The mixed bag of pitching results has a silver lining

Some might point to the addition of Sean Doolittle to the Washington Nationals coaching staff as a reason for optimism. Others believe that the only way to go was up. But so far, it has been a mixed bag of results for the Nats’ pitching staff in nearly two turns through the starting rotation. The stats and the W/L record say the Nats are a bad team — but don’t be so quick to judge.

The Nats starting pitchers have a combined ERA of 6.85 for 29th in MLB. Obviously sample sizes are miniscule at this point, and nothing to brag about there. The relievers are at 3.74 which has improved recently — and again, small sample sizes.

Here is how the starting pitchers rank:

No. 5 Starter: Josiah Gray 14.04
No. 4 Starter: Patrick Corbin 6.97
No. 3 Starter: Jake Irvin 5.73
No. 2 Starter: MacKenzie Gore 4.09
No. 1 Starter:  Trevor Williams 3.38

Now for some silver lining in those numbers: Remove Josiah Gray and the rest of the staff has a 5.26 ERA which would at least get the team into the top three-quarters in MLB. Okay, not really, since all teams would love to drop their worst performer from their stats’ sheet. Good try by me to try to put a positive spin on this. But at least we know where part of the problem is.

So let’s take a dive into small sample size issues like the weather and luck. The weather has been horrible and unpredictable with rain and weather below 50 degrees for over half the games. You find a huge disparity in opposing batters hitting Nats’ starters at a .373 BABIP rate. Contrast that to Washington’s batters at 10th worst in baseball at a .269 BABIP while being the 8th best in barrel rates and 10th best in hard hit rates at 40.9 percent and maybe weather is not the factor since both teams play in the same conditions. In fact, Luis Garcia Jr. leads all MLBers by a large margin in barrel rates at 24.0 percent and Joey Gallo is in the top heap of baseball too. They say that the luck factor neutralizes over time, so we will see if that is the case in the unlucky BABIP disparity.

The Nats rank second to last in overall pitching BABIP while their defense looks good at league average. Again, just nine games of sample size, and sans Trey Lipscomb‘s two throwing errors, the team has zero errors from every other player. Even though you cannot over-shift, there are too many balls finding creases and especially with Lane Thomas in right field — except that per Statcast’s OAA stat, he is getting to every ball on average that he should be. The only negative on defense per Statcast is CJ Abrams, and much of that could be chalked up to some bad luck.

Trying to figure out some of the issues with the pitching could be chalked up to a whole lot of bad luck. One bad pitch by Jake Irvin to JT Realmuto resulted in a 3-run homer. One inherited runner last week for MacKenzie Gore scored due to a soft grounder that went 40 feet. So yes, small sample size results will impact the numbers greatly. Even Patrick Corbin‘s 6.97 ERA might be based on bad luck BABIP of .372 this year versus .293 last year. Corbin’s hard hit percentage is actually improved over his 2019 season so far. His groundball rate is up as you would want and the best since 2016 for the lefty, but Corbin was also tagged for two homers in the Great American “Small” Park to open his season.

Fingers crossed that Gore is headed towards greatness. He showed periods of that last year of being the ace that some expected when he was drafted near the top in the first round at Pick No. 3 by San Diego in 2017. He came to the Nats with a top-rated 4-seam fastball by movement. Last year he regressed, but has found some footing by working with Doolittle on the fastball by giving his 4-seamer the illusion of rise and higher velo. His changeup is becoming a ‘plus’ pitch in his repertoire. Corbin and Irvin have added cutters to their arsenals, and Irvin just needs to get his curveball back to where it was last year. Again, small sample sizes.

An observation from Don H. is that manager Dave Martinez also seems to be pulling his starters more effectively this season even though that is a physical observation and cannot really be measured.

The bullpen looked like a strength in Spring Training, and looks can be deceiving. Hunter Harvey, Jordan Weems, and Robert Garcia look like the strength of the ‘pen. The jury is out on Matt Barnes, Dylan Floro, Tanner Rainey, and Derek Law. While Kyle Finnegan has three saves so far this year and one back-breaking blown save, the early looks just seem to show he has been luckier than good. If you saw yesterday’s ninth inning, you know that luck saved Finnegan and the Nats. It could be time to move Harvey to the close role.

Okay, we covered the biggest issue with Gray in a dedicated article, and yes, that is a problem that must be fixed. While we try to look at the rest, the early returns just point to defense is not the problem here, however, maybe some tweaks in defensive positioning is needed. BABIP points to extreme bad luck that should neutralize. If not, then positioning is the culprit here. The umpiring has varied by game and by series if you follow Ump Scorecard. Expect that we will have a better glimpse into the Nats’ pitching after this lengthy West Coast road trip to San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

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