Get To Know Some Nats: Starting Pitchers

Every year, we put together player profiles for the Nationals players likely to make the 25 man roster. This way you’ll have a better idea of just who is taking the field. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Washington Nationals of 2015 will be the same team you’ve been watching for a few years. So we’re going to forego lengthy profiles of stuff you already know, and focus on capsules for a few players at a time. A quicker, more forward focused view for the savvy fan.

Note: If you’re here to read about Tanner Roark, I’ve moved him to the bullpen post later this spring. You can read why (and about him), here.

You can also read our outfielder preview here.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals

Stephen Strasburg, RHP

2014 Profile | Fangraphs

In a pack of bums who are underachieving bums, Stephen Strasburg takes the cake. We should just trade him for some prospects or make him a reliever. Or so MASNCommenter would have you believe. To wit:

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Thanks for sending me the screen cap MASNCommenter.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The truth is that the Strasburg is an exceptional pitcher doing exceptional things, but hasn’t lived up to the hype that followed him into the league. I heard the phrase “Prospect Fatigue” the other day, and I think that applies perfectly. Strasburg’s debut was an instant classic. He entered Nationals Park like Zeus come down from Mt. Olympus to pitch. Fan disappointment stems from this night and the subsequent seasons in which Strasburg has proved to be “only” an Apollo or Ares on the mound.

What is there to say about Strasburg? He’s a top twenty pitcher in all of baseball. Thirteenth in MLB by fWAR,  24th in ERA, 13th in FIP, 3rd in xFIP, fifth most strikeouts per nine innings and the 20th lowest walks per nine innings

In English? Strasburg puts up all time strikeout numbers, doesn’t hardly walk people, and throws very, very hard. When he does get hit, he gets hit hard. Cite: .313 BABIP (13th highest) and a 0.96 HR/9 (doesn’t rank very well. Trust me).

Of course, this also happened to Felix Hernandez early in his career (Thanks Fangraphs Subscription for that tidbit), and he turned out okay.

The other knock against Stras is his 43-30 W-L record, just 14-11 in 2014. Games like the NLDS Game 1: 5 IP with 2 Runs (only 1 earned) in a 3-2 loss. He’d pitched respectably, if not perfectly. Yanked early, the story universally was thathe blinked first. Never mind the offense could only scatter 6 hits, scoring off two home runs against Jake friggin Peavy; why didn’t Strasburg only give up one run? Or none? Not an ace…

And there is a way in which that is fair: The best of the best are defined by their ability to dig a little deeper, find a little bit more, and “carry” teams that are otherwise struggling. These are the exceptions though, not the rule. This is why they are ‘exceptional’ players.

I ultimately believe that Stephen Strasburg is that type of exceptional player.

Going into 2015 with 650ish IP under his belt, and only 26 years old, it might be good to remind ourselves that he’s only just getting to the part of his career where he’s even supposed to peak. A very young Felix Hernandez had about 660 IP going into the 2009 season, his first 6+ WAR year (that’s high all-star, MVPish territory, btw). A similarly young Clayton Kershaw had about 475 IP going into his first 6+ WAR year, so he was eclipsing that 650 mark right when he became “Clayton Kershaw.”

Strasburg is entering his fifth year as a pro. If the worst thing you can say about him is he isn’t the best pitcher in baseball yet, then you really don’t have much to complain about.

Jordan Zimmermann unleashes more fury. -Photo Credit @AshburnNatsFan

Jordan Zimmermann asking the batter to “Taste Greatness.” -Photo Credit @AshburnNatsFan

Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

2014 ProfilePhonographs

All those things that Stephen Strasburg struggles with? Jordan Zimmerman doesn’t. Or, rather, he hasn’t. Or rather, it doesn’t look like he does.

ZNN turned from the hard luck pitcher of 2011 and 2012, to fan favorite largely because he fits all the basic criteria of a great pitcher.Good win loss record, many examples of going deep into games on one or two runs, good ERA, doesn’t get in trouble with the media. What’s better, JZ has several marquee games under his belt, culminating in the Nationals first No-Hitter on the last day of the 2014 season, and an 8 2/3 inning heartbreaker in the NLDS that ended up going 18 innings (for which Matt Williams and/or Drew Storen will get the blame, not he).

