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December 13, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Ross Detwiler, a regular role, and regular work

Yesterday Ross Detwiler was traded to the Texas Rangers. The Nats received two marginal prospects, Chris Bostick and Abel de Los Santos, in return. From the Nats perspective, however, the trade was really more about clearing the roster spot for a player who was out of options and whom the team didn’t think they needed.

In spring training, Det lost his starting role and was given the bullpen role of “long reliever.” Matt Williams is pretty good about giving his players well-defined roles, and it soon became clear that Detwiler’s role was going to be to pitch one or two innings in low leverage situations. In 8 of his first 12 appearances, he entered with the team either ahead by 5 or more runs or down by at least 2 runs. Over the course of the season, he had the lowest leverage index entering the game (0.65) of all Nats relief pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched—in fact, among “qualified” relief pitchers, he had the fifth lowest leverage index in the majors.

Although Detwiler had a regular role on the team, he didn’t necessarily have regular work. By July 4, he had already experienced 8 intervals of at least 5 days rest between appearances. With sporadic work, Det seemed to have trouble staying fresh and adapting to his role in the bullpen.

Williams likes to stick with a regular lineup and use his bullpen in well-defined roles. What he didn’t seem to do well was to keep the marginal players fresh by giving them playing time. Late in the season, Danny Espinosa and Scott Hairston also seemed to disappear from the roster as Williams ground on with his starters and seemed to lose faith in his bench.

In contrast, I think of a manager like Tony La Russa who would find ways to get something positive out of his entire bullpen and bench, no matter how marginal the talent. Compared to the other pitchers in the Nats rotation, Detwiler’s skills were limited, but there were some things he could do well. For example, he was very effective against lefties, who hit .218/.278/.238 against him. But only 34% of the batters he faced were left-handers—Williams clearly wasn’t trying to match him up against left-handers.

Before the season, I thought Detwiler would do well as a reliever. Research indicates that because relievers don’t have to pace themselves, the get higher strikeout rates, allow fewer home runs, allow a lower a batting average on balls in play, and give up fewer runs than when they start. I thought that those factors, along with better platoon usage, would help Det become an above average reliever.

As it became clear, however, that Williams wasn’t going to trust him or use him in a way that would allow him to prosper, it was best for the team to trade him. I think they blew it by not trading him earlier—the return would have been substantially larger if he’d been traded last spring. I wish Det the best with his new team.

In terms of memories, of course the game we’ll always remember is Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. Detwiler pitched 6 innings, giving up only 3 hits and 1 unearned run, and helped set the stage for Jayson Werth‘s walkoff home run. The other game that I’ll remember was from this season, the 16-inning game on June 24 against the Brewers, when Det’s 4 shutout innings allowed the Nats to stay in the game and finally win it.

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