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As the MLB offseason progressed this winter, the Nationals seemed to develop a need for left-handed pitching in the bullpen. It was a strength in 2012, but Mike Gonzalez, Sean Burnett, and Tom Gorzelanny all departed to other clubs. Rumors emerged involving pitchers like Jeremy Affeldt and J.P. Howell, but they signed elsewhere.
Then the calendar turned and Washington general manager Mike Rizzo still hadn’t signed another lefty who projects as a primary reliever. He was asked about the vacancy in early January by The Washington Post:
“The right left-handed reliever would be great,” Rizzo said. “I think Davey likes to have at least two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. But we have a very unique and special type of bullpen. Our right-handers get left-handed hitters better than most left-handed specialists get them out. It’s not something that we feel that we have to do.”
Rizzo revealed that the team may, in fact, not sign another left-hander at all. They have Zach Duke re-signed who figures to play a bigger role in 2013, likely as a lefty long reliever, but that may be it. Former first round pick Bill Bray was also signed, but he isn’t expected to be a significant contributor.
Rizzo’s contention is that he already has a group of relief pitchers who can get lefties out and it doesn’t matter what side they throw it from.
“The reason for that is that we feel our right-handed relievers get out lefties and [Manager] Davey [Johnson is] not a big left-on-left, one-batter-at-a-time type of manager anyways.”
Rizzo was talking about guys like Tyler Clippard and Ryan Mattheus. Clippard has held lefties to a .186 average and .593 OPS across 698 batters faced. Those numbers are noticeably better than his stats against right-handers, a .213 batting average against and .691 opponent’s OPS.
Mattheus has faced fewer lefties in his time, 162 total plate appearances, but boasts a .214 batting average against. Drew Storen has also been strong against them with a .229 BAA and .583 OPS.
These peripheral stats are something the players themselves weren’t even aware of until Rizzo cited them, but they understand the situation and what may be asked of them.
“I didn’t know I got lefties out better than I did right-handers,” Mattheus said. “I think it’s because I don’t face many of them. It will be different.”
“It’s going to be different if we only keep one left down there. I think anybody that is asked to get left-handers out with Sean and Mike and Gorz leaving, we’re willing to take the ball. I don’t think it matters if they are right-handed or left-handed or anything like that, we’re going to take the ball when we’re asked.”
Mattheus said that for him it will take a different approach on the mound, he will have to be more creative.
“For me, I can’t get into a pattern with the left-handers. With the right-handers it’s a little different, I can throw the sinker right in on their hands and there’s not much they can do with it. Left-handers are a little different, they can make the adjustment, they can dive out there and hit the ball the other way,” he said.
“I’m just going to have to, when I’m facing those left-handers, not get in patterns. I’m going to have to use both sides of the plate really well with my fastball and not just get into a pattern of throwing the sinker on one side of the plate and being one dimensional like I can with right-handed hitters.”
Catcher Kurt Suzuki will be the common denominator for the bullpen and will own part of the challenge lefties may pose. He is confident, though, that the staff as it stands can retire anybody they face.
“We got quality arms in the bullpen. We got guys in the bullpen that can get anybody out, lefties or righties. Rizzo said it the best, I would be confident with those guys getting lefties out too,” he said. "The lefty-lefty matchup, that’s all good, but with the quality of arms you have down in the bullpen it doesn’t matter who you throw out there, they can get anybody out.”
Having balance in the bullpen is something the Nats used brilliantly last season and is definitely a traditional approach to constructing a baseball roster. But as long as your pitchers can get batters out, it doesn’t really matter how they do it. Much was made of the St. Louis Cardinals only carrying one lefty reliever, Marc Rzepczynski, into the 2012 NLDS against the Nats and they made it work.
It does deserve mention, however, the lefty-heavy makeup of some of the Nationals’ closest competitors heading into 2013. Both the Braves and Phillies have lineups centering around left-handed bats. With the exception of Atlanta’s Jason Heyward who is a combined 5-for-10 with three RBI and two walks against Clippard and Mattheus, the Nats’ relievers stack up well against the heavyweights.
Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann of the Braves are just 3-for-26 with nine strikeouts, three walks, and a double against Clippard and Mattheus. Philly’s Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are a combined 4-for-24 with a homer, RBI, and a walk against the duo. Jimmy Rollins is just 3-for-15 against them, although two of those hits were home runs.
The sample sizes aren’t large, but they do show the Nats have at least a brief history of success to base their claim upon. There are still about two weeks until pitchers and catchers report, as well as around eight weeks until Opening Day, so they could still go out and bring another lefty in. But even if they don’t, Rizzo and his players are confident they can manage with what they have.