It didn’t take a genius to figure out the main problem

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a team with a final starter’s ERA of an atrocious 5.97 for the 2022 season could never be successful if that was repeated. The Washington Nationals had a clear problem in the results. The strategy to fix those results was not on just the pitchers as the team was defensively challenged during that season too. Upgrades and changes needed to be made. Fingers were being pointed at the manager, the general manager, the owner, the pitching coach, and the players. You need to have good players, first and foremost.

“So you’re talking about adding maybe one or two more starting [pitchers]. We’re going into the winter with a lot of different areas that we need to fix.”

— Manager Dave Martinez was clear in the offseason what he needed

The Nats, per our top priorities that we laid out in the offseason, needed to sign some top free agent starting pitchers and fix the defense. Overall, the defense and starting rotation would improve with what they call addition by subtraction by cutting some players, but there had to be improvement from the incumbent pitchers like veteran Patrick Corbin and third year player, Josiah Gray. Adding MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli to the rotation, and the signing of Trevor Williams was the rubber stamped rotation going into Spring Training. That’s what the team was able to do. There was no superstar signing — much to the dismay of many, who keep forgetting how you strategically assemble a team in a rebuild. But certainly improvements were needed over the 2022 roster.

“It all starts with starting pitching. Our starting pitching needs to get better, that’s for sure.”

— Manager Dave Martinez playing Captain Obvious in a comment over the winter

In the best laid plans there can always be twists and turns, and as we know, there usually is. Cavalli went down with a torn UCL and required season ending surgery before the season started. He sustained the injury during a Spring Training game. It was a gut punch. While unforeseen, teams will usually have at least one major change and possibly more before the final roster is set. It is one reason why we thought that the Nats should have looked at signing two top free agent pitchers, and if all went right we commented, “either Gray, Cavalli, or Gore would start in Triple-A or Corbin goes to the bullpen.”

In a competition, the best five should have won spots. In this case with the Cavalli injury, who would be the next man up? The issue was that general manager Mike Rizzo’s pitching depth was spotty as he did not sign two free agent upgrades in the offseason. His depth was just Paolo Espino, Chad Kuhl, Joan Adon, and Wily Peralta. Kuhl had pitched the best in camp and won the fifth starter’s spot.

But it turned out that Kuhl was carrying a burden that we disclosed last week based on some news we received from a TalkNats reader, Susan V., that Kuhl’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed surgery which she has now had. She is starting chemo tomorrow. In conversations I have had with Amanda Kuhl, the prognosis sounds good for the future, and our thoughts and prayers continue for her. Maybe the struggles her husband had in his first three starts were attributable to that, and it is completely understandable. Kuhl sure looked much better in his last start.

Last year, we wrote an exposé on how the 2022 Nats were the worst defensive infield on groundballs. It boggled the mind as we were watching the games, and nobody was talking about this aside from us. It promoted a line from football that “Defense Matters.” Somehow Rizzo thought Luis Garcia was a capable defensive MLB shortstop. He had his supporters of which I clearly was not one of them. When Garcia took over, the defense eroded further and was on its way to setting a record for ineptitude. Trust me, it was not just Garcia, as the entire infield and outfield was a mess with Garcia and outfielder Juan Soto putting up the worst numbers in their respective positions in MLB.

After the trade deadline of 2022 that sent Soto to the Padres, CJ Abrams came over in the blockbuster trade and played his first game at shortstop on August 15. The defense immediately improved, and with it, the pitching improved. The team went on a nice run until catcher Keibert Ruiz got injured on September 8 last year. In the sixteen games that Abrams, Joey Meneses, and Ruiz started together — the team went 9-7 and finally the pitching staff was looking like they were good. Much of that could be attributed to the new infield defense that ranked sixth in the Majors in that span from dead last in the 116 games before. A .563 winning percentage in that 16-game stretch was impressive, especially considering how tough that schedule was, and that gave some optimism for the future.

The defense was not even part of the little things — it was a key part to the big things. You could see with Corbin that his FIP at 4.83 was actually better than his ERA which showed how negatively the defense was cratering his number as was seen with his horrific 6.31 ERA. He was a victim of historically bad defense. The bad defense was affecting every pitcher of course. But the more that a pitcher was a groundball and low-K type, the impact would be greater.

Here is where it gets real interesting. With the Nats so bad at defensive shifts in the past, we theorized that they might be one of the least affected teams by the new shift rules. Another rule is more stringent checking for “sticky stuff” on the pitchers which just got Max Scherzer suspended. Larger bases was the another rule change that would lead to more stolen bases. Overall and as expected, ERAs are up in baseball over last year, 3.96 to 4.30 currently and that might go up further as the weather warms up. But here is the thing, the Nats are one of the teams that has bucked the trend, and the team ERA went from 5.00 last year to 3.92 currently. The Nats are 11th in MLB for best team ERA and just 0.11 from Top-10.

“Defensively we’re going to be better — I promise you which makes our pitching staff better — I promise you.”

— Rizzo said at a season ticket holder function this year

Finally, Rizzo said it. Yes, defense matters, but so does better players. It is that combination that is essential. The great Washington Nationals teams were built on great starting pitching along with at least league-average defense.

“Starting pitching is the driver [for] me. . . . We’ve built our [rosters] based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”

— Rizzo said five years ago and it still holds true to today

Taking Rizzo’s dated quote on face value, it was not true in 2022, Mr. Rizzo. Of course that certainly seems to be the smartest approach to building a team though. You begin with the starting pitching, then your position players, a competent bullpen, and finally your bench. The Toronto Blue Jays made the 2022 postseason with the 18th worst starting pitcher ERA at 3.98. Rounding up, that is still 2.00 runs better than the Washington Nationals in 2022. If twelve teams go to the postseason, and you have the 11th best pitching like the Nats, theoretically you would go to the playoffs if you had the 11th best offense, right? Sure, but the Nats are 28th in team offense, and we should just enjoy watching this Nats’ 2023 improve overall.

Yesterday in Martinez’s pregame media session, he went into a long discussion on his pitching coach, Jim Hickey, who had been one of the coaches that we felt should have been fired based on the pitching history. Sure, not all Hickey’s fault, but two years in a row the pitching was the worst in the Majors. So now that the pitching is greatly improved, Hickey now deserves the credit. Let’s be fair, you cannot have it both ways, and Hickey’s pitchers are responding. Martinez stuck with his pitching coach and did not fire him, and it looks like that patience is paying off.

And here we are. Davey used Gray’s gem of a start on Tuesday night to let everyone know that Hickey is part of the solution and was not the problem. When Hickey was hired, he made some comments that were troubling in some respects. He seemed to indicate that he takes a “hands off” approach with his pitching staff, and said he would not dictate to them for instance, to throw changeups.

“Obviously, you have to throw strikes. Obviously, you have to change speeds. … I’m a huge believer in the changeup. I don’t force anyone to throw changeups. A lot of guys don’t like the changeup because it’s not a sexy pitch.”

— Hickey said when he was hired in 2020

Hickey was hired over two years ago, and Martinez is just bringing this up now? Sure, we have written about this many times, and I almost felt like Martinez was talking directly to me yesterday when he tried to justify that Hickey taught the changeup to James Shields, Alex Cobb and other pitchers when they were both on the coaching staff with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“We want them to throw more (changeups) … But we’re trying to teach these guys to get ahead [with their best pitches]. It’s teaching. … They have to throw strikes.”

Martinez explained why many of his pitchers don’t throw changeups

By the way, Gore threw one changeup yesterday, and it resulted in an RBI single and the only run he gave up last night.

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