LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Ryan Mattheus has a goal this spring. He wants his sinking fastball, the one that has made him one of the Washington Nationals’ most reliable relievers the past two seasons, to become more versatile. He wants to see it cut inside to left-handed batters the way it does on right-handers.
But his reason for wanting that perhaps says more about the Nationals’ bullpen composition than it does about Mattheus.
It didn’t take Mattheus long to look around the Nationals’ clubhouse this spring and realize that, of the relievers on the team’s 40-man roster, there is precisely one who throws with his left hand: Zach Duke.
Mattheus did the math. He figured that the left-handed hitters once more likely to go to former Nationals Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny may be falling in his lap far more often this season.
“No one’s actually told me that I’m going to be facing left-handers,” Mattheus said Monday night, after his first outing of the spring. “But I’m going to take it upon myself to be ready to get them out.”
The Nationals watched three of their left-handed relievers leave in free agency this offseason. While they tried, to varying degrees, to bring a few of them back and also pursued J.P. Howell before he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the abilities of their right-handers played a large part in informing their decisions.
Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen and Henry Rodriguez combined to hold left-handed batters to a .207 batting average last season, with Clippard (.170 average against) and Stammen (.198) leading the way. New closer Rafael Soriano held opponents to a .217 average last season for the New York Yankees, and left-handers hit just .221 against him.
“One of the reasons why we felt not under the gun to sign those guys is because all my right-handers, basically, are very successful against left-handed hitters,” manager Davey Johnson said.
The team does have a handful of left-handed relievers in camp like Bill Bray, Fernando Abad and Will Ohman to compete for a job, but their returning right-handers are known quantities.
Mattheus looks at that as a vote of confidence. It’s a sentiment echoed by guys like Clippard and Storen, who expressed implicit trust in their ability to handle any batter, particularly by virtue of their past experience pitching a complete inning, regardless of match-up.
Each, however, seems to have his own strategy for how to go about preparing for the task. Storen noted adjustments he’s made in the past, like figuring out it’s better to throw his slider to left-handers than his sinker after noticing that left-handers’ bat paths seem to connect with his sinker more.
Clippard didn’t plan to change a thing.
“We recognize [that the personnel is different] but that’s as far as it goes,” he said. “At the end of the day, each individual has to prepare like they always prepare. Nothing changes. You are who you are and if you try to get out of that then you’re in trouble.”
Mattheus has set about honing his approach to left-handed batters in an effort to improve. He wants to be able to get his sinker away from the arm side of the plate, which to lefties would be the outside half, and come inside on them. “Working on keeping them honest inside,” as he put it.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment, however, will come from the dugout.
“I do like to match-up late and I won’t have that option,” Johnson said. “So that’ll be a little different. I’ll be matching up by, do I want them to hit a sinker, or a split, or a changeup or a 100-mile-an-hour fastball?”