How Good Can The Nats Starters Be
The strength of the 2012 Washington Nationals was their starting pitching, but as good as it was it had flaws. The Nationals had to suffer through five starts of Chien-Ming Wang and his 6.23 ERA as a starter, the Nationals shutdown Strasburg as a precautionary measure due to his recovery from Tommy John's, and the Nationals had to live through Edwin Jackson's 15 second half starts where opponents slash lines rose from .228/.284/.397 to .259/.314/.447. Despite these few minor flaws, and only 151 innings as a starter from Detwiler, the Washington Nationals starters finished the season with a 3.14 ERA, the best in the NL and second best in baseball.
The biggest and most important difference between 2012 and 2013 is that the Nationals will not have Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit. There is no shutdown date in 2013 and Strasburg is going to take the mound and make his starts every fifth day with no planned interruption. Even with being limited to 159 1/3 innings in 2012 Strasburg was second on the Nationals in fWAR with 4.3. It is simple to predict that if Strasburg pitches the same in 2013 as he did in 2012 but for 40 2/3 more innings he would have a 5.4 fWAR.
As easy as that prediction is to make, it misses something about Strasburg. He is still improving as a starting pitcher. In order to understand how good the Washington Nationals starting staff can be the first thing that has to be understood is that as good as Strasburg has been he has yet to reach his potential. The truly scary part about that is that Strasburg is already one of the best pitchers in baseball. If he had finished out 2012 it may have been he that won the Cy Young and not RA Dickey. Strasburg's array of pitches and the control and command he displays with them is otherworldly. There is obviously the blazing fastball, but then there is the change-up that appears to defy gravity in order to taunt the batter before dropping out of the reach of his bat and the curve that has made many a good batter flinch or outright hit the deck before dropping into the strike zone for a called strike. If everything goes the way it is expected for Strasburg he is going to be a 6 fWAR pitcher and win the NL Cy Young.
Expectations are a funny thing and the Nationals and Nationals players are going to be no stranger to them. In 2012 Gio Gonzalez finished third for the NL Cy Young, led the NL in FIP and was second to Clayton Kershaw in fWAR. As good as Gio was he has to prove he can do it again. The difference between a career year and a breakout season is what follows. If Gio goes back to the 3.5 fWAR pitcher he was in Oakland that is still a very good pitcher, but it is not what he was last season. There is reason to think that Gio not only can repeat 2012, but could be even better. The big flaw with Gio Gonzalez has always been the walks, but in 2012 he walked 9.3% of the batters he faced, down from 10.5% the year before and 10.8% the year before that. Gio Gonzalez and more importantly Steve McCatty know where Gio's weakness lies, and the work down to cut down on walks in 2012 will continue in 2013. It is still doubtful that Gio can repeat 2012, but he should be close to a 4.5 fWAR pitcher than a 3.5 one.
Jordan Zimmermann is an interesting pitcher to talk about. He may very well be the best number three starter in baseball, but he could be even more. Consider that what Jordan Zimmermann did in 2012 was done with only a fastball and breaking ball. Of the 3083 pitches that Jordan Zimmermann threw in 2012 62% of them were fastballs. He threw his slider 24% of the time and his curve (that isn't much different than his slider) 12% of the time. Of those 3083 total pitches thrown in 2012 Zimmermann threw the change-up he attempted to learn in Spring Training a total of 66 times.
Developing a true third pitch is important for Jordan Zimmermann, but also just as important is learning how to pitch out of the strike zone. Too many times when Zimmermann is ahead in the count he throws too good of a pitch. That isn't entirely his fault. His slider and curve both have tight breaks and are not swing and miss pitches, and Jordan Zimmermann's mentality with the fastball is to always go after the batter. There were more than a few times in 2012 where Zimmermann got burned by being too aggressive in the strike zone ahead in the count. Continuing to work on the change-up or going to a different off-speed pitch like a splitter could help to give Jordan Zimmermann the strikeout and change of speeds pitch he needs to be a more effective starter. As it stands now Jordan Zimmermann is the best third starter in baseball, but if he can add that third pitch he could go from a 3.5 fWAR pitcher to a 4 or 5 fWAR pitcher, and give the Nationals yet another league Ace.
