An evolving starting rotation

Last week, when Mitchell Parker checked into the team hotel at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons 5-star property, he knew something was different in his new life. In his near-term future, no more Holiday Inns of year’s past or postgame meals when the team bus stops at the Chipotle near Erie, Pennsylvania. The pregame and postgame spreads at the MLB level, and the charter flights on the team’s new American Airlines jet are just part of the reasons you want to stay on the Major League roster.

Forget about the 5-digit paychecks as big as your zip code — that even a newbie playing on the MLB minimum makes — it is the the accomplishment of calling yourself an MLB player that Parker wants. He is a simple and humble guy from Albuquerque, New Mexico. What motivates him is winning and improving on his craft.

The team entered Sunday’s game with a team ERA of 5.09 for the starters, and finished the day at 4.77 thanks to Parker. You could debate the best starts of the season for any Nats’ pitcher as to whether it was MacKenzie Gore‘s 5.0 inning, 11 K gem against the A’s, or Sunday’s 7.0 inning, 8 K scoreless gem against the Astros by Parker, and don’t forget Jake Irvin‘s 6.0 inning scoreless start last week against the Dodgers. By the way if you use BBRef’s Game Score stat as your guide, Parker’s gem was at 79 which is an elite start, and 10 points higher than Gore’s start against Oakland. That tied Gore for the second best Nats’ start of the season per Game Score with Irvin. On a level of opposition weighting, Irvin’s start has to be in the conversation — and probably second best of the Washington Nationals’ season. In fact, you would have to go all the way back to the Joe Ross 8.0 scoreless game on June 13, 2021 for a better start by a Nats pitcher by Game Score.

Saturday is Parker’s next scheduled start in Miami. No Nats’ starter has ever gone 3-0 to begin their MLB career. Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg couldn’t do it. And neither of them had to face the quality of lineups that Parker has had to traverse in his first two starts from Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Freddie Freeman to Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and Alex Bregman. All together that is a combined 28 All-Star games and 5 MVP awards just for that group.

From the Nats PR department: Parker became the just the fifth MLB pitcher ever to strikeout at least 12 hitters and not issue a walk in the first two games of a career. He joins Shota Imanaga, Tanner Bibee, Johnny Cueto and Andy Sonnanstine on that list. On top of that, Parker is the only Nats pitcher with 7.0 scoreless innings under 75 pitches in a game.

Manager Dave Martinez acknowledged that Parker was going to stay up on the roster, and make his next start against the Marlins. None of that is a surprise given what Parker has done so far. With Josiah Gray‘s injury, nobody is ready to try to shove their way back into the rotation. There are few guarantees in baseball. Parker stays up as long as he is performing. The same goes for Irvin, and you have to wonder what the team does with Gray, and even Patrick Corbin.

Again, the starter’s ERA is now at 4.77, and Gray’s ERA in his first two starts was 14.04 before his injury, and Corbin is at 8.06 for his four starts. The Nats are 10-11 on the season, and five of the team’s 11 losses are on those two starter’s records in their six combined starts. Are they not the weak links at the moment? A chain is only as strong as its individual links. If general manager Mike Rizzo is the welder, he might need to get out his TIG.

When the Nats had their Future’s game versus the MLB players on March 26, Parker was not even on the invite list. Remember, Joan Adon made the first start after Gray’s injury, and the thought was that Jackson Rutledge would make the next start, but he was hit by a comebacker on the ankle in a Triple-A game and not available which is how Parker got the call — by default. Hey, if it wasn’t for Wally Pipp‘s injury, who knows what would have happened with Lou Gehrig. Everyone’s opportunity comes in different ways. Then the player has to show they belong.

While Gray is expected back in May, there is also the case of Cade Cavalli to be made for June. There could be seven pitchers shoving for five jobs. That should be a good problem to have to have some more competition within your own team.

“I’m just trying to think about it as little as I can before and take it one pitch at a time and not put too much pressure [on myself].”

