Whoa, The Nationals Rotation Just Dominated Atlanta

The Nationals just completed a series win down in Atlanta against the perennial powerhouse Braves, and it was sparked by the impressive pitching performances from their Starting Rotation.
Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves
Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves / Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/GettyImages

"Championship teams are built on starting pitching". You've probably heard that motto, or something along those lines, when it comes to elite baseball teams, especially in the playoffs. The Nationals were once such an elite team, and were once built on a strong foundation of star pitchers. Since the departure of Max Scherzer, however, the team has struggled to find even half-decent starters, much less rebuild a rotation full of aces.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2019, the Nationals had the best starting rotation in baseball, per fWAR. Their performance was typical of the mid-'10s Nationals teams, and Max Scherzer and a healthy Stephen Strasburg carried the team to a World Series victory. Since then, the team has finished 23rd, 24th, 30th, and 28th, four straight years of struggles from a team that could no longer rely on their veteran aces. As the starting pitching has crumbled, so too has the franchise gone in a similar trajectory.

Despite some strides from young hitters and some solid veteran performances from various sluggers and relief pitchers, the team has sat in neutral because of a disastrous pitching staff. Entering this season, the team returned all 5 of last year's starters to the same role, Patrick Corbin and all. It seemed like another building year for the pitching staff. MacKenzie Gore has looked great all season, but after an injury to last year's ERA leader Josiah Gray, there was little reason to believe the starting staff would suddenly be good.

The Nationals Rank 7th in Starting Pitcher WAR

Suddenly, the starting staff is good?! Patrick Corbin has a 6.17 ERA, but basically everything else has gone right for the rotation. In a four-game series in Atlanta, the non-Corbin starters each pitched into the 6th inning or later, and gave up only five combined earned runs. Could you imagine the last three years of Nats starters doing that to the Atlanta Braves? What is going on?

Here are some rapid fire mini-breakdowns. Trevor Williams has gone from a 5.55 ERA to a 2.22 ERA thanks to slightly more strikeouts and ground balls plus an enormous reduction in homers allowed. He will probably give up more home runs going forward, but he's been way better than expected so far. MacKenzie Gore, as previously mentioned, has been electric all year. He's 8th in MLB in strikeouts per 9 among qualifiers, and is 15th in strikeouts overall. He's benefitted from fewer home runs allowed as well, and just needs to keep throwing 98 mph and being healthy to be amazing.

Jake Irvin has taken a huge stride as well, and he thoroughly cooked Braves hitters with 10 strikeouts over 6 scoreless innings on Tuesday. His superpower has been his low walk rate, he went from walking four per nine last year to just 1.57 this season, which currently ranks 10th in baseball among qualifiers. If he can throw strikes at that level, he can be a strong #3 starter going forward.

Finally, Mitchell Parker has been unbelievable. He was very close to completing seven innings against a fearsome Braves lineup, and he has added a wicked looking slider to an already potent arsenal. Somehow, Parker has gone from nowhere near a top-100 prospect list to being a shockingly effective rotation member. Like Irvin, he has avoided walks at an elite level, and he's faced top offenses with aplomb through the first 8 starts of his career. It may be too good to be true for the rookie, but even 8 strong starts is more than would have been expected from Parker before the season.

In 2022, the Nationals faced the Braves 18 times and went 4-14. They allowed 2 or fewer runs only three times in those games. In 2023, the Nationals went 5-8 against the Braves, allowing nearly 6 runs per game on average. The matchup has looked quite different this year, with the cumulative score sitting at 18-9 Nats over 4 games in Atlanta. The teams will face each other in another four-game set in DC starting on June 6, which will give the starters another chance to impress.

It's impossible to overstate how critical these developments are for the Nationals as a franchise. MacKenzie Gore and Jake Irvin look like they could fit into a competitive rotation right now, and Josiah Gray, Mitchell Parker, and Cade Cavalli give the team a decent amount of young, cheap arms to fill out future rotations. The team still needs a top-level pitcher to actually contend, but two seasons ago it looked like they would need to build an entire rotation out of free agents. The team hasn't had many developmental successes on the mound until now, but they're turning the corner right now, and sharply!

As much as I would like to, let's skip talking about Patrick Corbin for now. He's no longer a looming threat of perpetual poor performance. The light is at the end of the tunnel for him and his albatross contract. He's like a weird, experimental art installation that they put in a public park for a year, and then they take it down and you forget about it. It's not permanent. Okay, maybe I'll talk about Corbin just a little bit. He is 2nd-worst in strikeout rate among qualified starters, at 5.37 per nine, which is hilarious. He struck out hitters at very nearly double that rate back in 2019. Clearly, the rotation could be even better without him lingering about and the fact that basically every arm has improved except Corbin shows how much of a lost cause he is at this point.

The Nats are having offensive struggles this year, but have looked better in stretches as a team than they have in a long time. Finally, the makings of a decent team are in place, and with a couple top prospects on the way the rebuild might be turning into a new era of competitive teams in Washington. The past four days have probably been the best collective pitching performances I've seen from the team since Patrick Corbin was good, and that gives all Nats fans something to cheer for.