He’s the center of a Venn diagram featuring the grit of Tanner Roark overlapping with the talent of Stephen Strasburg. The only knock against him is that he probably doesn’t want to play in DC for what DC is willing to pay him (and, frankly, despite that being an open secret for years now that’s going to fall on Mike Rizzo and Ted Learner’s head more than his).

Perhaps the biggest reason he’s more beloved that Stephen Strasburg on this team is that many folks had no idea who he was when he was drafted in 2007. JZ pitched around Tommy John surgery in 2009 and 2010, logging just 23 games to add to his two years in the minors. As such, when he showed up for his first full year of work in 2011, he was a more polished and veteran pitcher than many gave credit for.

None of this takes anything away from Zimmermann. All his accomplishments are deserved and entirely his. As much as I believe in the ascent of Strasburg, I would be hard pressed not to start Jordan Zimmermann in a Game 7. He has absolutely played himself into what will be a six figure contract come the 2016 season, with or without the Nationals.

There is a reasonable chance that Jordan Zimmermann won’t finish the season as a Washington National, but there is a very good chance he will. Zimmermann is an expensive rental, and a trade would only make sense to a playoff team really. But the Nationals are a playoff team this year, and there is a lot of pressure to win. The band is about to break up, gang. On the Beatles Album spectrum, this is somewhere in Abbey Road/Let it Be territory. So while they should have enough pitching without him, why not keep him as their own rental? Could they, in good conscience, say they went for it with all they had if they traded him away? We’ll find out.

The Jordan Zimmermann show. Live, Tonight. Limited Time Only. Enjoy it before it’s gone.

Gio Warming UP in NY. Photo Credit @AshburnNatsFan

Gio Warming UP in NY. Photo Credit @AshburnNatsFan

Gio Gonzalez, LHP

2014 Profile | Fangraphs

Gonzalez put together a good 2014 despite missing a month due to shoulder injury. After giving up 13 runs in 36 innings in April, Gonzalez gave up 13 runs in 14.2 innings in May before going on the DL. Despite being described as a “head case” by some, Gonzalez displayed a MacGyver type resourcefulness in his post injury pitching. Take a look at this chart of Gonzalez’s pitch selection over the last three years. It shows the number pitches Gonzalez threw each year broken down by type, and then what percentage of total pitches that represents.

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Gonzalez may have been planning to use his four-seam fastball more already, but the huge uptick in usage this year speaks to a drastic change of plan in my opinion. Gonzalez’s curve, his signature pitch, was his least used of the four for the first time in his career. Gonzalez became a fastball/change up location and speed pitcher, and drastically reduced his movement pitch usage (two seams and curves).

Why would this be the case? I think the shoulder injury drastically affected his ability to throw pitches with a lot of movement. That “snap” required to throw the big hook puts a lot of stress on a pitcher’s body, and requires precision that maybe he didn’t have post injury. Fastballs and change ups are a lot the same arm motion with a difference in how they are held (at least that is how I understand it). It seems to me Gio was doing a great job with exactly what he had available.

Say what you will, but it takes a lot of character in my book to reinvent yourself. To abandon that which defined you in favor of something new.

Whether he comes back to the curve and two seamer or not it’s pretty encouraging to see what Gonzalez put together while retooling his pitching style on the fly. This spring we may get a preview of whether Gonzalez looks to go back to fastball/curve/two seam or stick with the fastball/change that worked well for him last year. Many pitchers, many very good pitchers, have had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant as age and injury have taken a toll. Gonzalez is still on the good side of 30 to be worried about age, but if he wants to make it deep to the other side of 30 this change in how he pitches may be looked at as a key moment in his playing history.

