July 12, 2020

Nats send Detwiler to pen, speaks to his long-term viability as starter

The Washington Nationals have decided to move Ross Detwiler to the bullpen. The oft-injured left-hander was reportedly “not happy” with the decision, and you could hardly blame him. This type of move, to a pitcher who should be in the prime of his career, signifies a team “giving up” on him as a starter and can [maybe unfairly] label him the rest of his career in the big leagues.

It’s no secret that relievers make less money in arbitration and free agency than starters, and this could potentially cripple Detwiler’s long-term earning potential.

But that’s a side effect really of the big picture. This move has been coming for a while.

Make no mistake, this decision isn’t about Matt Williams’ desire to have another lefty in the bullpen. This is a clear indication of how the organization feels about Detwiler’s long-term viability as a starting pitcher.

In his most complete season as a starter in the bigs, Detwiler went 10-8, 3.40, 1.223 in 2012, making 33 appearances and 27 starts at age 26. The baseball card stats showed promise that Detwiler could fulfill the potential everyone saw for him as a first round draft pick — No. 6 overall — in 2007.

But the underlying numbers then, as it’s always been for Detwiler, were underwhelming. The middling strikeout rate. The dip in velocity. An unusually low BABiP. An unnatural dip in line drive percentage, accompanied by an unexplainable rise in ground ball rate.

All those factors conspired against Detwiler when the GB% and LD% went back to career norms last season. Detwiler hadn’t taken a step up; he got lucky for a season. It happens. A lot.

Detwiler has two big things going against him as a starter. His inability to stay healthy (which as this point is as much of a “skill” as anything) and the fact that he only throws two pitches.

Fangraphs has Detwiler at 51.1 percent four-seam fastballs and 31.4 percent sinker, which is really just a different type of fastball. He threw 7.2 percent sliders and 5.7 percent changeups last season. That’s not the arsenal of a starting pitcher. In 2012, he threw the slider 12.6 percent. He’s all but abandoned it. Whether that’s his own doing of a team directive is an open question.

He was more hittable last season too. Contact against him both inside and outside the strike zone went up appreciably, which speaks to his lousy strikeout rate as his swinging strike rate plummeted from 7.2 percent in ’12 (not high to begin with) to a downright lousy 6.6 percent last season.

In the past three seasons, Detwiler’s four-seam has gone down from 93.0 in ’12 to 92.4 last season. The sinker lost 0.6 MPH as well. Is this due to the combination of injury he went through last season? Is it a compilation of injury throughout his career? Either way, one shouldn’t be losing velocity going from age 26 to age 27.

Which brings us to the injury problem. Detwiler has never had an arm injury, despite landing on the D.L. in the majors in both ’10 (hip–110 days) and ’13 (back, neck-116 days). Detwiler has always used a pronounced cross-body delivery, stepping towards the dugout instead of home plate and throwing across his body during his delivery. As an amateur, it allowed him a better whip motion and generated velocity for him.

Through the years, though, that same delivery has created a myriad of problems, as it’s very violent to several body parts, including the hip area. Accumulation of injury may have finally caught up with him, robbing him of just enough velocity to keep the action on his fastball less deceptive than his sinker.

A switch to the bullpen may allow him to generate that extra half-mile an hour that he needs to separate the fastball and sinker. Or, this may just be the first step in Detwiler fading to obscurity. Some starting pitchers (see Stammen, Craig) make the transition from starter to long reliever easily. Some not so much. It’s up to Detwiler at this point to salvage his baseball career.

But it’s clear that despite his previous amounts of success and his high draft pedigree, the Nats think (and probably rightfully so) that they can do better in the rotation.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP


  1. I recall three or four years ago when Craig Stammen was a starter with potential but was never able to fulfill it. He was 8-11 with a 5.12 ERA as a starter. But since his “demotion” to the bullpen, Stammen has gone 14-8 with a 2.45 ERA and is an important part of the team.

    I think Detwiler, like Stammen will be a great reliever, a much better thing than a mediocre starter.

    Starters with one pitch (Detwiler through his sinker 88% of the time last year) end up in the pen. That’s just the way it is.


  1. […] decision to move lefty Ross Detwiler to the bullpen wasn’t one made lightly or with much joy by the Washington Nationals. Beset by injury and a […]

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