— Parker said after Sunday’s game

If Trevor Williams, Gore, and Irvin keep it up, they have the advantage as established players. If you look at the three of them plus Parker, they have combined for 76⅔ innings and just 25 runs, and that is a 2.93 ERA. A reason why this Nats’ team had people dreaming big after Saturday’s walk-off win, and Parker’s dominant start on Sunday. The team now has an identical record to that 2019 team (10-11) that the fan’s honored over the weekend as the 5-year celebration of the World Series win over Altuve, Bregman and a few other Astros on that team.

Guys like Parker weren’t even property of the Nats in 2019. He was still in college at that point, and same with center fielder Jacob Young who was a sophomore at Florida. Shortstop CJ Abrams was finishing high school when the Nats were 19-31 in 2019. The future of the Washington Nationals probably won’t include any of the 2019 Nats’ players, as Corbin and Victor Robles are due for free agency, and maybe just Tanner Rainey will be the one player from that team that sticks around. Unless the Nats sign Juan Soto in free agency, the 2019 team will really just be seen in Martinez and the coaches with Gerardo Parra and Sean Doolittle. Baseball is played by younger men from their late teens to their mid-30’s and a few last into their early 40’s. So Parker at 24 years old is considered a young man whose craft is evolving. If you cannot adjust, you will not last. Baseball is so precise that they know your patterns. You must change up pitch sequences and looks.

“Nerves are working on settling down. Throwing strikes got me here, so try not to change anything and keep attacking the guys.”

— Parker said

The evaluators were not so kind on Parker, but the stats might have justified the commentary due to the walk rates early in his minor league career. MLB Pipeline had Parker at No. 21 and had this to say, “He’ll be back in Triple-A this season and serve as Washington’s rotation depth, but if the walks continue to pile up, it might be worth seeing how much more he could squeeze out of the fastball as a reliever.” That reputation on the walks was tagged on him as he struggled with command in 2022 in High-A Wilmington with a 6.0 BB/9. In 2023, Parker improved at Double-A with his command — but some used his 10-inning sample size to finish his 2023 season in Triple-A as a reason to point to his 6.1 BB/9 as an issue. Consider the sample size — kind of like his current 12.0 innings at the MLB level doesn’t mean he will be a 0.0 BB pitcher in his career.

Our sources told us that the 24 year old worked in a pitching lab over the winter to get his mechanics to keep more pitches in the strike zone to limit the walks. So far, so good with Parker’s three-pitch repertoire of his 4-seam fastball, curveball, and split-finger pitches. The key as the lefty said is staying ahead in counts.

Maybe some of the other players can learn from Parker? His teammate, Corbin, could use that split-finger. Just think how great Gio Gonzalez would have been if he had a split-finger. Pitching is the art of deception — and that would make Parker a deceptive dude. He has had All-Stars and MVPs flailing at his pitches. In all, the Astros had an incredible 26 swing & misses in the game against Parker of which seven came against the splitter.

“It doesn’t seem like anything really fazes [Parker]. He goes out there and he challenges hitters. He competes. He’s been giving us what we need.”

“He’s got a really good curveball, a really good fastball. His [splitter] was really, really good today. But everything was over the plate. He started doing that in Spring Training, and he was lights-out.”

— Martinez said after Sunday’s game

To answer the questions, Martinez and Rizzo probably don’t have an exact plan for their May, June, and July rotations. If Williams keeps pitching the way he has so far, he could be a trade candidate to open a spot. But Martinez will tell you that his goal is sustained winning, and yes, his goal is the playoffs. Why not at this point set your goals as high as you can. While unrealistic, you never know. Look at the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks. Who saw that coming?

At the very least, the team could just stay the course and see what happens. That 45-game mark usually starts to separate the contenders from the pretenders. The Cincinnati Reds stayed in it until the end last year. They promoted many of their top prospects, and put together a good run at it and fell just short of a Wild Card berth. Maybe if they made trades at the trade deadline to fill some holes — who knows. Again, the Washington Nationals of 2024 might just be pretenders. Some might have thought that with the 2011 Nats. We will see.

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