The Problem with the Nats no one is Talking About
At 3.86 the Washington Nationals starting pitchers' ERA ranks 15th in baseball right between the Cubs and the Phillies. NL average for the 2014 season so far is 3.67. The Washington Nationals, a team whose pitching staff was thought to be the best in baseball coming into the season, have below average starting pitching. Now that ERA is somewhat negatively impacted by Taylor Jordan having received a handful of starts, but the league average is 3.67 and while Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Tanner Roark are below that number they are barely so. For Tanner Roark that is a great accomplishment. A fifth starter that is around league average is a wonderful thing, but for Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann there are higher standards to be met. It has been debated and mentioned in the past that all three of aforementioned Nats starters are capable of being an Ace, but Stephen Strasburg, who has the best ERA among Nats starting pitchers at 3.48, ranks 50th in baseball. Behind such luminaries of the mound as Charlie Morton, Dillion Gee, and Mike Leake. A Nationals pitching rotation that was thought to be comprised of ones and twos is really comprised of threes and fours and that isn't going to get the job done with the offense that Nationals have.
When healthy the Nationals line-up projects as league average. With the injuries they have accumulated it is far below that. With the starting pitching struggling and the line-up in shambles due to injuries the Nationals are lucky to be where they are, but if one were looking for a place for blame when it comes to the Nationals once again under performing expectations that blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of the Nationals starting rotation.
While the Nationals 36 errors are tied for the most in the NL with the Dodgers, the 28 unearned runs allowed by the Nationals is more than the 24 allowed by the Dodgers. Some blame for that can be given to the defenders for giving away extra outs, but the starting pitcher doesn't have to follow an error with a walk to the opposing pitcher or a gopher ball over the heart of the plate. A base runner is a base runner, and it doesn't matter if they reach via hit, walk, hit by pitch, or error the starting pitcher's job remains the same, to get the next man out.
The quality start isn't a great stat because the base line of six innings and three runs or less equals a 4.50 ERA it isn't truly quality. While the average starting pitcher in 2014 is pitching six innings an outing the league average 3.67 ERA is closer to two runs than it is to the three of a quality start, but the stat is what the stat is and the Nationals are seventh worst in the NL in percentage of quality starts with 55% of their games being one. League average is 57% and the Atlanta Braves are the best in the majors with 77%.
Beyond simply looking at how many times Nationals starters have gone at least six and allowed at least three runs or less the Nationals pitching staff is averaging only 5.8 innings an outing. The Nationals are below league average in quality start percent and in innings pitched. This isn't where one would expect to find a starting pitching staff that was supposed to be the best in the majors, is it?
The under performance of the Nationals starting pitchers is a problem that isn't being talked about enough. They could all regress to the mean as none of them have an ERA at their career average and there are signs that a regression is in order, but that is not guaranteed. The fact is the Washington Nationals are a team built around starting pitching and while it is hovering just below league average, higher standards should be expected. If the Cy Young voting were today that Nationals wouldn't have a single pitcher in the top twenty, and that isn't good enough given the expectations set upon this pitching staff.
More of the season is left than has passed and there is time for the starting pitching to get in gear. They have been whole for one trip through the rotation so far, and have just started the second. Perhaps they'll be where they were expected to be at season's end, but as of right now they are a slightly below league average rotation, and the biggest reason the Washington Nationals have not lived up to expectations.