Do the Washington Nationals Have the Best Starting Rotation in Baseball?
Oh, the poor Philadelphia Phillies.
You see, the worst team in baseball is probably not going to have a very good weekend. They are returning home to Philadelphia after a decent three-game series in the Bronx against the Yankees to face the Washington Nationals. Ordinarily, this would be bad news for the Phils, seeing as how the Nats are about a jillion times better than them right now and the Phillies are in full rebuild mode.
But there is now also the fact that the Washington Nationals starting rotation is, simply put, in another stratosphere right now.
On Thursday, starter Doug Fister twirled seven innings of scoreless baseball, setting a new franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings by a starting rotation. Nationals starters have now gone 41 1/3 innings without giving up a run, dating back to Joe Ross' start last Friday night against the Pirates, in the third inning.
That was followed by Max Scherzer's no-hitter on Saturday, seven scoreless innings from Gio Gonzalez on Sunday, Stephen Strasburg's five scoreless innings on Tuesday, and eight scoreless from Jordan Zimmermann on Wednesday.
That 41 1/3 inning streak bested the previous franchise record of 39 set by the 1981 Montreal Expos. The next milestone for Nats starters is the 44 1/3 scoreless innings pitched by the 2008 Cleveland Indians, with the 1974 Baltimore Orioles starters next in line at 54 innings. So, there is work left to do.
Still, they have a good shot at catching the Tribe on Friday, with Scherzer taking the hill against one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. The Phillies are currently 29th out of 30 teams in runs scored, on-base percentage, home runs, weighted on-base average (wOBA), and weighted runs created (wRC+), as well as 28th in isolated power. As NBC Hardball Talk's Bill Baer noted, Scherzer has a darn good chance of becoming the only other pitcher other than Johnny Vander Meer to pitch back-to-back no-hitters in Major League history on Friday night.
So after hitting some bumps in the road early in the season, how does the Nats' rotation now stack up with the best of the rest in Major League Baseball (MLB rank is in parenthesis)?
|Nationals||9.2 (1)||3.81 (9)||3.15 (1)||7.87 (10)||2.09 (4)||0.69 (3)|
Although they have just the ninth-best ERA among Major League starters, their fielding independent pitching (FIP) and fWAR both indicate they have been a bit snake-bitten and have performed better than their counting stats would indicate. Not only that -- their peripherals are good, especially their walks per nine innings, which is fourth-best in baseball. They've also managed to keep the ball in the yard, with the third-best home runs-per-nine inning rate.
In time, it's possible the Nationals rotation will become the undisputed best in baseball, but even with the scoreless innings streak, there are still a few question marks. Can Strasburg build on his encouraging effort Tuesday night, in which he routinely threw his fastball in the upper 90s and with more frequency? Can he stay healthy? Can Gonzalez be more effective than his 4.41 ERA would indicate? Can Zimmermann figure out why his strikeouts per nine innings has fallen from 8.20 last year to a career worst 6.16 this year? And can Fister get back to being the guy who posted a 2.41 ERA last year, not the guy who has a 4.15 ERA this season?
This rotation is not going to go down as one of the greatest of all-time, like the 1998 Atlanta Braves, the 1971 Baltimore Orioles or, more recently, the 2011 Phillies. But it has the potential to be the best in the National League for the rest of the summer, if some of the question marks are answered in the affirmative.
Regardless, given a three-game series against Philadelphia, and given that no one is throwing the ball better than Scherzer right now, it's looking like that scoreless innings streak will soldier on for at least one more night.