikeout:walk ratio and has allowed just two home runs in 2017. Doolittle’s ERA is higher than Madson’s at 3.38, but his FIP is 2.35 and he has an outstanding 31:2 K:BB in 21.1 innings.
Madson, a right-hander, and lefty Doolittle will bring a swing-and-miss element to the Nationals’ bullpen that has been severely lacking this season. Washington relievers are last in baseball in strikeouts with 229 in 251.1 innings. Madson and Doolittle also don’t allow many runners, with both of them currently carrying WHIPs under 0.80. The Nationals’ bullpen WHIP is 1.47, second-worst in baseball.
From a depth perspective, Madson and Doolittle will bring manager Dusty Baker flexibility in the later innings. Neither was used as Oakland’s closer this season but both have closed in the past. Madson saved 30 games for the A’s last year and Doolittle made the 2014 All-Star team as their closer. Both relievers are also well-versed in the setup role and both are effective against right-handed and left-handed hitters. Doolittle is particularly devastating against lefties; he hasn’t allowed a hit against one this season in 23 at-bats.
In addition, Madson and Doolittle bring veteran presence to a bullpen lacking that. Both have significant postseason experience. Madson has a career 2.91 ERA in 43.1 postseason innings. He most recently pitched in the 2015 playoffs for the Kansas City Royals. Doolittle has a 4.00 ERA in nine postseason innings spread over three seasons. He had some memorable blown saves, but he has also had some memorably good playoff performances and has 11 strikeouts in those nine innings.
Madson missed all of the 2012-14 seasons with injury, but has been a workhorse since returning to the big leagues in 2015. Doolittle’s health history isn’t as predictable. He missed five weeks this season with a shoulder strain and threw only 42.2 innings combined in 2015-16. When healthy, Doolittle is one of the elite left-handed relievers in baseball, but the biggest challenge for the Nationals will be keeping him healthy.
Both pitchers are signed through next season, so the Nationals can go into the offseason with some stability in the back end of their bullpen for 2018. Madson will be a free agent at the end of the 2018 season, while Doolittle’s contract calls for two team option years in 2019 and 2020.
The Nationals gave up one of their most talented relievers, Blake Treinen, in the deal. Treinen was one of the top setup men in the National League last season, but he struggled as the Nationals’ closer early this season and looked like he needed a change of scenery. Washington could probably stand to add more bullpen depth for the middle innings, but Madson and Doolittle will go a long way toward shoring up the biggest weakness on a team that now looks poised to battle the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL pennant this October.