Redefining the 2019 Washington Nationals

Mike Rizzo is never far from his phone; Photo by Andrew Lang for TalkNats

If there is one blueprint the Los Angeles Dodgers have used to reach the World Series in back-to-back years is a rested starting rotation for the post-season. Clayton Kershaw, their ace, only threw 161 1/3 innings this season. Hyun-Jin Ryu who is the Dodgers #2 pitcher only threw 82 1/3 innings this season. Rookie Waker Buehler threw a combined 153 1/3 innings between the Minors and Majors this season. The Dodgers number four pitcher, Rich Hill, threw 132 2/3 innings this season. The Dodgers had 7 pitchers this season with at least 15 starts. Contrast that with the Washington Nationals staff of 2016-2018, and you will see a much different approach in use and usage. 

In the Washington Nationals successful 2017 season, four starting pitchers went over 175 innings. That is more than any of the Dodgers pitchers this season. In fact, two Nationals starting pitchers eclipsed 200 innings in 2017. One injured his hamstring in late September “fatiguing” himself and the other burned out after a 121 pitch-count game in late August that had little meaning towards the season’s outcome.

Two different approaches from the front office of both teams, and in the National League, the Nationals once again stood out as the heaviest usage on their starting pitching staff. The American League champion Boston Red Sox also seemed to follow a lighter load for their starting pitchers. They had no pitcher above 200 innings and only two above 175 innings.

Some might say that the difference is that pitchers like Kershaw and Chris Sale were injured during the season while others might say that the teams used the disabled list as a strategy to keep their pitchers fresh, and sure enough, all of their starting pitchers are healthy for the postseason even after Chris Sale’s stomach ailment.

The Nationals need to grasp what was in front of them and what is ahead for them. You don’t fatigue your pitchers when you have your division wrapped up — rather you pace them to the finish line. It’s a marathon, and once the winners of the marathon are done they have a series of sprints in baseball known as the division series, championship series, and then the ultimate sprint in the World Series.

Two other observations from successful postseason teams is their usage of dependable high leverage relief pitchers in key moments earlier in the game and employing best defenses late in games. In Game #3 of the 2017 NLDS, manager Dusty Baker had a 1-0 lead, 1 out, a runner on 2nd base, and he wisely pulled starter Max Scherzer who had nothing left —but Baker brought in Sammy Solis instead of going straight to his highest leverage pitchers — Ryan Madson or Sean Doolittle. The first batter Solis faced hit a game tying single. In the 8th inning with the game tied 1-to-1, a flyball was hit into shallow left-centerfield, and Jayson Werth and Michael Taylor just watched the ball drop in for the game winning hit.

In that game 3, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle never pitched. There was no bottom of the 9th inning needed. It was just another example of everything that could have gone wrong with the Nationals season. So close yet so far. Multiple mistakes were made in strategy. The Nationals two best relievers never pitched, and the Nationals best defense was never inserted into the game as Victor Robles remained on the bench while Jayson Werth was still in left field. In fact, Dusty Baker finished the game without using any bench players.

Sometimes the right moves are made with bad results and wrong moves are made with good results. We saw that in Game 7 with Dave Roberts on Saturday. With a 2-1 lead and his starter Walker Buehler pitching well and 2 outs and a runner on 2nd base and Christian Yelich stepping to the plate, Roberts brought in the lefty Julio Urias to replace Buehler instead of just walking Yelich and pitching to Ryan Braun. On a 3-2 pitch, Yelich went oppo to the warning track and leftfielder Chris Taylor made a spectacular diving catch for the 3rd out. In the end, it worked out, but it seemed that Roberts like he did most of the series went for complicated moves when their were simpler strategies.

We have also seen the emergence of middle and back of the rotation starters who only face the opposing line-ups two times. It was the strategy used by the Nationals this year with Jeremy Hellickson. We also got to see two stand-out pitchers in this postseason who were successful in shorter outings, and those pitchers are Wade Miley and Nathan Eovaldi. By coincidence, Hellickson, Miley and Eovaldi are all pending free agents next month. Miley is a lefthander which makes him especially desirable this off-season. The Nationals could probably use two of those three pitchers and go with a different approach for 2019 with less usage of starting pitchers while using more dependable starters. Count on using 7 starters for the bulk of the work with a long-man in the bullpen. Instead of pursuing top of the rotation starters like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, save the money and sign middle of the rotation starters.

  1. Max Scherzer RHP
  2. Stephen Strasburg RHP
  3. Wade Miley LHP
  4. Nathan Eovaldi/Jeremy Hellickson RHP
  5. Tanner Roark RHP

Minor League depth:

  1. Joe Ross RHP
  2. Erick Fedde RHP

The Nationals could add Jefry Rodriguez as a long-man to their bullpen but also utilize him as a spot-starter. There will also be a need to find some veteran starters to put in Fresno Triple-A. This is how Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez can redefine how they approach the 2019 season by looking at how those postseason teams got to where they are.



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