Nats 2014 Mid-Season Review Part I: The Standings and Pitching Are Better Than You Think

The Washington Nationals have played precisely half of the games they are scheduled to play in the 2014 campaign. Since we, as a species, tend to like the easily divisible, I present unto you the longstanding tradition of a “mid season” review of the Washington Nationals – 2014 edition.

Standings: The Washington Nationals (43-38) are currently tied atop the NL East with a half game behind the Atlanta Braves (44-38) 5 games above .500. (They were tied after 81 game each, Atlanta’s just played one more already). This is certainly a step up from last year when Washington (41-40) trailed Atlanta (47-34) by 6 games. It also isn’t nearly as good as Washington (48-33) leading Atlanta (42-39) by 6 games.

Indeed, while both teams are maybe playing not quite as well as they had expected, it might be the first time Nats and Braves fans are seeing the “race” they were supposed to the last few years. There is no doubt that the 2013 Nats stumbled out of the gate and the Braves managed to stay hot (enough) all year, much the way the 2012 Nats blew it out of the box and never looked back. This year, neither team has run away with the division.

Atlanta owns the season series thus far (3-7), which only highlights their struggles against teams in the other 71 games. The problem for the Braves is that the Nationals are getting healthier (about to, finally, field their Opening Day line up since the middle of the game on Opening Day), and the Braves, really, are not.  Nine of those last 80 games for the Braves are against Washington, The other 71 are not.

The Marlins (4.0 GB), Mets (6.0 GB) and Phillies (7.0 GB) don’t appear to be in this race for the long haul.

Starting Pitching: The Washington Nationals boast the 6th best ERA (3.37), the BEST FIP (3.28), 2nd best xFIP (3.48) and are third in fWAR (8.2) behind only the Cubs and Tigers… and it still won’t stop people complaining about Stephen Strasburg.

Almost anyway you want to arrange the league’s starting pitchers (ERA, FIP, WAR, xFIP) you’re going to find Stephen Strasburg’s name on the first page. Near, if not at, the very top. Fangraphs ranks him as 15th. Despite his reputation as a guy who can’t go late into games, or a guy who quits early (not helped by his early exit in Milwaukee last week), he’s pitched 104.2 innings in 17 games this year, the most of any Nats pitcher. So it isn’t as if anyone on the team is doing “more work” than he is.

Now is he perfect? Of course not. He’s getting hit around a bit, for sure. He has a WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) of 1.2 which puts him around 60th in the league, and his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is at .356, which may be a product of bad luck, or a product of a good game plan by hitters to wait for a pitch they want. But he isn’t really walking people (just 1.98/9 IP) and he isn’t giving up bombs all the time (0.86/9 IP).

Many folks like to complain about the hype for Stras, and “who he is supposed to be.” And I get that. But, unlike magazine covers and sports talk radio,  statistics don’t give a flying eff what his name is, or whether he is overrated. They just tell you what he’s done, and what he’s done is pretty great this year.

You may want to say he’s a whiner because he questioned “the game plan” but the stats already take all of that into account. He’s already been pitching with whatever bad attitude you imagine he has- And even with all the things that drive you nuts about him, the numbers tell you how he is pitching: very, very well. If he’s not one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, he’s right on the cusp of that. You may expect an A+ grade from Mr. Strasburg, but don’t kick him for getting an A-.

That isn’t to say he is head and shoulders above the rest of the staff, though. The goofy question about “who is the ace” of the Nationals may have been a lot of “Hot Sprots takes”, but fWAR puts Jordan Zimmermann right behind him (with a game in hand) as the best pitcher on the staff. Throw in the “playing way above expectations” Tanner Roark, and the superb pitching of late coming Doug Fister, and you could make a case that Gio Gonzalez has been the most disappointing starter on the staff- which is neither meant to be, or should be taken as, insult.

Apart from his first start, Fister has been exceptional. Take out that “welcome back from injury” game against Oakland, and Fister’s already very good ERA drops from 2.83 to 2.28, and his FIP goes from 4.00 to 3.47. The only reason Fister isn’t ranked higher in the league among other pitchers is because he missed at least 6 starts at the beginning of the year.

One can hope that Gonzalez is in the same boat as Fister. Injury caused him to miss time, and after an awful first start back, he pitched well against the (admittedly) lowly Cubs. The Washington Nationals rotation is not only solid, it’s the best rotation the club has had since moving to Washington D.C., period. End of story. It’s almost as if Strasburg isn’t a “#1” and Doug Fister isn’t a “#4” pitcher. Someone should write a story about that. 
Relief Pitching: If the Nats have one thing that is better than their starting pitching, it’s their relief pitching. Second lowest ERA (2.49), lowest FIP (2.93), and behind only the Red Sox and Yankees in fWAR(3.3) the bullpen has been nearly unstoppable when given the chance to pitch. Will this change the perception that they “put too many guys on” and blah blah blah? Not really. I mean you can point out that Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano rank 7th and 11th among all relievers in WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) and they’ll still get on Rafa’s case for “letting too many guys on.” Pointing out that Tyler Clippard doesn’t give up tons of Home runs (just 2) or runs (2.00 ERA, 2.55 FIP) all the time, and it won’t mean squat if folks already have it in their head that they don’t like Tyler Clippard (Spolier: Some people don’t like Tyler Clippard).

Now look – if you’re griping that Storen, Soriano and Clippard should be pitched in a different order (Closer, set up, etc.) then you might have a point, and I might agree with you. But then again, I tend to think that a closer is an antiquated role and your best relievers should be facing the best parts of a batting order regardless of inning. Provided these three guys are pitching at the end of baseball games it’s sort of hard to argue with any one of them. being head and shoulders better than the other. As for the rest of the bullpen, Craig Stammen has been Craig Stammen, which is to say solid, dependable, ready to go. Aaron Barrett has sort of been a ridiculous find. His stuff is epic Nasty, and has been a great “get out of a jam” kind of pitcher for the team. One hopes this lasts, but it’s pretty great for now even if it doesn’t.

Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler have been the disappointments of the bullpen, but even they have had their moments. Blevins has put a lot of men on base (he has 16 walks in just 28.2 IP). It catches up with him from time to time and he gives up runs. He’s taken a few tough losses for the Nats as well, including having to go back to back in late innings against the Braves (after getting hit on a come-backer with the baseball no less). Even if we throw some of those tough games out, though, Blevins puts a lot of guys on.

Detwiler has kind of stunk this year. His transition from starter to lefty reliever has been troubled to say the least. From Matt Williams seemingly ignoring him in May (He pitched 8.2 IP the whole month) to lots of hits and runs being given up, he’s smelled like trade bait for a while now. What may help his stock (either with the Nats or on another team come trade time) is that he’s pitched 7 scoreless innings this past week against the Cubs and the very good hitting Milwaukee Brewers. His command looked a lot sharper than in games past, which may mean he’s finally adjusted to his new role on the team…just in time to be sent elsewhere.

Regardless, at 3.52 R/G (4th in MLB) the Nats pitching staff as a whole is doing its job.

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