Wednesday night got off to a rough start as Chad Kuhl served up three runs in the top of the first, and it seemed like another one of those days where the Nats would go down big early and be dominated throughout, just like Monday night. Surprisingly the bats woke up today and had the best performance of the season so far, tallying six runs thanks to multi-hit games from Alex Call, CJ Abrams, Lane Thomas, and Victor Robles. Even Luis Garcia later chipped in with a pinch-hit RBI double late in the game. Thanks to the offensive performance, Chad Kuhl bouncing back, and the bullpen holding their own, the Nationals had a 6-5 lead heading into the 9th inning, and it should’ve been an exciting and fulfilling victory.
Enter Kyle Finnegan for the 9th inning, who easily locked down a 4-1 victory on Sunday over the Braves. It should’ve been an easy save, but all hell went loose for him. Finnegan immediately served up back-to-back home runs to put the team in a 7-6 deficit. He walked the next batter but was able to pick Manuel Margot off for his only out. The next two batters hit the ball hard, and there were runners on second and third with only one out. After four hard hits and a walk, Davey Martinez should’ve taken him, but he didn’t, and Finnegan gave up a three-run bomb which put the Nationals down by 10-6. Davey took him out after that, but it was one batter too late. Not surprising, though, since Davey Martinez hasn’t been a great manager, but that’s an article for another day.
Why Finnegan Isn’t Suited to be a Closer
Closers are supposed to be lockdown relievers and to become one. They need an effective fastball. Finnegan has that with his high-velocity sinker that had a -6 RV (the lower, the better) last year because it was only slugged at a .354 clip. Closers also need a good breaking pitch and maybe a good offspeed pitch alongside the effective fastball. Finnegan has an average splitter that he throws around 8-9% of the time, but his slider has not been good as a hitter slugged .600 against that pitch last year. Due to this, Finnegan becomes over-reliant on his sinker and throws it almost 80% of the time, which makes it predictable and prone to poor location. Top closers in the game, like Emmanuel Clase and Edwin Diaz, have elite sliders that can be thrown 30-40% to keep hitters off balance.
Good closers usually have high strikeout rates that are way above 10.0 K/9, which shows their dominance and ability to easily miss bats. Finnegan can miss bats, but just not that often at 9.4 K/9, which is too low for a closer, which highlights his weaker arsenal. Finnegan is sharp when he’s on, but he’s blown up too many times when he’s not on. In 2020 he served up a game-tying grand slam late in a game. In 2021 he had 11 outings where he gave up two runs or more, and he had seven of those in 2022, including a game where he blew a five-run lead. Failing to lock down a save here or there can happen, but late-inning relievers can’t be exploding that many times.
That’s not to say that Finnegan is a terrible pitcher because he’s been good with the Nationals so far. He was a minor leaguer from 2013-19 (good indication he shouldn’t be closer) before Mike Rizzo picked him up in 2020. Finnegan, from 2020-22 had an ERA of 3.43, mostly in late-inning appearances. Offense in the MLB has been down the last several years, but those are still solid numbers, and injuries and uncertainties in the bullpen have led him to the closing role. Unfortunately for him, it seems that hitters around the league are catching on to him as his sinker-heavy arsenal is becoming predictable and less effective, which means his performance is going to drop unless he makes some changes. It’s been evident in his Spring Training struggles (5.63 ERA), and on Opening Day, he turned a close game into a blowout loss by giving up three runs in the 9th. Finnegan is more suited for a middle relief role.
Who Should Replace Him?
Surprisingly the bullpen was great for the 2022 Washington Nationals, and several relievers emerged last year that can take the closing spot from Finnegan. The four options are Erasmo Ramirez, Carl Edwards Jr., Mason Thompson, and Hunter Harvey.
Erasmo Ramirez was incredible for the Nationals last year, delivering a 2.92 ERA in 86.1 innings. He was versatile as he pitched in the late innings, middle innings, as an opener, or for long relief. It was a surprising emergence, but he shouldn’t be the closer of this team. Ramirez has always had a great cutter throughout his career, but he hasn’t found consistent success in his other pitches. The strikeout rate isn’t there as well since he’s only struck out 6.9/9 in his career. Also, Ramirez is probably bound for some sort of regression this year because he’s had a career ERA over 4.00 (91 ERA+), and he had a FIP of 4.05 last year, which indicates some luck.
Carl Edwards Jr. thrived early in his career with the Cubs, but he went through a rough patch starting in 2019. Mike Rizzo picked him up last May, and he was terrific. In 62.1 innings, Edwards Jr. had an ERA of 2.76. In innings 7-9, he was even better with a 1.94 ERA in 49.0 innings. He has a mid-90s fastball with a bit of a cut action that was good last year (-0.5 RV/100) and a solid curveball (-0.1 RV/100). His best pitch was his changeup that had a -3.1 RV/100, but he only threw it about 9% of the time. That changeup should be used more this year. Edwards is a decent option for the closing role, and the Nationals could try to maximize the return on a potential trade at the deadline by making him get a few saves. Ultimately a FIP of 4.24 and an 8.1 K/9 rate are the reasons why Edwards isn’t the best option for the closer on this team, as he might face regression and doesn’t quite miss enough bats.
Mason Thompson is a young electrifying reliever acquired from the Padres for Daniel Hudson at the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline. Thompson has a superb sinker (-1.5 RV/100) that can reach the high-90s and a disgusting slider(-2.5 Rv/100). Control was an issue for him earlier in his career, but he cut his walk rate down to 3.3 BB/9 last year from 5.5 BB/9 in 2021 which led to a 2.92 ERA in 2022. Thompson’s ceiling is extremely high, as his sinker-slider combination could produce a lot of weak ground and strikeouts. He is a future closer in the making, but he’s there quite yet. Thompson could use more experience and work on missing more bats (7.0 K/9), but I’m sure if he’s utilized properly, he’ll have a great career as a late-inning reliever. Speaking of his utilization, it seems that Davey doesn’t trust him completely, as he’s been using him as a long reliever in the middle innings. This has to change.
This leaves us with Hunter Harvey, who should be the closer of the Nationals this year. He’s missed a lot of time in his career due to injury. Harvey’s arsenal consists of a fastball that averages 98 mph and a -2.1 RV/100. That’s exactly what you need from your closer. His other pitches have led to inconsistent results throughout the years, but they’ve shown the potential to be elite, like his fastball. Harvey pitched 39.1 innings last year, and he did well for many reasons. His ERA was low (2.52), missed bats (10.3 K/9), avoided walks (2.7 BB/9), and only gave up one home run. This is exactly what you want from your closer, a high-velocity arsenal that throws strikes, generates strikeouts and doesn’t give up the long ball. A FIP of 2.07 last year would also suggest he was a bit unlucky. Harvey is only 28, and if he can stay healthy, he’ll continue to improve and become one of the top relievers in the game; he has all the traits to become a closer.
The closing role shouldn’t have been Finnegan’s, to begin with, but he’s had a poor start so far, and that should be enough for any manager to remove him from the closing role. We’ll see how long it takes for Davey Martinez to make the change. It’ll probably take a few months.