At some point in 2011 with Detwiler bouncing between the rotation, the bullpen, and the minors he was told to pitch with conviction. To no longer fear the batters and to not be afraid of contact. Since that time he has been a different pitcher, but part of his pitching with conviction is the sinker that he added in 2011. It is that sinker that was his out pitch. It registers the same speed as his fastball and there is no difference to the arm action in which he throws it. For all intents and purposes the batter thinks he is getting a fastball, but when he swings all he is able to do is pound the ball into the ground.
In 2012 Ross Detwiler's ground ball rate rose from 43.3% in 2011 and 43% in 2010 to 50.8%. Over half of the balls put in play where put in play where Detwiler wanted them and where Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, and Danny Espinosa could gobble them up. There is no reason to think that Detwiler can’t continue to be an effective pitcher as long as he has the sinker and batters continue to swing and pound it into the ground. In fact Detwiler had many a game in 2012 where he almost exclusively threw fastballs. That is the type of pitcher Detwiler needs to be to succeed and that is the type of pitcher he grew into in 2012. As far as a fWAR number goes for 2013 there is no reason to not think that Detwiler can repeat and improve on his 1.8 rating in 2012. Simply expanding that out to 200 innings gives Detwiler a 2.2 fWAR, but there is no reason he can't be closer to a 3 fWAR pitcher, especially if he continues to pitch with the sinker and conviction.
Dan Haren is the newest and final member of the Nationals main five. Up until 2012 Haren was one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. In fact before last season he ranked fourth all time in K/BB ratio behind only Tommy Bond, Curt Schilling, and Pedro Martinez. Because of his sub-par 2012 he has since dropped to fifth all time and Mariano Rivera has taken over the fourth spot. The troubles that Haren had in 2012 were caused by an injury to his hip and back, and while that scared away many suitors the Nationals took a chance with a one year $13 million deal.
It is hard to imagine Haren getting back to the 6.0 fWAR pitcher he was in 2008, 2009, and 2011, but the 4.0 WAR pitcher he has been for the rest of his career is a possibility. There are some concerns with Haren and his declining velocity, but it has been a steady drop over the last five seasons and not a drastic one. Haren has had time to adjust to becoming a different pitcher, and when he had a 6.1 fWAR season for the Angels in 2011 his average fastball velocity was already down to 89.8, compared to his average velocity of 91.8 in 2007. Haren has succeeded in the majors before as a lower velocity pitcher and can do the same in 2013 for the Nationals.
As far as how good the entire unit can be there is no reason to not believe that they can be as good if not better than the 2012 version. In 2012 the Nationals finished second behind the Tigers in fWAR with 18.1. If Strasburg reaches his potential as a 6.0 fWAR pitcher, Gio Gonzalez has a modest drop to a 4.5 fWAR pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann learns a third pitch and improves to a 4.0 fWAR pitcher, Detwiler continues to pound the sinker and is a 3.0 fWAR pitcher, and Dan Haren regains some of his past glory and is closer to a 3.5 fWAR than the 1.8 pitcher he was in 2012 then the Nationals will be first in baseball in 2013 with 21.0 fWAR.
The scariest part about all of this is that the Nationals could be even better than that. That projection relies on things going right, but not to the degree that they could. The best-case scenario for the Washington Nationals pitching staff is off the charts. Haren could get back to a 6.0 fWAR pitcher, Gio could suffer no drop off, Strasburg could take it to a new level and have a historically great season, and Detwiler and Zimmermann are both still young and improving with loads of talent. And as fun as it is to sit here in January and try and forecast what the pitching staff might do, it will be even better to sit back and watch what they will do once April 1 rolls around.