Examining the Starting Rotation

For the first time since their arrival in Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season, the Nationals have more than enough major league quality starting pitchers. Gone are the years when the club relied upon the likes of Tim Redding, Odalis Perez, Ramon Ortiz, and Scott Olsen to take the ball every fifth day. Better choices abound now. The Nationals have seven major-league quality starters — lefties Gio Gonzalez, John Lannan, and Ross Detwiler and righties Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, and Edwin Jackson– for five spots.

Sep 23, 2011; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics pitcher Gio Gonzalez (47) pitches during the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE

These riches present a different dilemma. Who will win these slots at the end of spring training? How good can Washington’s starting pitching perform in 2012? Let’s examine the numbers, some trends, and the many questions facing these seven in the season to come.

First, the numbers. From a cornucopia of statistics, I chose four key factors of pitching performance — earned run average (ERA), walks + hits divided by innings pitched (WHIP), on-base plus slugging percentage allowed (OPS) and, the ratio of strikeouts to walks (K/BB). Each has a clearly defined meaning and broadly accepted signifigance.

Here’s how the Nationals’ seven stack up (player’s age on opening day in parenthesis).

Some notes of importance: For Gonzalez, stats are averaged for 2010-11; for Jackson 2007-11; for Lannan 2008-11; for Wang 2011 only (since it cannot be assumed he will return to his 19-win days of old). Zimmerman, Strasburg, and Detwiler’s numbers are based on their career statistics, since all have yet to pitch a complete season. Their durability is a major risk heading into the 2012 season.

Name Age ERA WHIP OPS K/BB
Gonzalez 26 3.18 1.310 .650 2.01
Zimmermann 26 3.84 1.234 .716 3.47
Strasburg 24 2.54 0.978 .547 6.11
Wang 32 4.04 1.283 .712 1.92
Jackson 28 4.35 1.470 .772 1.97
Lannan 27 4.00 1.423 .751 1.39
Detwiler 26 4.07 1.456 .750 1.52

A few amplifications on these numbers:

> — Jackson’s FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching, measures factors for which only the pitcher is responsible) and xFip (adjusts FIP to based on league averages for home runs allowed to account for park effects, often used to predict future ERA) ratings dropped below 4.00 in 2010 and stayed there last season. With 200 or more innings pitched the past three seasons, he is already an “innings eater”, something the Nationals sorely need with the departure of Livan Hernandez. Beyond durability, the improving FIP numbers show that Jackson may finally be learning how to make the most of his talent.

> — Despite limited post-injury data, Wang’s WHIP and ERA numbers for 2011 are not far from those he posted (3.66 ERA, 1.301 WHIP ) during his days with the New York Yankees (2006-07). However, as those years drift farther away, so too do Wang’s chances of repeating them.

> — Despite his troubles in 2010 and high WHIP, Lannan has turned in quality starts (start where pitchers last six innings or more an allow three runs or fewer) 55% of the time from 2008-11. Poor run support (3.87 per game) has decimated his win-loss record (average of 9-12).

> — Gonzalez’s WHIP and lower than expected ERA (his FIP and XFip for 2010-11 are 3.71 and 3.88 respectively, more than half a run higher than his ERA) foretell an above average pitcher. His OPS against, K/BB ratio (despite a high walk rate), and groundball pitcher tendencies predict a potential superstar. Now signed to a long-term contract, the way his career turns will be a big part of the Nationals future as contender or an also-ran.

> — If Strasburg even approximates his numbers to date, an admittedly tiny set of data, he will be one of baseball’s top pitchers, an ace among aces. The 160 innings he is slated to pitch in 2012 could be dynamic, not-to-be-missed performances.

> — Zimmermann’s K/BB ratio is fabulous, but his ERA and WHIP need to come down to achieve his full potential. At 26, with a year of pitch count and innings limits behind him, 2012 could become his breakthrough season.

> — Detwiler’s 2011 numbers showed improvement over his previous poor and injury-riddled performances, but he remains unproven and, as the 6th overall pick in the 2007 Draft, a disappointment. Can he turn his nasty stuff into on-field results or will the Nationals lose patience with him?

Overall, Washington’s starting rotation appears full of promise and potential. All but Wang are 28 or younger. All but Lannan are power pitchers, with strong strikeout rates (or in Wang’s case, an impossible-to-lift power sinker).

Sept 28, 2011; Miami, FL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

On the other hand, questions abound. Will Strasburg stay healthy? Will Zimmermann tame his annoying tendency to melt down late in close games? Will Wang become the pitcher he used to be? Is Gonzalez an All Star or just a good pitcher who walks too many batters? Has Jackson become a good pitcher with a 3.50 ERA in his sights or simply a battler who will chew up 200 or more innings with pedestrian results? Is Lannan lucky like the statheads claim or a tenacious, crafty ground ball pitcher the Nats are lucky to have and would be foolish to trade? Is Detwiler a future stalwart in the rotation, a left-handed long reliever, or just a bust?

By September, we will know the answer to most of, if not all, these questions.If the answers are predominantly positive, Washington will have one of the National League’s top rotations. If not, the Nationals’ starters are, at best, a middle-of-the-pack outfit.

Given all these questions, the possibility of a Detwiler or Lannan trade, and the likelihood of injuries, what will the Nationals starting rotation look like on Opening Day?

Here’s my prediction, assuming all seven make it through spring training without injury and none are traded:

Opening Day starter — Gio Gonzalez
#2 — Jordan Zimmermann
#3 – Stephen Strasburg
#4 – Edwin Jackson
#5 – Chien Ming Wang

Ross Detwiler pitches long relief out of the bullpen and spot starts in Strasburg’s place when needed. John Lannan, since he has an option remaining, is sent to AAA Syracuse and is the first man called up when one of the top 5 goes on the disabled list.

The competition starts on Sunday, when pitchers and catchers report to Viera!

Feel free to share your predicted opening day starting rotation in the comments.

Topics: Chien-Ming Wang, Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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