The Nationals haven’t named a No. 5 starter yet, but they have eliminated one very prominent name from the competition: Ross Detwiler.
Matt Williams told reporters in Lakeland today that Detwiler will open the season in the Nationals’ bullpen, a decision the rookie manager cited as being in the club’s best interests. That leaves Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan battling for the final spot in the Opening Day rotation, though Williams also mentioned veteran Chris Young as an option.
Detwiler seemingly entered camp with a leg up on the others, given his experience (69 career starts for the Nationals), relative success (4.02 ERA) and stature within the organization as the sixth-overall pick in the country in the 2007 draft. His case appeared to be bolstered by the fact he showed no lingering issues from the lower back injury that restricted him to 13 starts last season.
But the 28-year-old has never fully realized his potential, offering glimpses along the way of what he can be only to be derailed by injuries and inconsistent performances.
Detwiler has previously pitched in relief for short stretches and has been highly successful: He owns a 1.11 ERA in 16 career bullpen appearances spanning 32 1/3 innings, and his 1.052 WHIP as a reliever is significantly better than his 1.395 mark as a starter.
Any previous bullpen stints, though, were seen as temporary, with the Nationals always viewing Detwiler as a starter long-term. Today’s decision may suggest an organizational mindset change.
Williams explained the move by suggesting Detwiler can be “special” as a reliever, also insisting this shouldn’t be viewed as a demotion. After waiting seven years for the lefty to develop as a front-line starter, the Nationals may simply believe his best chance at long-term success is out of the bullpen.
Detwiler’s performance and repertoire suggest he may be more effective as a reliever. He threw fastballs (both four-seam and two-seam varieties) an astounding 88 percent of the time last season, second-most among all MLB pitchers (behind Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen) who threw at least 70 innings. Relievers don’t need as much variety among their pitches given how few batters they face in a particular game.
Detwiler also has shown a propensity to fade the deeper he gets into starts, perhaps evidence of opposing batters figuring him out the more they see him. For his career, opponents have hit just .225 with a .631 OPS in their first plate appearance against him, but those numbers skyrocket to .300 and .787 in their second plate appearance and .324 and .873 in their third appearance.
Detwiler has completed six innings in only 31 of his 69 career starts; he has completed seven innings only nine times, and he has reached the eighth inning only once.
“We just feel like we’re a better team with him coming out of our bullpen,” Williams told reporters. “He offers something that’s special: power lefty, mid-90s lefty. It doesn’t mean he won’t start at some point in the future.”
Perhaps not. Maybe Detwiler will indeed get another chance to start for the Nationals some day.
But today’s decision certainly suggests the Nats are ready to try something different. It suggests they believe Detwiler’s true future lies in the bullpen.