The Nats pitching staff is young and awfully good. Led by Strasburg, Gio, and ZNN, it's only natural to compare them to the best rotation in our collective memory, the Braves' staff anchored by Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Here's the thing though. That staff was amazing.
Starter ERA* by year
1994 : 3.28
1995 : 3.25
1996 : 3.45
1997 : 3.05
1998 : 3.06
Nats 2012 : 3.40
*Yes I know ERA is imperfect. Consider it
pitching and defense if it makes you feel better. It's not like the Nats
aren't proud of their defense too. And yes, luck is in there too. Deal.
OK you say - that's not fair. Totally different time periods. You're right. Let's add in league starter ERA (in parenthesis)
1994 : 3.28 (4.62)
1995 : 3.25 (4.63)
1996 : 3.45 (4.68)
1997 : 3.05 (4.60)
1998 : 3.06 (4.60)
Nats 2012 : 3.40 (4.26)
So not only were the Braves' staffs better, they were better in harder circumstances. The Braves were around 30% better than league ERA over a stretch of 5 years. The Nats were 20% better last year. That's not to say the Nats staff wasn't really good, but it wasn't anything historic. Hell, going by comparison to league ERA, the Nats were neither the best NL staff of the past 2 years (Phillies 2011 2.86 (4.16)) or the best staff in the majors last year (Rays 2012 3.34 (4.40)).
But the Nats do have something those two teams don't have and that's a chance to keep the same group together for years to come. The Phillies are too old, the Rays too cheap. What do the Nats have to do to compare to these Braves teams?
Well they need to get that ERA down to about 3.00. Can they do it? It's possible but it's going to be tough. Let's assume that Gio and ZNN are about where they should be. With ERAs slightly below 3.00, that gives the Nats a little cushion. If Dan Haren is healthy... I guess you could pencil in a 3.00 ERA given the Nats D and the move to the NL. Ok so where do you like Detwiler? 3.50? Now you've set Strasburg's bar at 2.70. Like him higher? 4.00? Strasburg's gotta pitch to a 2.20 ERA or so.
Let's break it down to three things
1) The Nats need Strasburg to step up. Maddux really was carrying the Braves claim to best staff. His ERAs over the course of this time? 1.56, 1.63, 2.72, 2.20, 2.22. If the Nats are to match the Braves Strasburg has to be nearly as dominant.
2) It wouldn't hurt if Gio and/or ZNN could get better too. In 1996 Maddux had an off year for him. Avery started to breakdown, Jason Schmidt was bad. Denny Neagle was bad. So how did the Braves pull off another great year relative to the league? Both Smoltz and Glavine pitched a little bit better. Not a lot better mind you, but both pitchers had been very good (better than Gio and ZNN) and they improved a little bit instead of declining like everyone else. It made all the difference. It's kind of unfair asking Gio and ZNN to match up with one definite and one maybe Hall of Famer, but if you want to compare staffs it has to be done.
3) The Nats need to keep finding decent guys behind these three. Whether it was Kent Merker and Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, or an emerging Kevin Millwood, the Braves always had someone at the back of the rotation that was capable of putting up a year just as good as the guys in the front. That was necessary because some years that last spot is just not going to work out for you (see 1997 for a Braves example). Despite statistical protestations, Edwin Jackson is not that guy. Dan Haren IS. Ross Detwiler might be - at least for a year or two. That should be long enough for someone else to emerge.
Oh let's add a fourth
4) Health - Smoltz got injured in 94 and 98 but managed not to miss that much time in either year (thanks to the strike in '94) and was only seemingly hampered by it in 1994 (4.14 ERA was the worst of his career until his final season). Maddux and Glavine were completely healthy over this time.
It's a tall order for the Nats rotation to match up to these guys even for one season and it's probably more than a bit unfair to make the comparison at all. But I look at like this; the fact that you can say that maybe the Nats staff can one day be looked back at by baseball fans as in the neighborhood of these Braves staffs is a huge compliment.