Nationals’ Austin Voth experiment comes to an end

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NEW YORK — Nine years after he was drafted, and 92 appearances since he first pitched for the Washington Nationals, Austin Voth was designated for assignment Tuesday. It’s fair to ask why the Nationals kept putting this decision off. One of the key reasons offers a look into their thought process during a rebuilding year that’s been short on wins and full of disappointment.

According to multiple people in the organization — including front office members and major league staff — Voth’s underlying metrics made a midseason trade seem possible. Statcast ranks his curveball spin rate in the 96th percentile. His fastball ranks in the 84th. If he strung together some good weeks, the thinking went, a data-minded club might offer a low-level minor leaguer for a chance to mold Voth and his unteachable spin into an effective reliever.

When plotting potential trades, this seemed to offer more upside than Washington dangling any of its veteran castoffs. Voth just never clicked this season, his ERA ultimately spiking to 10.13 through 18⅔ innings.

The state of the Nationals is clear-cut. After losing 10-0 Tuesday to the New York Mets, their 18-33 record was the worst in the National League and second worst in the majors. Come July, they are expected to trade most players who are attracting interest. Continuing to pitch Voth, though, was a stark reminder of how much rebuilding in 2022 has been placed ahead of competing. Washington also held on because, with no more minor league options, Voth couldn’t be removed from the roster without being placed on waivers.

In his last five appearances, he allowed two runs on three hits, two runs on three hits, five runs on four hits, three runs on three hits and three runs on three hits. The Nationals lost all of those games.

“I’m getting hammered on missed locations,” Voth said Monday afternoon, a few hours before he was knocked around by the Mets at Citi Field. “That’s about it.”

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At this stage, it was logical to see if a struggling, fringe reliever such as Voth could have netted anything. A “player to be named later” would have been considered a win. But if the Nationals felt Voth’s spin rates could land him elsewhere — perhaps with a team known for fixing players by maximizing a unique skill — it’s worth asking why they couldn’t solve the 29-year-old themselves.

Since the beginning of the 2020 season, in 12 starts and 67 relief appearances, only four pitchers have pitched at least 100 innings and have a higher ERA than Voth’s 6.45. So once the Nationals DFA’d him Tuesday, did Manager Dave Martinez, a reflection of his staff, feel at least some responsibility for how that happened?

“Absolutely,” Martinez said. “For me, I was more frustrated because I sat down with him daily to try to figure it out. We looked at all kinds of stuff, all kinds of numbers. We tried some things with him and he was open to them. You saw some signs that maybe this was going to work, and unfortunately it didn’t. It’s tough. I really believe he was going to get through it, and it just didn’t happen.”

Obviously, spin isn’t everything, even if higher rates typically make it harder for hitters to square up pitches. High-spin pitchers still need sharp command to float in the majors, let alone succeed. Voth admitted to missing way too many spots with his four-seamer, cutter and curve. In past years, like when he lapsed as a starter in 2020, he’d often lament his inconsistent mechanics. On Monday, he mentioned some early season soreness that messed with his arm slot.

Think about how much has to be in tune for a pitcher to dominate. Similarly, a lot contributes to someone getting crushed.

“Stuff didn’t work out here, and it’s always a tough call,” Martinez said. “I felt like we gave him a lot of opportunities, and he was very grateful, very understanding. But it’s tough because he’s one of the few remaining guys who were in the playoffs and World Series with us, and such an unbelievable human being.

“That was a hard one. I wish him well. I told him: ‘Selfishly, I’d love to have you back, but if you get an opportunity to go pitch someplace else, best of luck to you.’”

From here, Voth, a fifth-round pick in 2013, goes on waivers and has a week to be traded or claimed. If he’s not, he will likely have to choose between free agency or a minor league assignment with the Nationals. Had Voth rebounded this summer, would there have been a trade partner out there, ending a near-decade-long relationship with a bit of recouped value? Was a better version of Voth really more attractive than, say, Jordan Weems or Reed Garrett on a roll in June or July?

Multiple people in the Nationals front office would have answered yes to both questions. But in Voth’s place, Weems, 29, now gets a shot to prove himself for the Nationals or someone else. Garrett, also 29, remains with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings but could earn a chance soon. Tuesday night, Weems struck out Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso in a one-two-three sixth. Remarkably, it felt notable that the inning was so clean.

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