Nationals Starters Continue to Amaze
For the briefest of moments in last evenings contest against the Blue Jays the Nationals top four starters all had ERA's under 3.00. Then Sean Burnett allowed an inherited base runner to score and Edwin Jackson's ERA shot up to 3.02. As a whole the Washington Nationals starters are the best in baseball as a collective with a combined ERA of 2.93. They are the only team in baseball whose starters have an ERA under 3.00. What is more impressive is they also lead the majors in FIP (3.08), WAR (8.4), K/9 (8.52), HR/9 (0.68), and WHIP (1.143). Leading in any one of these categories is good, but leading in all of them makes the Washington Nationals starting staff amazing.
Some many words have already been written and ink already spilled that a new language might need to be invited simply to describe the Washington Nationals starting staff. What might be the most telling of all these stats is that second to the Nationals 8.4 WAR for their starting staff is the Phillies with 7.2. The team that is 1.2 wins below the Phillies is the Giants with a combined WAR for their starting staff of 6.0, and between the Phillies and the Giants are the rotations of the Cardinals, Angels, Marlins, and Diamondbacks. Four teams fit into that 1.2 win gap that separate the Phillies and the Giants rotations and the Phillies are the second highest rated rotation in baseball behind only the Washington Nationals.
It is amazing to think about how this Nationals rotation came together and how different it is from the one that started the season just a year ago. In 2011 the Washington Nationals opened the season with a rotation of Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, and Tom Gorzelanny. Those five starters along with six others accounted for a WAR of 10.7 over the course of the entire season. This season isn't half over and the Washington Nationals starting rotation is 2.3 WAR away from matching last season's total.
That may not even be a fact that can sink in. This rotation seemingly changed overnight and it only took two moves. The biggest change though isn't the trade for Gio Gonzalez or the signing of Edwin Jackson. It is the fact that Stephen Strasburg for the first time in his career started the season on the Opening Day roster. Adding him to the rotation gave the Nationals a nasty one two punch without even making another move, and then they went and traded for Gio Gonzalez who was thought to be a decent starting pitcher who had some issues with walking too many batters.
Gio Gonzalez's BB/9 of 3.72 is still higher than the major league average of 3.2, but it is much lower than his own career average of 4.35. Combine this with a strike out rate that increased from a career average of 8.88 K/9 all the way up to 11.02 K/9 and the Nats have an unexpected Ace on their hands. Gio was a good pitcher without these improvements but now he is something special and both the increase in strikeouts and the decrease in walks come from the same place. Gio Gonzalez is getting ahead of hitters and pitching in the strike zone more than he did as an Oakland Athletic.
A lot of credit for this has to go to Steve McCatty who preaches pitch efficiency and getting ahead of hitters. The other project that McCatty was handed in Edwin Jackson has also improved in a similar fashion. For his career Edwin Jackson had a BB/9 of 3.58 and as a National that has improved to 2.46. Unlike Gio, Jackson's K/9 is very close to his career average with his 2012 number being 6.95 compared to a career number of 6.70. Jackson has proved to be a good signing by the Nationals even though there was a good amount of luck involved in him sitting on the market long enough for a one year deal to make sense.
The Nationals rotation has performed above and beyond any expectations in 2012 and there is little evidence to suggest that it won't last. Of the top four in the Washington rotation only Jordan Zimmerman has an ERA that is close to a run lower than his FIP but his FIP of 3.86 is also higher than his career average of 3.65. So while Jordan Zimmermann might be due for a little regression things might work out the other way and his FIP become more in line with his ERA by his moving his K/9 closer to his career average and his HR/9 closer to his 2011 average.
This is the best starting staff a baseball team in Washington has had on the field since the days of Walter Johnson. The front three of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann are all here as a unit at least through 2015, but let's not think that far ahead. Every time a Washington Nationals starter has taken the field this season they have more often than not delivered a performance that is well worth viewing, and it doesn't look like they have any intention of slowing up just yet.