If you like starting pitching, this is the World Series for you. In recent years, and throughout postseason history, we’ve seen dominant World Series performances -- Madison Bumgarner in 2014, and plenty of others. We’ve seen aces in the World Series -- Justin Verlander for the Astros just two years ago, among others. But there have not been many World Series that featured the sheer quantity of stellar starting pitchers that this one will have, and we certainly haven't seen it in a while.
Six outstanding starters
The Nationals’ three have all been on the team since the start of 2019. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg had both been Nats since 2015, when Scherzer signed as a free agent. Scherzer was an All-Star for every season during that span and won two NL Cy Young Awards, while Strasburg made two All-Star appearances. In the offseason, D.C. made its pitch and was able to sign free agent Patrick Corbin, completing its trio.
All six of those starters performed admirably this season. In fact, they were all top 20 in ERA among qualified pitchers: Cole was third, Verlander fourth, Scherzer eighth, Greinke ninth, Corbin 13th and Strasburg 16th. It’s the first World Series since 1945 to feature six of the top 20 pitchers in ERA, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that there were just 16 Major League teams in 1945, compared to 30 these days. That means it was a lot easier to have more pitchers within any top portion, since there were fewer pitchers and teams. Accomplishing that in 2019? Much less likely, more difficult and certainly more unique.
This is worth noting for all rank-based notes here: there are more teams and more players now, rendering these accomplishments a lot less likely.
Another way to look at it: those same six pitchers were all top 15 in Fangraphs’ pitching Wins Above Replacement: Cole (1st), Verlander (5th) and Greinke (9th), opposite Scherzer (4th), Strasburg (7th) and Corbin (T-12th).
This is just the third World Series to feature six of the top 15 pitchers in Fangraphs’ pitching WAR. The last time it happened? 1945. That’s when the Tigers, with Hal Newhouser (1st) and Dizzy Trout (T-10th), faced the Cubs, who had Claude Passeau (4th), Paul Derringer (T-10th), Hank Wyse (T-15th) and Ray Prim (T-15th).
The only other World Series to feature six of the top 15 such pitchers in a single year was 1905, between the Giants -- Christy Mathewson (2nd), Red Ames (9th) and Joe McGinnity (12th) -- and the A’s -- Rube Waddell (3rd), Eddie Plank (4th) and Andy Coakley (15th). No World Series has ever had more than six of the top 15.
It’s safe to say that pitching was pretty different in 1945, and even more so back in 1905 -- meaning that the fact this hadn’t happened again at any point until now is certainly notable.
And none of those individual rankings even include Aníbal Sánchez, who was 27th in ERA among qualifiers this year, with a 3.85 ERA, and has allowed one run in 12 2/3 innings this postseason -- with a deep no-hit bid, to boot. But he contributed to the Nats' overall rotation strength, noted below.
Plenty of strikeouts
Let’s zero in on strikeouts. Five of the six pitchers mentioned above were in the top 10 in strikeouts this season: Cole (1st), Verlander (2nd), Strasburg (6th), Scherzer (8th) and Corbin (T-10th). This is the first postseason series ever to feature at least five of the top 10 pitchers in strikeouts from that season. That’s right -- series -- not just World Series.
In fact, these two teams combined for 2,073 strikeouts this season. That’s by far the most combined regular-season strikeouts by starters in a World Series matchup, according to Elias. And given the recent trends with strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that this record has been set each World Series since 2016.
Most combined regular-season Ks from SP, WS matchup
2019: Nationals vs. Astros -- 2,073
2018: Dodgers vs. Red Sox -- 1,870
2017: Dodgers vs. Astros -- 1,843
2016: Indians vs. Cubs -- 1,806
Speaking of those strikeouts, something else worth noting on the Nationals' side is the fact that they've used each of their 200-strikeout starters from the regular season in relief this postseason: Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. No other team in postseason history has ever used more than one pitcher in the postseason in relief that had 200 regular-season strikeouts for them that year. And the Nationals have used all three of theirs.
Another way to look at those 2,073 strikeouts? This World Series is a matchup between the two teams that ranked first (Astros) and second (Nationals) in strikeouts from starting pitchers this season. This is just the sixth World Series between the top two teams in starting pitcher strikeouts from that regular season, according to Elias. The last time it happened was 2001, when the D-backs led the Majors and the Yankees finished second.
Before that, this hadn’t happened in a World Series since 1930, between the A’s (1st) and Cardinals (2nd). The other instances: 1929, 1911 and 1905.
Looking for a trend? The team that had more regular-season strikeouts from its starters won three of the previous five such World Series -- after the team with fewer such strikeouts won the first two such matchups.
Another area where these two teams’ entire starting staffs ranked favorably? Earned run average. The Nationals were second and the Astros were third in rotation ERA this season. It’s just the fifth World Series in the Divisional Era (since 1969) to be between teams who ranked in the top three in starters’ ERA in the regular season, according to Elias.
The last time it happened was in 1981, between the Yankees (3rd) and Dodgers (2nd). Before that, it was the 1978 World Series, and before that 1974 and then 1969.
In each of the four prior instances, the team with the lower starters’ ERA in the regular season won the Series. Perhaps that’s a good sign for the Nationals, whose rotation’s 3.53 ERA outpaced the Astros’ 3.61, ever so slightly.