The Stone Garrett effect — and the deteriorating starting pitching

The Washington Nationals were an incredible 47-42 in games with Stone Garrett in the lineup, and have been 15-34 without him. A broken fibula suffered nearly two weeks ago changed everything. Without Jeimer Candelario and Garrett (both pictured above), the Nats thump is more like a whimper at times. Sure, Lane Thomas has tried to carry this team on his back, but to no avail. It takes more than a couple of guys, and truthfully, the starting pitching has been the biggest culprit in the Nats going 1-7 in the past eight games.

But when you enter the 9th inning tied in two games in this series with the Marlins, you have to think that this team would have been much better with Garrett in the middle of the lineup. The Nats lost two games they needed to win. The team is still stuck at 62 wins, their next win, which will come eventually, guarantees that the Nats cannot lose 100-games this year. That is the first big milestone. After that, win 10 more games so you cannot lose 90-games. The Nats were on a 76 win pace. Now they have to hope they can win at least 73 to finish at 73-89 or better.

Things were so tense yesterday that starting pitcher, Josiah Gray, yelled at the recent call-up, Jacob Young, for losing a ball in the blazing sun. Gray apologized to Young as we found out in his postgame interview — but frustration is seeping in.

Before the All-Star break, Nats starting pitching had a 4.57 starting pitcher’s ERA and it has jumped up nearly a half-run per game since then to a 4.78 today. Gray has gone from 3.41 to 5.88 from the first half to the second half of this season. Nobody can blame Chad Kuhl‘s first half issues and his 9.41 starter’s ERA for this second half demise because Kuhl was DFA’d back in June. The rest of the starting staff in order of worst to best second half ERAs are Trevor Williams is at 6.80, Joan Adon 5.54, Patrick Corbin 4.93, Jake Irvin 4.04, and MacKenzie Gore 4.01. Gore and Irvin have actually improved from the first half to the second half, and Corbin has been almost identical. Adon only had one start before the All-Star break. So the issues here are really just Gray and Williams, and maybe conceding that Adon just is not ready to be a starter.

That is a lot to swallow. As you dig into the analytics, you see things that just do not look right. First off, not one pitcher on this team should be throwing a 4-seam fastball as their primary fastball. None of them are good enough to protect them from missed locations. Williams 4-seamer just does not work and is reminiscent of what got Gray in trouble last year which at times looked like batting practice. As of Saturday, Williams has served up 33 home runs this year which is the most in the National League and third-most in Nats history — and unfortunately if Williams keeps up this pace he might surpass the 37 homers Corbin gave up in 2021 or the beat Gray’s club record of 38 dingers last year.

There is addition by subtraction to remove Williams from the starting rotation. While you would love to do the same with Corbin, now is not the time since the team does not have enough quality starters. What do you do with Gray? You actually saw a glimmer of hope yesterday. He finally reintroduced his hammer “Nola-esque” curveball back into his pitch mix yesterday.

Gray was still throwing his curveball — he just changed the shape of it to a more horizontal curve. WHY? Why would he -or- they do that? I have been writing about this for weeks and months. Honestly, I do not get it. Gray came to the Nats with a great curveball in 2021, but then changed the shape of it. Glad to see the hammer curve return yesterday in Gray’s second inning. By the way, Gray didn’t give up any runs after the first inning yesterday. Yes, we saw one hammer curve turn into a strikeout/wild pitch because it was so nasty, catcher Drew Millas who had never caught Gray before, wasn’t ready for how filthy it was the first time he saw it. He was ready for it after that. Here is film of it from April.

For me, if Gray just throws what he threw yesterday from the second inning on, I will be thrilled. He threw no sweepers, and stuck to mainly cutters, sinkers, curveballs, sliders, changeups, and one 4-seam fastball.

Obviously, Gore and Irvin need to get into a pitching lab this winter. Gore needs to add a cutter and continue to work on the changeup that has become a good pitch for him. Irvin only threw three changeups in his start on Friday. He has to turn that into a plus pitch and add that as an equal part of his pitch mix.

Some might ask what the team should do with Jim Hickey after this season. Let the stats speak loudly, but part of this is a Nationals’ philosophy. Ex-Nats pitcher, Erick Fedde, confessed that he never went to an offseason pitching lab during his entire tenure with the Nats. How could you be a 5-year teammate of Max Scherzer and not see what it took to be the best you can be by continual improvement? Of course last offseason after Fedde was released by the Nats, he got himself into a pitching lab and finally learned what he needed to — BUT why aren’t the Nats pushing this and working more analytically in side sessions with Hickey and his staff?

With Fedde’s situation and most anyone, we don’t know every detail of what goes on behind closed doors. That might not stop anyone from jumping to conclusions. Many were blown away when Austin Voth was DFA’d last year with a 10.13 ERA and went to the Orioles and immediately improved to a 3.04 because Voth said his new team analytically changed what he was throwing. Well, it didn’t work for Voth this year as he was back to a 5.19 ERA and DFA’d yesterday by the Orioles. Funny thing is, Voth’s 5.19 is still better than several Nats’ pitchers. That is the sad part.

Some would say it is about getting better players, and not everything can be blamed on the coaches and the analytics people. But you see things like with Gray that somehow his pitch shape changed on that curveball and you wonder why? You wonder why Williams is still throwing that 4-seam fastball? This is all part of the little things.

The bigger things is just bringing in better players and coaches, and an improved philosophy on continual improvement. You hope at the very least, Stephen Strasburg can be used as a mentor and teach Irvin his changeup and any other pitcher in this organization for that matter. From the lowest levels of this organization, a starting pitcher needs to throw a cutter or sinker as their main fastball, at least one breaking pitch, and a changeup at a minimum. Three of those pitches in each repertoire to begin with. When that is mastered, you add a fourth pitch to the mix.

While recency bias has your head spinning that things are bleak, they really are not. The future is still bright and as always, there are areas to improve.

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