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Nats’ rotation not living up to reputation

May 24, 2014, 11:22 AM EDT

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PITTSBURGH — The Nationals woke up this morning a .500 club, and the majority of the blame for that is being heaped upon a lineup that ranks dead-last in baseball this month in runs (63), batting average (.228) and on-base percentage (.290).

And rightfully so. The No. 1 issue facing this club right now is its injury-ravaged lineup.

But let’s not absolve the Nationals’ pitching staff — in particular, the starting rotation — entirely from this so-far disappointing start to the season. Because that group, which is supposed to be this team’s greatest strength, has been decidedly mediocre to date.

Through 48 games, Nationals starting pitchers have posted a collective 3.90 ERA. That ranks 16th out of 30 MLB rotations. Not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But not nearly as good as everyone expected that unit to be.

Stephen Strasburg boasts the best ERA of anyone in the rotation at 3.38, and that number is higher than the ERA any of the Nats’ big three starters posted in 2013. Gio Gonzalez saw his ERA spike to 4.62 before landing on the DL this week with shoulder inflammation. Doug Fister was shaky in his season debut in Oakland but has since put together two really nice starts in a row to lower his ERA to 3.93. Tanner Roark (3.42) has been solid throughout. Taylor Jordan (5.61) struggled before his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse.

And then there’s Jordan Zimmermann, who last night allowed four runs in six innings during the Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Pirates, the big blow coming on a hanging change-up to Pedro Alvarez that wound up in the shrubbery beyond the center field fence.

“I thought I was making some pretty good pitches,” said the right-hander, whose ERA now stands at 3.95. “Really, if I could take one pitch back, it would be the change-up to Alvarez, and we win the game 3-2.”

Whether Zimmermann really was one bad pitch away from a quality start is up for debate. The Pirates made pretty solid contact off him all night.

But the point stands. As much as the Nationals’ lineup is struggling to score runs right now, the pitching staff simply can’t afford to make one mistake at a crucial time.

There has been plenty of comparison made between the 2014 Nationals and the 2012 and 2013 versions of this franchise. The ’12 club had all kinds of injuries early (Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos). Through the first 48 games of 2012, the Nationals ranked 24th in baseball in runs scored and were hitting a collective .245. Did you know the 2014 Nats currently rank 17th in runs scored while hitting a collective .246?

So how did that team win so many games? How was that club 29-19 and comfortably in first place in the NL East while this one staggers around at 24-24, now third behind the Braves and Marlins?

Because the 2012 Nationals had the best rotation in baseball. Through the first 48 games of 2012, starters owned a collective 2.90 ERA, tops in the majors and a full run better than the 2014 rotation through the same point of the season.

Even last season, which was a struggle in its own right, the rotation’s ERA through its first 48 games was a strong 3.22, second-best in the majors.

Plain and simple, this year’s rotation hasn’t been particularly good. Yet. On paper, this should be among the very best starting fives in baseball. To date, it has been decidedly average.

  1. scnatsfan - May 24, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Pitchers getting out pitched, fielders being outfielded, hitters being outhit. Amazed we are at 500.

  2. unkyd59 - May 24, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    Stras and Cole both pitch gems, tonight, and we win, 1-0. Tomorrow we crush the Bucs with a big 4th inning, followed by slapping their ‘pen around for the rest of the afternoon…

    (a Visitor From The East dropped my this morning bearing sealed envelopes, and wearing ostentatious headgear…..)

  3. 6ID20 - May 24, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    JZ and Desi both turned down long term contracts in the offseason. Now both are off to substandard starts. Pressing a bit, perhaps, trying to show that holding out for a better deal wasn’t a mistake?

  4. Nats fool - May 24, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Just a very poorly constructed team. We are the Padres of the East. If you doubt this, look at the Padres team ERA and reliever splits. Things will only marginally better when the injured players come back. The one bright spot is we did not sign long term contracts with J. Zimm and Desi. Let those guys go, fire Rizzo and Williams, and load up on 1 WAR batters and prospects.

    • scnatsfan - May 24, 2014 at 11:51 AM

      Do not agree. Can’t blame construction on zim, ALR, Ramos and Harper injuries. Oh fister and Gio too.

    • unkyd59 - May 24, 2014 at 11:58 AM

      Determined to live down to your handle….

    • Eugene in Oregon - May 24, 2014 at 12:09 PM

      Great plan. Let’s consider that along with some of the others suggested here (e.g., ‘score more runs’ or ‘hit better with runners in scoring position’ or ‘focus more’ ‘field the ball as well as the other team’). At least this idea is a bit more specific.

  5. natsguy - May 24, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    Last year was the most disappointed I have ever been in 50 some years of watching baseball. This year I have been a lot more pragmatic. I have hated the awful fielding, poor decisions that did not count as errors, and really hideous hitting with RISP. It is getting late. At some point they need to decide if Harper and RZIM are going to come back well enough and early enough to turn the mess around. Also are they enough or is this team just not good enough. The team is not terrible but has been playing 5 games under .500 for almost the entire season. If you don’t think waiting for the injuries to heal is going to work, what is the next step. Do you blow it up and make trades or do you bring up prospects. You are Mike Rizzo what do you do next?

