It may seem like I’m trying to downplay Bryce Harper as much as possible this week after proclaiming Todd Frazier the rightful national league rookie of the year the other day, but that isn’t the case. Fact is, there are plenty of players around the league that deserve attention and I’m just here to spread it. My focus today is the main reason that Washington currently sits on top of their division: The top three pitchers in their rotation.
No pitching staff in baseball has a better FIP than Washington’s – by a large margin (they have a 3.54 FIP compared to the Dodgers’ 3.63 FIP) - and that’s due in large part to the combined brilliance of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman. Each member of that trio ranks in the top 25 in baseball in WAR produced by a pitcher. No other team can match that total and only six teams (Angels, White Sox, Dodgers, Rangers, Yankees, Giants) have two pitchers in the top 25. Strasburg and Gonzalez are both tied for second in the majors in FIP with brilliant 2.69 marks (Strasburg tops in the majors in xFIP at 2.71, another top of the line number) and Zimmerman is not that far behind on the list with a very solid 3.40 FIP.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
Strasburg is just as highly regarded as Harper but it seems like the that infamous innings limit is always topic of conversation when his name comes up rather that whether or not he is the best pitcher in baseball, which is a legitimate debate at this point. In his first full season since Tommy John Surgery, Strasburg has returned throwing a slightly slower fastball (he was throwing 97.3 MPH as a rookie but now he’s at 95.8 MPH) but it hasn’t deterred him one bit. Strasburg tops baseball in strikeout rate, punching out 11.31 batters per nine innings (160 Ks in 127.1 IP).
While Strasburg’s pin-point command has previously been one of his major calling cards (and he still is a very in command pitcher), he’s starting to climb that ladder on whiffs, too. He ranks seventh in the majors in swinging strike percentage this year with a fantastic 11.6% rate. His most effective pitch when it comes whiffs? That would be his change-up. Though it only accounts for 16% of his pitches this season, Strasburg’s change has been swung and missed at 52.44% of the time he’s thrown it this year, according to Brooks Baseball, and opponents are only hitting it at a microscopic .133 clip. To put that in perspective, Tim Lincecum, whose best pitch has always been his change-up, posted a 44.39% whiff rate on that pitch during his second Cy Young season.
As previously noted, Strasburg also ranks second in baseball in FIP and first in xFIP, so if you’re looking to evaluate a pitcher on his ability to prevent runs and miss bats, Strasburg has as impressive a resume as anybody in baseball.
[Now that I've given Strasburg his due, now I can discuss that pitch limit: I think it would be a shame to see Washington throw away a chance to make a post-season run this season in hopes of preserving a future that can be derailed by any number of things going forward. Seeing as Strasburg has said that he feels like the Tommy John Surgery never happened, I feel like the risk of extending him beyond whatever threshold management has set is lower than the risk of giving up on a post-season run to lighten the load on his arm.]
One of my favorite baseball strategies, from both a front office and manager perspective, is to have a strong righty/lefty combination at the front of the rotation. I think you can say that the Nationals have accomplished that, having Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top of their staff and all. Despite some recent rockiness, Gonzalez has transformed into a different pitcher this season, one that has done a tremendous job keeping the ball in the park and keeping runners off of base.
Gonzalez has always shown major punch out potential but he was largely cancelling that out in Oakland with walk rates over four. He’s taken a big chunk out of that this season, bringing his walk rate down to 3.55 per nine innings. His other big problem, even when pitching half of his games in Oakland, was giving up the big fly. He was giving up an average of over 15 homers a year during his three full seasons with the Athletics and posted homerun per nine rates no lower than 0.67 during his tenure there. Now Gonzalez actually has the lowest homerun rate in baseball and his homerun/flyball rate is just 6.3%, an excellent mark.
With Gonzalez improving his control and keeping the ball in the park, his skills are starting to shine. He’s got a sensation FIP and the fourth highest strikeout rate in the game, his 10.02 Ks/9 only behind Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. Gonzalez is mainly a two pitch lefty, with 93% of his offerings being fastballs and curves. His hook is the real gem as he’s held the opposition to a .172 batting average with it. With his combination of strikeout stuff and improved control has made him an excellent second fiddle to Strasburg. And with Gonzalez being just 26 years old, this should be a dynamic duo to watch for a good while.
Rounding out Wasington’s terrific trifecta is Jordan Zimmerman. Zimmerman doesn’t offer the same glitz and glamour that Strasburg and Zimmerman do, which is to say he’s not much for striking batters out. Rather, Zimmerman is terrific at keeping runners off of base and working out of whatever jams happen to come his way. Even though he had a very solid 3.4 WAR last season, it’s still a bit surprising to see Zimmerman coming up on his second straight 3+ WAR season.
Though Zimmerman’s 2.45 ERA is a bit misleading, his 3.40 FIP is still the 18th best mark in baseball. And though Zimmerman only strikes out 6.39 strikeouts per nine, he’s got the fifth best walk rate in the league at just 1.61 walks per nine innings. And when runners do get on base against him, Zimmerman usually strands them, as he’s got the fourth highest left-on-base percentage in baseball. What he lacks in pure ability he makes up for with pitch proficiency and focus. With two strikeout machines at the top of the rotation, it seems natural to have a Zimmerman type as the third horse.
The top of Washington’s rotation is unquestionably the most effective and productive in baseball. Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmerman have all produced some number of top level stats, even if Gonzalez is the only one of them to have pitched more than seven innings in a game this season (Gonzalez has pitched eight innings just once). And as long as the Nationals don’t let those innings count affect their plans going forward, the top of their pitching staff should deliver them post-season success.