The Doolittle Effect

Fans are nervous, and some are waiting for the sky to fall. When the Nationals and Orioles squared off two weeks ago in a game matching up Trevor Williams and Corbin Burnes, there were actually Orioles fans calling it the easiest money they would win on a bet. Burnes, the 2021 NL Cy Young winner, took the loss after giving up three runs, and Williams looked like the Cy guy with no-hit stuff. The Nats starter had a scoreless game with eight Ks, no walks and two hits finding seams.

The Nats and Williams found the secret sauce. A combination of pulling him after two times through the opposing team’s batting order and keeping an eye on his pitch count.

Simply, you sometimes get more with less. Averaging 5.11 innings per start this year on 82 pitches, is better than his 4.88 innings and 87.5 pitch average last year with few chances to win. The Nats are 7-2 in Williams’ starts this year. His 2.35 ERA feels a little lucky if you are a believer in his FIP at 2.82. As far as rankings, Williams is 12th in all of baseball in ERA.

Taking a close look at what Williams is doing has to remind you of the Cubs’ pitcher Kyle Hendricks in his best years. Could the 32-year-old Williams be a clone of the Ivy League finesse pitcher? A few differences is that Hendricks hasn’t averaged over 90 mph on his fastball since 2016 when he was 26 years old. They do throw a similar repertoire except Hendricks has the curveball and Williams the slider and slurvy pitch known as the sweeper. Hendricks once talked about obfuscation and the need for X and Y axis movement when you have lower velo. That seems to be a key in Williams new successes is tunneling and lots of movement and an unpredictability of making everything look like a fastball out of his hand.

Credit has to go to the pitchers, the analytics group, the front office, and the coaches. The addition of Sean Doolittle as the pitching strategist has been talked about before. Williams pointed out Doolittle as the one that brought it all together.

“When we hired Sean Doolittle, it all came together where we are all trying to figure out what we can do to the best of my abilities, and help the team win … .”

— Williams on MLB Network Radio

While Williams did not go into great detail on what they changed, they certainly have been following the analytics as to when to get him out of the game near the 80-pitch mark. He also said he is throwing less fastballs up in the zone by design. He has only given up one home run this year.

You can do your analytics and wonder how Williams has been so effective in his nine starts. His pitches have more movement, and his changeup sometimes looks like a screwball. He is tunneling well, and not trying to overpower batters with his low-90s fastball that topped out at 91.8 mph. That is a soft-tosser in today’s game, and he is fine with that. The righty is a finesse pitcher. He is obfuscating.

“Your job as a pitcher is to obfuscate.”

— Williams said on MLB Network

Obfuscate. Yes, that is a classic. Last year, nobody wanted to interview Williams on a national TV broadcast, and now all of a sudden, he is becoming one of the best interviews in baseball. If he can keep up his current success, there will be many more interviews to come including several in Arlington, Texas at the mid-summer classic. A long way to go for that.

The Nationals are now 16th in MLB for starter’s ERA at 4.06, and just 1-point from the top-half in baseball. Remember, those numbers include Josiah Gray‘s ERA at 14.04. Take his numbers out, and this team looks like one of the best rotations in baseball.

Every pitcher in the Nats’ rotation has made similar adjustments to their repertoires, and pitch counts have been more effective. Last night with Mitchell Parker was an exception with a 7-1 lead. He was sent out for the sixth inning after over 20 minutes sitting on the bench because of a long bottom of the 5th inning. Parker was rusty to begin the 6th and walked the lead-off batter and the LoW was costly as the next batter homered. Parker finished with three earnies, and you figure if the game was tight, he never would have pitched the 6th inning and would have finished with one earned run.

“[Williams] already had 77 pitches. We’ve talked about that 80-pitch mark, for [Williams], is where he needs to be. He gave us five really good innings. I didn’t want to send him back out there.”

— Martinez said after the Baltimore game

Does that sound like a team sticking to their analytics? When had you ever heard Martinez speak like that before this year? Other teams have done that for years, and when you look at how he was used last year, the righty threw four starts at or over 93-pitches just in the month of April. Williams threw five times in 2023 at over 100 pitches and one time at 110 pitches which seems crazy in this day and age. Last year, Williams pitched over a pitch count of 80 a total of 24 times last year. This year Williams has only gone over 81 pitches just two times.

How nice has it been to not complain about leaving pitchers in too long? So for those in the past who thought it was acceptable to redline pitchers in prior years, you see how you get more with less by using analytics. The by-product of this can hopefully keep these pitchers going further in the season without fatigue. Certainly you are seeing the effectiveness in the lower ERAs. Remember, this rotation doesn’t have an ace like Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg. Maybe MacKenzie Gore will be that ace. And Jake Irvin and Parker are more of what you would consider as middle of the rotation pitchers.

Take Patrick Corbin out of the equation, and the other four starters have a combined payroll under $9 million. Another example of getting more for less. So sure, maybe ERAs will rise, but maybe the team and the pitchers will make more adjustments and find ways to improve. There are 11 pitchers ahead of Corbin with lower ERAs. Will Shoto Imanaga stay at an 0.84 or Tarik Skubal at 1.80? Who knows. The Nats just need to worry about Williams, Gore, Parker, Irvin, Corbin, Gray, and Cade Cavalli going forward.

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