  6. Candide - May 24, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    Posted the following in the previous post in reply to another comment, but it fits better here, as it turns out:

    Stopper he ain’t. IMHO. I hope I’m wrong.

    There are very, very few real stoppers, at least by my definition.

    A good pitcher is one who when his team scores only a run or two, gets a tough loss.

    A stopper is one who, when his team scores only one or two runs, hangs a tough loss on the other guy.

    • Candide - May 24, 2014 at 12:45 PM

      The Nats have won one game all season where they scored either one or two runs, on April 6; Blevins was the winning pitcher. So I’m going to say they don’t have a stopper.

      • Eric - May 24, 2014 at 1:03 PM

        Zinn did it a few times last season, iirc, including a 1-0 shut out of the Reds early on. Pretty sure that’s how he ended up with 19 wins.

        This season, u’rybody be strugglin’.

  7. Eric - May 24, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    I’m not sure I agree the offense is the biggest problem this season. True, you can’t reasonably expect the SPs to hold the other guys to one or two runs with any kind of regularity; however, the offense has bailed out the pitchers numerous times so far this season. I think it’s reasonable to expect the SPs to return the favor a little more often than they have. Best time to do it is when the offense is scuffling and heavily banged up and the rotation and pen are healthy (especially seeing as how Treinen so far is a significant upgrade over an injured Gio).

    • veejh - May 24, 2014 at 1:15 PM

      This month, it has been the offense, no doubt. Plenty of opportunities to drive in go ahead runs to no avail. Seems like everyone is in a slump. Dez and McLouth have come around a bit as Ramos, Werth, and Rendon continue to flail around. No way this continues, and no way our starters keep rolling put sub par performances. Everything will come together. Patience.

      • Eric - May 24, 2014 at 1:33 PM

        I tend to agree that things will improve with the rotation, and I think the offense has truly gotten burned by a ridiculous string of web gems. They just need to keep giving themselves chances and it will happen.

        My only point about the offense not being the main problem is that SP hasn’t been nearly at its best at all this season, whereas the offense has had respectable stretches of productivity. In other words, the SP has been our biggest problem this season on the whole

        It’s true that the offense has been more of a problem lately, but even then, it’s only a slight edge over the rotation, which has continued to struggle at about the same rate since opening day.

    • Another_Sam - May 24, 2014 at 2:08 PM

      I vote for putting the blame on the surprisingly anemic offense. I check the box scores and see three or four hits and it’s clear to me. bur regarding stoppers, I want to see ’em win some of these 2-1 or 3-2 games.

      • Eric - May 24, 2014 at 2:20 PM

        Going back to the first game of the Mets series we’ve had, in order, 11, 6, 7, 13, 9, 6, 5, and 8 hits.

        We’re hitting, we’re just not driving them in.

  8. wmlsays - May 24, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    Finally! The Nats Insider guys are finally calling it as it is. This is a decent, not anywhere near great team with an underwhelming pitching rotation. Sorry, guys, the pitching isn’t that good (Fister may end up being their best pitcher when everything is said and done). Strasburg has been very good at times, but mostly above average in his career.

    Let’s put it this way. Rizzo has been underwhelming in putting together a contender. Yes, he managed to build a decent one. But one capable of winning championships? He is the McPhee of baseball.

    • Joe Seamhead - May 24, 2014 at 1:18 PM

      And you are becoming a broken record.

      • wmlsays - May 24, 2014 at 2:06 PM

        Maybe so, but they are doing what the Caps did. Promise a lot, then under deliver.

    • veejh - May 24, 2014 at 1:20 PM

      Foolish comment. This team has balls, and proof being the amount of come from behind wins this season. Its a
      collective slump right now (besides the pen of course). As soon as Rendon, Werth, Ramos come around and we get back LaRoche, Harp, and Zimm, we’ll cruise.

      • wmlsays - May 24, 2014 at 2:06 PM

        I didn’t say they aren’t trying. I am saying the pitching staff has underwhelmed and the team isn’t as well constructed as the contending teams. We’ll see how they play when they are whole. For now, they’re an average team in an average division.

  9. coop202 - May 24, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    Defensive mishaps have costs a few games and would have us comfortably above 500. a few amazing plays by the other team have costs us at 2-3 wins this week alone. Finally (I’ll go to my grave thinking this) I now count 4 games from an under producing offense, men first and second and no outs with slumping hitters up where MW refused to play small ball and move the guys over (and no runs came of it). every one of those games decided by 1 or 2 runs, and just playing the odds with a .250 hitting team would mean we take or extend at least one of those games. I’m actually impressed given all this we’re at 500, and still think they can turn it around pretty quickly.

  10. Another_Sam - May 24, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    speaking of amazing plays — I like the radio booth better than the tv booth. in the tv booth, every nat that is retired is the victim of a once in a lifetime, spectacular play, or the victim of extraordinarily bad luck. sure.

    of course, three or four wins in a row would relieve me of my grumpiness, i’m sure.





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