What does the future hold for the current Nationals’ closer?
Kyle Finnegan took the mound in the sixth and seventh most often, and occasionally in the eighth, while Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were still part of Washington’s bullpen, but the two of them were dealt at the trade deadline at the end of July, and Tanner Rainey, (talked about as a potential closer of the future after a breakout season in 2019 and impressive run in 2020, before an injury ended his campaign prematurely), is dealing with more injuries and he’s down with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings trying to sort things out.
Once the July 30th deadline passed, Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez told reporters that he’d talked to Finnegan, 30, and in his second year with the club after seven seasons in the minors with Oakland after the Athletics drafted him in the 6th Round in 2013, and told him he would be handling closer’s duties going forward.
“I had a conversation with him when all this stuff went down, and I just basically told him, I said, ‘Look, you’re going to pitch at the end of the game, and all I want you to do is treat it as if it’s the seventh inning, and just go out there and get outs,’ and he’s been awesome.”
In 16 games and 16 innings pitched between July 30th and August 8th, when he earned his eighth save of the season with a scoreless inning of work against Atlanta, Finnegan had an impressive 1.13 ERA, seven walks, 13 Ks, and a .220/.303/.373 line against, with seven saves in eight opportunities since taking over as the club’s closer.
So how has he handled the transition from mid-to-late innings work to the closer’s role?
“I think getting experience in that role is great,” Finnegan said in a late August Zoom call.
“I’m enjoying it,” he added. “The high-pressure situations, the leverage situations, are great for my confidence, you know, getting — been able to get the job done a few times, and just really trying to enjoy the experience, and take it one pitch at a time and not think too macro with it, and just kind of keep my head down and focus.”
In the post-trade deadline bullpen, a number of relatively unproven arms have gotten their opportunities to take on bigger roles in higher-leverage innings, and Finnegan said that in his new role, he’s just tried to focus on the little things he can control on the mound.
“I think the biggest thing is don’t let the situation get too big, it’s the same game,” Finnegan explained. “You got the ball in your hand, you control what you do next, so just kind of filter that focus down into little singular controllable things, and try to execute those as best you can.”
How does his manager think Finnegan has handled the role since the promotion (of sorts)?
“I think he’s done well,” Martinez said before the second of three in Atlanta this week.
“I think the one thing if I had to nitpick things, is the bases on balls,” the skipper continued, pointing to Finnegan’s 3.94 BB/9 since July 30th.
“We talk a lot about he’s really good when he gets ahead. We showed him numbers when he gets ahead, the one thing I want him to really focus on and talk about coming into Spring Training, is really knowing a put-out pitch on every hitter. How do want to get a guy out, every hitter? This way he doesn’t go in there, and even if a guy fouls off two fastballs, and you know that, ‘Hey, I can still get him out with a fastball.’ There’s no reason for him to go out and try to throw a slider, and all of a sudden get beat by a slider, and he’s scratching his head knowing that he can get him out with a fastball.
“I just want him to be comfortable, once he gets to two strikes, knowing what he wants to do to get him out on that particular pitch, and stay with it.”
In at-bats that start with Finnegan up 0-1 this season, opposing hitters have a .159/.237/.246 line against him, .105/.164/.175 when he gets up 0-2, and .157/.262/.236 overall in two-strike at-bats.
“He’s really good when he’s ahead, and he’s just got to understand how to get hitters out consistently with two strikes,” Martinez added.
Before the series finale with the Braves on Thursday, Martinez was asked if he’s considered possibly throwing Finnegan out there in other situations, if there’s a possibility he won’t be in the closer’s role in the future?
“You saw him the other day come in in the eighth inning, we were down a run, but I thought he was the perfect guy for that group of hitters coming up, and then we went ahead and he closed it out in the ninth,” Martinez said. “So he understands.
“I talk to him a lot before a series, and I’ll tell him hey, if it’s this group of guys, we might need you in the eighth inning and we’ll do something else. But he understands.
“Moving forward, I think he’s shown us that in high-leverage situations, he’s pretty good. And we’re going to probably utilize him in the future in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, depending on what happens, but he’s done well.”