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Doug Fister, RHP

2014 Profile | Fangraphs

In his first Nationals appearance last spring, Doug Fister presented an imposing figure on the mound. He looked like Jon Rauch in better shape. The imposing giant on the mound worked fast, pitched well, and then promptly hurt himself. He missed nearly the first two months of the season before having a pretty bad game at Oakland (but who didn’t get crushed by Oakland in May?). After that, it was all sunshine, roses, and very blue Fister jokes.

Fister is another pitcher who hits all the right buttons with fans: Likes animals, remodels his own bathroom, works fast, works hard, wins a lot of games (including the Nationals one post season victory this year), and has a name that lends itself to Twitter shenanigans. I mean, I’ll admit it: I love him too.

After coming here in what may have been the most lopsided trade in baseball since Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Fister’s game proved very good but also flawed. A pitch to contact guy is going to get hit, and Fister averages 0.99 HR/9 innings pitched (18 HRs in 146 IP),  and his K/9 rate dropped from 6.8 to 5.3. He didn’t walk very many folks (1.32/9 innings pitched), which means that it was the defense as much as Fister getting outs in 2014.

A crushingly low BABIP (.262) and an absurdly high left on base percentage (83.1%) are begging to come back down, which would mean many more hits and runs scored on Fister. Now a rested 31 year old Fister a full year from his injury may go right back to his 2013 levels of striking folks out, which would help alleviate some of that regression. But if this is the new Fister, this might not be so much of an “if” as a “when” it catches up with him.

Even if it does though you’re now talking about the Nationals fifth starter on the last year of his contract. Some fans may be a little upset that the Nats haven’t offered Fister an extension yet, but the Nats are playing this smart. Fister is 31, going to be 32, and coming of a year in which some key indicators were askew. The wait and see approach is probably most appropriate.

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Max Scherzer, RHP

Fangraphs

You can stop asking who the Nats “ace” is.

Born July 27, 1984, Max Scherzer is 30 years old, under contract with the Nationals until 2022 and will be paid by the Nationals until 2029. Put it this way: your three year old (if you have one) will be allowed to drive before the Nationals are done paying Max Scherzer his money.

I’m completely fine with that.

Let’s not mince words: The Nationals are paying for a pitcher they fully expect to not be great in four years. They hope he’ll be good, no doubt, and he very well might be. But the Nationals aren’t fools. They know how pitching contracts work, they know that pitchers over 30 go down hill, and they know that 37 year old Max Scherzer probably isn’t going to be anything like 30 year old Max Scherzer. You’re yelling and screaming they overpaid, what were they thinking…

They don’t care. They are paying a lot of money to a pitcher they expect to be excellent for the next four years because he agreed to take the money over 14 years. If the Nationals win the World Series while Max Scherzer is a pitcher for the Nationals, they will in all likelihood consider it money well spent. This was the point.

The Nationals have two pitchers leaving for free agency in 2016. Stephen Strasburg is a free agent come 2017, and Gio Gonzalez will be in his first of two club option years. Scherzer’s arrival doesn’t simply make him the best pitcher on the Nationals roster (which is a.) true, and b.) really saying something), but ensures the Nationals will have some stability in the rotation through 2018. I’m not saying all those guys will be gone, but Scherzer is a guaranteed bridge to the future rotation of the Nationals. (As much as anything is guaranteed in sports).

So who is Max Scherzer? What can Nationals fans expect? You might like to think of him as who Stephen Strasburg might grow up to be. Scherzer has gone over 200 innings each of the last two years, pitching 30+ games in each of his last 6 seasons. Scherzer strikes out batters at a better clip than Strasburg. He’s a five pitch pitcher, mostly four-seam fastballs (~93 MPH) and change-ups (~83 MPH) but he has a slider, curve and two-seam fastball too. He averaged 6 2/3 innings per start last year and posted 15+ wins (and less than 10 losses) in each the last four years- if you put much stock into that sort of thing.

Plus he comes with postseason experience, 12 games, 10 starts and is largely the same pitcher in the post-season as he is in the regular season. That’s a good thing.

Scherzer is a power pitcher who is accomplished and powerful enough to move right to the top of a rotation of power pitchers. Nationals fans should expect to like Scherzer, a lot, if they can get past how much money he’s making.

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