Before a 5-3 loss on July 30, the Washington Nationals won three consecutive ballgames. That statement alone is proof why numbers sometimes lie.
Washington Nationals shortstop Wilmer Difo, left, turns a double play over San Francisco Giants’ Angel Pagan (16) after a ground ball was hit by Giants’ Joe Panik during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, July 29, 2016, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Starting with two consecutive heartbreaking losses to San Diego last week and another loss to AL Central-leading Cleveland the following game, the Nationals’ bullpen essentially imploded. The main culprit was closer Jonathan Papelbon, and in the fallout, Papelbon lost the closer’s job. After two successive blown saves, and an outing in which he was pulled after retiring just one batter and blowing a third save opportunity, General Manager Mike Rizzo had enough.
The Nationals were able to acquire Pirates closer Mark Melancon for struggling reliever Felipe Rivero and minor league left-hander Taylor Hearn. The acquisition, which did not cost the Nationals any of their most valued prospects, addresses the biggest question facing the club as it enters the final two months of the season. It is perhaps the most significant deadline acquisition in the team’s 11-year D.C. history.
In this June 20, 2016, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File); Washington Nationals relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Papelbon’s ERA rose from a respectable 2.56 seven days ago to a 4.41, which is more than just alarming; it’s flat-out unacceptable for a team that wants to compete for a World Series title.
The fact that the team had to replace Papelbon shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering what has transpired since he joined the team. The Nationals imploded and fell out of the playoff hunt when he was acquired last season. Don’t forget how he assaulted the team’s prized player, Bryce Harper, in the clubhouse during that slide. It’s amazing that the Nationals’ relationship with Papelbon didn’t fall apart sooner.
Father Time is undefeated and Papelbon is 35 years old. Papelbon looked like his old self in a few outings, but those appearances were few and far between. With velocity on his fastball declining, Papelbon had to develop into a location-based pitcher on the fly. Instead, opposing batters have feasted on his fastball all season and are hitting .271 against him, the highest mark in his career. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is his lowest since his rookie year in Boston—he’s just not blowing pitches by batters any more.
After failing to acquire Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller from the Yankees, landing Melancon could be a coup for the franchise. Melancon is an upcoming free agent, meaning his time with the Nationals may be as a mid-season rental. But he has recent playoff experience and has led the majors in saves with 144 since becoming the full-time closer in Pittsburgh in 2014. Among National League relievers since then, he ranks first in ERA (1.95) and second in WHIP (0.91), behind only Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers. In other words, he’s been pretty darn good at his job—so good, in fact, that he has appeared in three of the past four All-Star Games.
As crazy as it seems, the Nationals are only a game-and-a-half behind the Chicago Cubs for the best record in baseball, so it’s not all gloom and doom. Fans wanted the team to make a huge splash to shake up the roster and with this trade, they have done just that. Recent bullpen struggles could be attributed to a fluctuation of roles among its members. Bringing in Melancon will allow Shawn Kelley to go back into his role as one of the more dominant set-up relievers in the game and allow veteran relievers like Oliver Perez and Matt Belisle to not have to be anything more than what they are.
Sometimes that’s all you need from your players—no expectations of trying to accomplish more than their talent suggests. As we bid adieu to the Papelbon-as-closer era, maybe we all expected too much from him and he just performed to his capabilities.