Since I’ve moved out here to the D.C. area I’ve been obeying the baseball anthem that one should “root, root, root for the home team” so I’ve been following the Washington Nationals. That has been a grim undertaking for the last few years. But this season they have the best record in baseball!
On the surface, the main difference would appear to be the impact of two young baseball prodigies and #1 draft picks, centerfielder Bryce Harper and, especially, pitcher Stephen Strasburg. There is, however, much more to it than that, including dramatically improved defense.
Strasburg is a fun pitcher to watch, throwing fastballs approaching 100 mph fastball with pinpoint accuracy, curveballs that are practically unhittable, and confusing changeups that go 87 mph. But despite his 15-6 record, the Nationals are planning to shut him down on September 12 in the middle of a potential run for the World Series. They are babying his surgically-reconstructed arm, which he blew out after only a few games when he first came up in 2010. He had the Tommy John surgery and team officials, following medical advice for someone who has never pitched a full season and wanting to keep him on the roster for a long, long time, decided to limit him to 170 innings.
Those team officials, of course, never dreamed the team would have so much as a shot at the playoffs, so that made sense. But now, many people are saying, this could be the Nationals’ year. They may never get this close again. The kid is still strong. (In his last start he struck out 10 Cardinals.) Across the nation on sports talk shows, people are calling the Nationals’ leadership wusses. This is the time to go all in! Let Strasburg pitch!
It’s odd that you don’t hear that line of reasoning very much here. For one thing, Strasburg may not even be the Nationals’ best pitcher. Gio Gonzalez has more wins (17). Jordan Zimmerman, through most of the season, has had a lower E.R.A. (under 3). And the guy who will replace him in the lineup, John Lannan, used to be the Nationals’ number one pitcher, starting on opening day twice. But the pitching staff is so loaded he had to spend the season up to now in the minor leagues! Now he’ll be the fifth starter, though once the playoffs begin with their travel days, a four-man rotation is plenty.
I like how the esteemed sportswriter Tom Boswell writes about this:
Sometimes numbers are more eloquent and sadder than words because they are harder to refute. In a weak year among NL powers, the Nats will seldom have a smoother path to a pennant. Look at the pitching hegemony the Nats would have brought to bear in the postseason when all teams use four starters. They’d have four of the top 15 in ERA among all starters in the NL. Only one NL team has more than one such pitcher (the Giants).
Also, the Nats would send out four of the top 15 NL starters in WHIP (walks and hits per inning), as well as four of the top 21 in lowest OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging).
Finally, the Nats would have an overpowering staff with four of the top nine average-fastball-velocities in the NL. That’s almost insane.
On top of all that, the Nats would finally, if they stay intact, have their best seven hitters at the top of their lineup and their entire seven-deep bullpen all healthy at the same time. All season the Nats have waited for this full complement of top players. All in all, it’s a mighty powerful mixture.
Too bad: After 79 years waiting, we’re left with “might have beens.”
Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to have made a minor mistake in my calculations. The team I have just described is the Nationals without Strasburg.
The four-man rotation, primed for October that I’ve described is Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler.