On May 31, the Washington Nationals were in the top half of starting rotations in baseball. Even with Chad Kuhl‘s struggles, the starters had a combined 4.40 ERA and Josiah Gray was at 2.77, MacKenzie Gore at 3.57, and Trevor Williams at 3.93. It looked like general manager Mike Rizzo got a steal with Williams — and Gray and Gore were both looking like potential All-Stars. Today, the numbers are not good. The team ERA ballooned to 4.77, and Gore and Williams have seen some serious regression to 4.62 and 5.00 respectively. That won’t work.
For Gore, he needs to come to the same revelation we spoke about for the past two offseasons with Gray that he needed to ditch the 4-seam fastball that just did not work and led to Gray leading the MLB in home runs surrendered. Unless you have the unique ability, with pinpoint accuracy to dart 35 of those 4-seam fastballs every game on the upper and lower edges, you open yourself up to what we have seen with members of this starting rotation for the past three years — that straight fastballs thrown over the center of the plate in the mid-to-low 90’s mph velo are just going to be home runs much of the time.
This is a system failure that goes back to player development. Other teams have figured this out. Sure, throw a 4-seamer for a swing-and-miss for the top of the zone, but otherwise — JUST DON’T THROW IT. This Nats’ farm system should not be graduating players who don’t throw 2-seam fastballs with enough vertical break and/or a cutter. It’s as simple as that. The Nats have to get with the times. Nats’ starting pitchers have given up the third most home runs, and logically only trailing two teams: Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds. No shocker there. The worst part is the Nats are only one home run from tying the Reds’ starters.
“It all starts with starting pitching. Our starting pitching needs to get better, that’s for sure.”— Manager Dave Martinez said last year
Yes, the final starter’s ERA for the team in 2022 was an atrocious 5.97 , and the worst in Nats’ history by a wide margin. The 2023 Nats’ improved from last year. But there is a lot of room for improvement going forward. Part of the improvement from last year to this year was an emphasis on defense, and of course that Gray added the cutter and 2-seamer to his repertoire. But even Gray will tell you that he can improve further.
This is about what Max Scherzer called “continual improvement.” After every season, Scherzer would go to his pitching lab at the Cressey Performance Center in Palm Beach County in Florida and work on his pitches — to get better. You get better by doing what you can to get better. While you can only control what you can control, it really does start by looking at yourself.
But mostly, the Nats pitching staff just needs better pitchers because they just are not producing them in-house. Part of that improvement has to be free agency as the route to go, and the Nats need to find starters that can give them ERAs of 4.20 or better consistently. That would be a pitcher that averages 2.80 runs per every 6.0 innings of work. That is a pitcher who gives up 3-runs 4-of-5 games and 2-runs in 1-of-5 games.
That type of pitcher gives you a chance to win every time they are on the mound if they have a good bullpen behind them, and their offense is scoring enough runs. That is today’s baseball formula to make the postseason unless you are the San Diego Padres with their second best starter’s ERA of 3.71. That is a story for the Padres to figure out. The Nats could only wish to have that type of team ERA.
“Starting pitching is the driver to 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 after the 2018 season
Past tense Mr. Rizzo. You used to build your rosters with a starting pitcher that gave you a chance to win every day. The plan going forward has to be to put each Nats’ pitcher in the lab and make them better while adding a starter or two from the outside, and finally making the decision that is a long time coming with Patrick Corbin that he needs a different role on the team. His 4.85 ERA just does not work on a team that wants to win. By retaining him on the staff was a clear indicator that you were going to accept more losing and mediocrity in the 2023 season, but your team owner, Mark Lerner, already declared that he wants to win more games.
Win more games.