Jay Jaffe over at Baseball Prospectus wrote an article about the top pitching staffs in the NL, but it was focused on the Nats. No, he wasn’t saying Washington had the top staff, although he did say a few very nice things about visiting the city last week and meeting the fans who finally have legitimate hope. Instead, he was noting how the Nats, in the course of a season or two, have moved into the discussion of top rotations.

First he writes that the Nats added more WARP (its just BP’s version of WAR) with starting pitching than any NL team other than the Reds, Pirates, Rockies and Marlins to improve their staff with the addition of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. But those Pittsburgh additions include Bedard and Burnett – I have a tough time thinking both of those will end up being good signings, although these projections do include time off due to injury. Regardless, the added WARP for the Nats is 2.5, but Jaffe believes you should “take the over” on what Jackson will contribute, basically guessing that PECOTA underestimates him. And since they are almost tied with the Rockies and the Marlins, if you do give Jackson a little more credit, they are either tied for third best or there all by themselves.

The next thing Jaffe talks about is something fans often wonder – who has the best top two, three, four, five and even six starters. I won’t get into the entire set of numbers, you can look here although it is behind a pay wall (sorry, but you should give BP money anyway), but I will tell you where the Nats stack up

  • For top two, Strasburg and Zimmermann are about as good as you might think. The Nats two pitcher WARP of 6.9 ranks them 2nd only behind the Phillies (9.3) and Giants (8). It would be even closer if Strasburg was going to pitch more than 160 innings.
  • The Nats top three pitchers rank 4th, behind Philly, San Fran and Milwaukee. The Brewers aren’t a surprise, Jaffe notes that they added the most pitching WARP of any team last year with Greinke and Marcum, while Gallardo is an ace in his own right.
  • Those four teams remain in the same places when looking at the top four pitchers. Jackson adds 0.8 to the Nats, for perspective the Phillies are only getting 0.6 from Worley, the Giants 0.6 from Vogelson, and the Brewers 0.9 from Wolf
  • When looking at a full rotation of 5 starters, the Braves surpass the Nats and put DC down to 5th place. That is because Atlanta’s 5th starter Mike Minor adds 1.2 WARP while John Lannan only adds 0.1. But if you use Wang instead of Lannan, according to PECOTA, the Braves and Nats would be tied in 4th place thanks to Wang’s 0.9 WARP

If you take a look at the article, he even talks about what a 6 man rotation would look like (the Nats are still in 5th place) but let’s not even go there. I do think that the Baseball Prospectus WARP underestimates a guy like Lannan. For example, in 2009 he started 33 games and had an ERA+ of 109, yet his WARP was -0.6. Why? Because he didn’t strike out enough guys, and walked too many. Ok, fine, but the results were there. WARP can indicate that he got lucky, but it doesn’t do a good enough job of saying that he was more valuable than the average player in that year. I submitted a question to Jaffe on this one.

What it All Means

This indicates, quite analytically, that the Nats have a darn good pitching staff. It’s probably good enough to carry them pretty far into contention. Some things stand in the way, though. One of them is that the hitting hasn’t yet caught up to the pitching. I think that will probably be remedied somewhat by maturing players, but some of it probably won’t be remedied until this coming winter, when I expect them to go get a hitter or two (CF, maybe SS). Another thing that stands in their way are the Phillies and the Braves, NL East rivals who rank ahead of them when you look at the staffs as a whole. And finally, even if they are in contention towards the end of the year, their best pitcher is still going to be put on the shelf some time in August until next spring.

But even with those obstacles, they are building something here. Despite Rizzo’s scouting background and old school demeanor, it’s not just scouts and old school reporters who think so, it’s also the advanced metrics that the SABR community uses. That probably tells you that Rizzo knows those stats just as well as he knows how to tell whether a guy’s secondary pitch is a 40 or an 80, and that’s just the kind of GM you want these days.

By Charlie