Nationals Baseball: The bar has been set and it's REALLY high

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The bar has been set and it's REALLY high

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.

27 comments:

cass said...

The core of the Braves involved three Hall of Famers. The core of the Phillies involved three Hall of Famers (well, Hamels is on pace to be, but hasn't been around long enough to know for certain).

I think for the Nats to be in the conversation with those teams, they need three HoFs as well. People project Strasburg as one, but not Zimmermann. That could change, but it hasn't yet. Gio's pitched like an HoF for just one year.

That's how I look at it, anyway.

Strasburger said...

Nice post; I think rings may have people looking back too even if ERA stats don't measure up. The braves may have been there year after year, but they could only grab one.

As you mentioned, ERA is hardly everything a pitcher contributes, even so, I think ZNN and GIO could both post a few years under 3 in a row.

Strasburg sub 2? now that IS a tall order.


Hopefully those years are starting this year.

Pig.Pen said...

No love for Rossweiler. Detwiler threw fastballs about 150% of the time last year(I looked it up) and still had a pretty good year. This year, he will begin to use the wipeout curve he has regained the feel for and will be a truly different pitcher. Remember Detwiler was once a top ten prospect, was a high first round pick and was once rated higher than ZNN, but was derailed by the systemic issues within the Nats org under Bowden (or as I like to call him Mr. OPSBI). If Detwiler reaches his ceiling--which I am much more bullish on than most--the Nats would have 4 front of the rotation starters vs. the 3 that the Braves and Philthies had making that goal much more attainable.

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Ben said...

Pig.Pen:
I wouldn't hold my breath for the wipeout curve from Det, I can't remember a single one in the last two years that looked even MLB average (granted he only threw about 5). It is a very impressive feat to control teams with 90%+ fastballs but I think we should admit to ourselves WHY he is throwing 90% fastballs (hint: its not a Curt Shilling "it just felt good that day" kinda thing). Anyway, my hope is that he can develop an above average change-up (definitely not there yet) and be a good Glavine impersonator.

Pig.Pen said...

@Ben

Ben, when Detwiler was drafted his curveball was rated as plus plus so it's not so much about learning something new as it is about regaining something lost. Not to mention, that Detwiler through several nasty curves over his last two starts of the regular season and threw a couple in his dominate postseason start. DJ has been talking a lot this spring about Detwiler using the curveball and changeup more and moving from a thrower to a pitcher.

blovy8 said...

Really Stras just needs to pitch more, stay healthy, and learn from batters' reactions. He's got everything but experience.

Gio certainly has room to improve his control and that could make a big difference. He's got three good pitches that can get outs. But I saw a fangraphs article that shows pretty much all his gains were from dominating the pitchers atbats. Pitchers struck out 41 time against him. That's the most since 1972.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/gio-gonzalez-pitcher-abuse-and-a-modern-day-record/

Zimmermann probably needs a change-up he's willing to use more. I've heard that's a focus for him this spring. His fastball command is great, but I suspect he'd be able to get a few more K's if he'd vary the level of it some and work up when he's ahead. He may actually throw too many strikes. It seems like there's a lot of foul balls extending at-bats. He might need to get meaner. I do like that he'll throw the curve and slider. But that's a tight slider which doesn't move much, it's more of a lousy change up sometimes.

Even Detwiler will tell you that great curveball he had when he was a younger guy is gone. But he might be the kind of guy who, if he can master the grips, could throw his fastball a lot of ways. I'm not expecting Satchel Paige, but he can probably have one reliable offspeed thing and get away with it if he's throwing 95. I wonder if he'd be able to incorporate Haren's split?

Haren is looking solid, and is throwing out quotes like he's left-handed. That'll be good for the rotation, besides Gio, they seem to be a serious group.

blovy8 said...

I think Strasburg can be better than Smoltz, Gio has already been Avery with better health. Zimm is still going to have to be close to Maddux. Hard to see that really, he's stuff just doesn't move like that. Haren is more in that mold.

I think these guys would have to get the umpires on their side a LOT more to have anything like that 90's Braves success. They'd need Eric Young, jr. or something behind the plate fairly often.

Harper said...

cass - I think two could do it, the third could be simply a guy that had a nice good stretch but couldn't keep it up. Saberhagen type. You know, just two HoFer and a near prime Saberhagen. Much Easier

Strasburger - Rings will matter but history will put the onus more on the Braves hitting (the starting pitching held up pretty well in the playoffs)

If anyone is going to put up multiple sub 2.00 ERA years it's Strasburg (or maybe Felix)

PP / Ben - Nope. No love from here. I'mn on Ben's side. He has to be doing what he's been doing for a reason. Plus even if he can tick up that K-rate with a curve, he's still got the fact that nearly everything variable (HR/FB rate, BABIP, LOB%) worked for him last year. He'll have to pitch better for the same results.

blovy8 - Eric Gregg back from the dead. Livan as 5th. Team ERA 0.20.

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