Nats' trio of aces paves path to playoffs

March 24th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Few teams have invested as heavily in their starting rotation as the Nationals and they even doubled down on that commitment this offseason. They signed the market’s top free-agent starter in Patrick Corbin and added a resurgent, crafty Anibal Sanchez to a rotation that includes perennial Cy Young Award candidate Max Scherzer, a still-dominant-when-healthy Stephen Strasburg, and a newly resigned Jeremy Hellickson to round out what should be one of the strongest staffs in the Majors.

Starting pitchers across Major League Baseball are throwing fewer innings than ever before as teams search for different ways to piece together 27 outs. Some teams are deploying an opener. Most teams are limiting the amount of times their pitchers face a hitter three times in a game. Yet, the Nationals stand as somewhat of an outlier in 2019. They will still ask their starting pitchers to carry them deep into games, hoping for at least six or seven innings, and sometimes more.

“Our starting five pitchers are really good,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s nice knowing those guys can give you 21 outs every day. That’s how I’m going into it looking at it -- that these guys can do it.”

If Nats starters can pitch deep into games consistently, they feel confident about locking down a lead with Sean Doolittle set to pitch the ninth, Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth and the combination of Kyle Barraclough and Tony Sipp for righties and lefties, respectively, in the seventh. But they do not have a deep enough bullpen to consistently overcome short outings.

Starting pitching has been the Nationals’ blueprint to success ever since their first division title in 2012. In the four seasons they have made the playoffs -- ’12, ’14, ’16, ’17 -- they ranked in the top four in the National League in starters ERA. In the years they spent October watching from the sidelines, ’13, ’15 and ’18, they were no better than seventh.

2012: 3.40 (1st)

2013: 3.60 (6th)

2014: 3.04 (1st)

2015: 3.70 (7th)

2016: 3.60 (2nd)

2017: 3.63 (4th)

2018: 4.03 (9th)

Even in the middle of a disastrous 2018 as a team, the Nationals went 20-7 in the month of May, when their 2.26 starters ERA was the best in the NL. Then at the beginning of June, Strasburg landed on the injured list with Hellickson joining him shortly after. Both Gio Gonzalez (8.44 ERA in five starts) and Tanner Roark (6.08 ERA in six outings) struggled badly on the mound in June. Aside from Scherzer, they had no more reliable starting pitchers left, and the season fell apart from there. 

So, the Nats set out to fix that issue this winter. They have effectively exchanged Gonzalez and Roark for Corbin, who is coming off a career year, and Sanchez, coming off his best season in five years. Washington has committed roughly $95 million to its starting rotation in 2019, according to estimates by Cot’s Contracts, a payroll larger than the payroll of more than a few small-market teams.

The Nats are counting on their top five starters to make as many starts as possible. Behind them are Joe Ross and Erick Fedde, who are both likely to begin the season at Triple-A Fresno. The duo are both young pitchers who will almost certainly be on some sort of innings restriction because of their history of arm issues, and who have both been inconsistent during their young careers.

So, the Nationals path to the postseason is built on their starting pitching, and more importantly, their top five starters. The more innings and outs they accrue, the better Washington's record is likely to be.