Coming into spring training, the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day rotation seemed all but decided. Stephen Strasburg would start game one, to be followed in some order by Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and 28-year old southpaw Ross Detwiler. Of the five, Detwiler was the least sure thing — he suffered from a serious back injury in 2013, making only 13 starts (none after July 3rd) and putting up a mediocre 4.04 ERA. But before the injury, Detwiler, a first-round pick in 2007 who had struggled early in his major league career, had seemingly realized his potential to become an above-average starter for a high-quality rotation. In 2012, Detwiler’s only full season in the big leagues, he managed an impressive 3.40 ERA in more than 164 innings, utilizing a sinking fastball that averaged 92.7 MPH to post a groundball percentage over 50%. Furthermore, in the fabled Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Detwiler put together a performance that ranks among the greatest starts in Nationals’ history:
The Nationals did not anoint Detwiler as the fifth starter heading into Spring Training, but it was assumed that if Detwiler could prove he was healthy, the job was his for the taking. This spring, Detwiler’s statistics have not looked pretty — 5 earned runs in 7 innings pitched — but spring stats are often skewed (Detwiler has been working on his breaking pitches in his starts, which could affect his performance), and most importantly, he has shown no signs of being slowed by last year’s injury.
And yet, yesterday, manager Matt Williams announced he had made a startling decision — Ross Detwiler would not start the season in the rotation. Instead, he will move to the bullpen. Said Williams:
We feel like it’s a good move for our team. He provides something special out of the bullpen for us. I don’t know if anybody would ever be really happy with something like that. We don’t feel like it’s a demotion of any sort. We just feel like we’re a better team with him coming out of our bullpen. He offers something that’s special — power lefty, mid-90s lefty.
The fifth starter spot will now become an open competition between two young prospects, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark, and journeyman vet Chris Young.
After a little thought, it is easy to understand the rationale behind this move. Detwiler has never really had the diverse repertoire of a starting pitcher. Over the last two years, Detwiler has thrown his fastball 82.8% of the time — that’s second in the major leagues among starting pitchers (min. 200 IP), behind only Bartolo Colon. Additionally, Detwiler’s peripheral statistics have never matched the success his ERA would denote. For his career, Dewtiler has only struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings, which in an era dominated by strikeouts, is borderline unacceptable. Even in 2012, his best season thus far, Detwiler fanned only 5.7 per nine as a starter, which ranked him 14th-worst (min. 150 IP). Thanks to the low strikeout numbers, Detwiler’s fielding-independent statistics are considerably worse than his ERA; while his 3.40 ERA in 2012 is impressive, his 4.34 xFIP is considerably less so.
And both Roark and Jordan have looked impressive, both in the spring and in their major league call-ups in 2013. Jordan, age 25, has the more impressive stuff — he has struck out 13 batters in 10 spring innings, including this one on a wipeout slider:
Roark, meanwhile, had an eye-opening 2013 season that elevated him from organization depth to a possible key cog in the Nationals’ future. After going 9-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 105.2 minor-league innings, the 27-year old Roark looked near-unhittable in 53.2 innings in the majors. His 1.51 ERA is obviously unsustainable (Roark’s strikeout numbers were solid but unspectacular, and he benefitted from a 2.6% home run to fly ball ratio, lower than any qualified starter), but some of his numbers, especially his low walk rate, were very encouraging. Roark has also looked strong in Spring Training, striking out six and allowing four runs in eight innings.
So what is Detwiler’s role in the bullpen? More from Williams:
I see him as a power lefty out of the bullpen. If we get in a matchup where if we’ve got two out of three guys facing that inning are lefties, we can certainly use him for a full inning in that regard. We could also use him for multiple innings. I wouldn’t limit him to a lefty specialist role. I just think it’s a luxury for our team to have a guy in our bullpen who can do those types of things.
Detwiler profiles well as a lefty long reliever, with his endurance and experience as a starter likely enabling him to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. One thing to watch out for: Detwiler has a pronounced platoon split (he has held left-handed batters to a .234/.314/.313 triple-slash, versus a .280/.336/.431 triple-slash against righties) which may make him more effective as a lefty specialist than as a long reliever.
Of course, this decision, while strong on paper, may not work out in practice. Roark and Jordan may struggle at the major league level, and having an unreliable fifth starter is untenable for a team looking to make it to the postseason. But the beauty of this decision is that it is easily reversible — if the chosen fifth starter struggles, Detwiler could easily slide back into the rotation. As Williams said, “[this decision] doesn’t mean [Detwiler] won’t start at some point in the future.”