Washington Nationals: What Has Happened To The Starting Rotation?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Patrick Corbin #46 of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game four of the National League Championship Series at Nationals Park on October 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Patrick Corbin #46 of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game four of the National League Championship Series at Nationals Park on October 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

What was supposed to be the best rotation in the league, has slowly started to implode due to injuries and inconsistencies.

In 2019, the Nationals starting rotation ranked second in ERA (3.53), third in FIP (3.72), tied for fourth in WHIP (1.19), second in strikeouts (1010), and second in innings pitched (938.2). Entering the season, I had them ranked as the top pitching staff in the league and they were poised to carry the team in the shortened season. Similar to the year 2020 as a whole, the Nationals pitching staff has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. Injuries and inconsistencies have been a huge thorn in the side of the rotation. So how did a once-praised pitching staff fall apart so quickly?

What Happened?

After winning World Series MVP and signing his $245 million dollar extension, the sky was the limit for Stephen Strasburg. Instead, his 2020 season has been reflective of his early career, marred by injuries. Strasburg was scratched from his first start due to a lingering hand issue (nerve damage) but claimed it was just a minor setback. Fast forward to now and the 32-year-old has been diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel and will be undergoing surgery. He was placed on the 60-day IL and will most likely miss the remainder of the season.

Washington Nationals
Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

Max Scherzer has been battling a nagging hamstring issue and has been running out of gas faster than usual. On Saturday against the Marlins, Scherzer started game one of the doubleheader and only lasted 4 2/3 innings. He was in cruise control through the first four innings, only running into slight trouble in the third. The Marlins had two on and two out, but Scherzer was able to pitch himself out of it. The fifth inning is where Scherzer unraveled. Here is how the inning went for the veteran.

A ground out. A double. A flyout. An RBI single. A two-run homer. A single. An infield single. A hit batter. A walk to let in a run. Scherzer’s afternoon was finished after the walk.

After getting two outs, Scherzer’s nightmare inning never ended and four runs were accounted to him. Saturday’s start was very similar to his start he made a week ago against the Orioles. After giving up his usual first-inning homer, the future Hall of Famer dominated the O’s through five. In the sixth, he started to run out of fumes and gave up a three-run homer. His night should have ended after the inning ended, but instead, he came out to pitch the seventh and gave up his third homer of the game. Scherzer went seven innings, allowed four runs, and struck out 10. Washington is in a bind if Scherzer cannot go deep into games anymore.

Patrick Corbin has been the most consistent pitcher for the Nats, but he alone won’t be able to carry the pitching staff. In five starts, he is 2-2, with a 3.99 ERA, and 31 strikeouts. In his last outing which came against the Marlins, he gave up three runs while going 6 1/3 innings. All three runs came on a three-run homer in the first, but he was able to settle down and kept the Marlins in check. He struck out nine and only walked two, but was the losing pitcher due to the offense only mustering two runs. Something to keep an eye on is Corbin’s K/9. It is down from last season’s 10.6 to 9.5 this season.

After emerging as a playoff hero in the 2019 NLCS, Anibal Sanchez has once again fallen on rough times. In five starts, he is 1-3, with a 6.38 ERA, and 19 strikeouts. Out of his five starts, he has only gone six-plus innings once, which he did on Sunday (7 innings). Through his first three starts, he allowed four or more runs in each game. In his fourth start, he allowed three runs but started to turn a corner, which he carried over into his most recent start. Vintage Sanchez showed up, as the veteran went seven innings and only allowed one run on five hits. He walked none and struck out five. The Nationals pitching staff has always relied on its depth and having Sanchez return to form will be a godsend. His most recent outing was promising, but he isn’t off the hook just yet.

Austin Voth and Erick Fedde have filled in for both Joe Ross who opted out at the start of the season and the injured Strasburg. Voth won the fifth spot over Fedde and has been inconsistent at best. In four starts, he is 0-3, with a 6.65 ERA, and 15 strikeouts. Voth has shown flashes, but he hasn’t proved he belongs in a big-league rotation.

Erick Fedde has been switching between the bullpen and the rotation and has been a bright spot. In his first start of the season, he held a dangerous Yankees offense to only one run across four innings. He has only started two games, this season, but has been reliable as the long reliever. In his last outing, he entered the first inning with two outs, after Strasburg left with his hand injury. Fedde went on to pick up the win, throwing 5 1/3 innings of shut out ball. He only allowed five baserunners (two hits, three walks) and struck out zero. Fedde has been efficient this season, despite have a K/9 of 2.5.

Both Voth and Fedde haven’t fully stepped up as the fifth starter and the team has started to use minor leaguers for spot starts. Overall, the rotation hasn’t been the strength that the team has relied on in years past, which is a major reason the Nats are 11-15.