Every offseason, you hope that some of your pitchers would work on their repertoires and come into camp with improvements. Washington Nationals‘ fans were spoiled by Max Scherzer. He was the hardest working player the Nats had, and he was never satisfied with what he did the year before — even if he won a Cy Young award.
You can certainly search through old articles on TalkNats on that subject of continual improvement. Even Stephen Strasburg, who came to the Nats in the draft with three plus-plus pitches, worked his offseasons to get better and at one time added a second breaking pitch to his arsenal. While it did not work-out with the slider, the effort was there. The best want to get better. There was that time that Scherzer added a sinker, but then ditched the pitch. Scherzer would tinker with grips and spin rates and spend his offseasons at Cressey Performance in Palm Beach County to get better.
The Nats are not alone here that too many pitchers spend their offseasons not working on continual improvement. Of course some do and just can never get it to work. Jordan Zimmermann could never add that great changeup to his mix, and even though he was an All-Star, that pitch would have turned him into a superstar. The same with Gio Gonzalez who was a heavy fastball and curveball guy and never fully developed a full arsenal because he got away with a lethal two-pitch mix just like Patrick Corbin. Both found out later in their careers that it wasn’t enough.
Top prospect pitchers and 1st rounders like Ross Detwiler, Joe Ross, and Erick Fedde to name just three were at the top of the list of that frustration in the Nats’ organization. Each were close, but never close enough to step up to the top of the rotation. Every year it was kind of the same thing when they arrived at Spring Training. You were ready for a breakout season and to see a new pitch that would move them up. General manager Mike Rizzo stuck with each one of them far too long. The next up in that same line is former top prospect and second round pick, Josiah Gray, who has had two MLB offseasons so far with the Nats.
Yes, finally the most obvious was done with Gray in a late season adjustment last year to throw a sinker as his primary fastball. He had a 2.4 HR/9 in the 2021 season which means he would average nearly 2½ home runs if you let him pitch a complete game. That is not good. Actually, it’s awful. Overall, the other Nats starters averaged 1.77 HR/9 last year, and Gray showed slight improvement to a 2.3 HR/9. But why didn’t he ditch the 4-seam fastball after the 2021 season?
In Gray’s final outing of 2022, he gave up one run. Of course it was a home run off of a 4-seam fastball near the middle of the zone. Even when he was throwing an effective sinker, he still continued to throw a 4-seamer, and in that chart there were six 4-seamers near the center of the plate. Why? He seemed to be lucky that day.
The Nats had Gray work on his mechanics over the winter with a straighter line toward the plate with his body. We are looking for any positive signs and hope that we never see that percentage of 4-seam fastballs over the center of the plate again unless it is a Nationals’ batter standing at the plate and an opposing pitcher.
What’s interesting is a top prospect pitcher from a different team is making news. Andrew Painter of the Phillies showed up to camp with a fifth pitch. He is just 19 years old and rated by some to be the best pitching prospect in the National League. Here is an article on why Painter developed a cutter in the offseason to go with his other four pitches.
If you have followed TalkNats for a while, Painter’s name should sound familiar. He was the subject of a draft article I wrote the day the Nats solidified the 11th pick in the 2021 draft. A look back at this article might blow your mind actually with Brady House, James Wood, and Painter all getting mentions. I wrote about Painter’s coachability and make up in why I thought he was the best pitcher, college or high school, at the time. The Nats took Brady House at pick №11 and Painter was scooped up by the Phillies two picks later. Wood, as it turned out, fell to the second round of the draft. As they say, you can’t get them all. Well, Nats could have chosen Wood in the second round, and instead went with Daylen Lile.
In several years, we can look back and see how those 2021 draft picks worked out. In the meantime, you have to develop and improve the players you actually have, and yes, much of that depends on the player himself, to get better and use the offseason for that continual improvement.