Nationals' pitching lifting team to success

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Nationals' starters and relievers have had success this season. Since we're around the halfway point, it seems as good a time as any to assess just how good the staff has been.

History has claimed a little over half of the 2014 Major League Baseball season. One big story for the Nationals this year -- and going forward -- will be the performance of the team's pitchers, both in the rotation and the bullpen.  So far, and in short: they've been pretty darn good. Currently, the team's hurlers lead the major league in fWAR (at +11.7) and FIP (3.15), and are among the top five in K-BB% (14.7%), runs against per game (3.48), bWAR (+10.8), and general awesomeness (citation below).

Here's a quick look at how the team's starters and relievers are taking similar approaches to generating outs and limiting runs.

Starting Pitching

Look, no one thought the Nats' starters of this season would pitch like rotations of yesteryear -- Stephen Strasbrurg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez aren't quite Matt Chico, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergman, and Mike Bacsik -- but there was certainly some question about who the team's fifth starter would be. While both Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark made the rotation out of Spring Training (owing of course to Fister's muscle injury), only the latter has remained in the rotation.

Name

GS

K-BB%

BABIP

RA/9

FIP

fWAR

Stephen Strasburg

18

22.7%

.348

4.33

2.79

+2.6

Jordan Zimmermann

17

17.0%

.322

3.30

2.73

+2.5

Tanner Roark

16

12.2%

.280

3.07

3.37

+1.5

Gio Gonzalez

12

14.6%

.294

3.93

3.33

+1.1

Doug Fister

10

12.0%

.260

3.11

3.99

+0.5

Blake Treinen

5

2.7%

.273

3.06

3.81

+0.2

Taylor Jordan

5

7.3%

.330

7.01

4.46

+0.1

Average/Total

83

15.1%

.304

3.97

3.26

+8.5

There's a lot here, but main takeaway is that Nats' starters are diesel in generating a large strikeout to walk gap: at 15.1%, it's the third highest rate in the league. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays exceed the Nats' starters' in this category. Limiting balls in play is helpful to limiting runs, of course; here's the relationship between starter K-BB% and RA9 WAR:

Starter_ra9_war_kbb_medium

RA9 WAR uses the straight runs allowed per nine innings by a starter -- regardless of defensive performance -- to calculate value. So, even adding in defense and all of the other random variables that affect/effect (I think both work) scoring, 17% of the variation of a team's starters' runs allowed can be explained by the strikeout to walk differential. Not a ton, of course, but that's not nothing, and the Nats are doing well there.

Of course, a nice little stretch from June 4 - 11 helped, too, and James Wagner did a great job pointing out the individual adjustments and improvements that each starter has made throughout the first half. Plus, the team has continued to pound the strike zone at a league-leading 64.6% rate.

Nats' starters throw the third-most fastballs in the bigs, but the pitch isn't earning positive value. Where are the good results coming from? The curve. Strasburg and company offer the hammer 12.5% of the time -- 10th most in baseball -- and have the best cumulative run value in the majors. Changeups are also a strength of the rotation, although this is largely because Strasburg trails just Felix Hernandez in value with the offering.  In any event, no rotation in baseball gets more swings outside the strike zone.

http://giant.gfycat.com/GoodnaturedRespectfulCowbird.gif

Courtesy Shane Ryan, Grantland

Succinctly, Washington's starters' success is built on getting ahead and generating whiffs with the curve (they place all five starters in the top 75 in curve ball whiff percentage -- again, most in the league) while getting hitters to extend the strike zone, avoiding killer line drives.* It's translated into an excellent first half.

*Subjectivity acknowledged, and aside.

Relief Pitching

As World Cup fever gripped the country, F.P. Santangelo coined the phrase "Group of Death" to describe the Nats' relief corps. It's hard to disagree with him. Like the starters, the late inning twirlers generate an above average spread of strikeouts to walks and limit home runs better than any other team. This drives a league-best FIP, and, in turn, top five reliever fWAR.

Name

G

K-BB%

BABIP

Inher. Runners Scored%

FIP

Rafael Soriano

33

17.5%

.205

N/A

2.52

Tyler Clippard

39

21.2%

.284

0%

2.54

Craig Stammen

25

16.0%

.266

17%

2.39

Aaron Barrett

31

15.4%

.309

38%

2.45

Drew Storen

31

18.0%

.225

36%

2.60

Jerry Blevins

36

11.7%

.300

0%

3.06

Ross Detwiler

22

3.1%

.298

N/A

4.99

Average/Total

230

13.8%

.280

27%

2.94

*Average/total reflects all relivers, while chart includes only those with greater than 20 games pitched.

Those are some beastly numbers across the board, save for Det. And poor Aaron Barrett -- he's inherited the most runners on the staff (24), but is suffering from the highest BABIP (.309). Evaluate him by what he can control, however, and the dude has been almost as valuable as the team's multi-million dollar closer (who has been pretty good in his own right).

Approach-wise, the bullpen doesn't attack the zone with first pitch strikes as much as their starting counterparts, but -- as you might expect -- they get swinging strikes more often, checking in at 11th best in the league. And nearly all of their offerings are generating a positive run value.

Because I know you want to know, Clippard's change is being "hit" to the tune of .233/.395/.302. That's about on his career average. For my money, though, the best pitch out of the bullpen is Clip's splitter. Eighteen at bats, thirteen strikeouts, one single, fourth lowest TAv among relievers who have thrown at least 50 of them. If you were at the game last night, you didn't see this, so here it is in all its diving-like-a-Virginia-class-submarine glory:

Clippard_forkball_k_tulo_medium

You even get a little Clippard strut at the end, too.

Overall, it's a collection of talent that generates a lot of strikeouts with good enough control. They also thrive on keeping in the ball in the park, which probably will back up a bit as the season goes on, owing to their extremely low HR/FB%. If the current rate holds, it would be the lowest bullpen HR/FB% in the history of the stat. Yea, probably won't happen. But that's all right; the Group of Death should perform in the top third to half of the league going forward.

Conclusion

While D.C.'s starters and relievers achieve value through maximizing a strikeout-walk spread and limiting hard contact, they achieve their results slightly differently.

The team's starting five (plus two), perhaps trying to put themselves in position to get deep in games, work ahead of batters and aren't overly dependent on generating strikeouts. At the same time, and generally speaking, starters' off speed and breaking pitches -- while sparingly used -- earn some nice value.

The bullpen doesn't get ahead as often, but can still put batters in unfavorable positions through swings and misses.  And most of them have at least two pitches that create positive run circumstances, a luxury for relievers. Although they will likely give up a few more taters as the year goes on, there's still a lot to like with the current roster.

Washington's pitching staff doesn't appear to be pitching way over its head. Because of this, I think it is reasonable to be optimistic about the second half performance from the players on the bump.

Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs for statistics.

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