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In baseball, no element is as precious as the out. When a pitcher records an out, he provides assistance to his team. When a pitcher fails to record an out, he at best provides no assistance to his team. At the risk of inspiring a dozen mitigating examples, I'll note that this pitcher more accurately has served to harm his team. If he fails to record an out, then he has, however vividly or technically, failed his team.

If the world were simpler, pitchers' records would be based on every out recorded. But perhaps simpler is not better, because as a practical matter pitchers are judged based on the innings they have completed. Maybe this is a sensible path or maybe it isn't, but whatever; elementary school is where Principal Skinner wound up, and it's too late to do anything about that!

An out is an out. An inning is three outs. Close enough.

* * * *

The foregoing is all to say that an inning pitched is a mighty important thing for a pitcher. If you can pitch lots of innings, all the better. If you can pitch lots of innings rather well, hey, that's even better. If you can pitch lots and lots of innings really, really well, then you're on the path to immortality. But even if you can pitch lots of innings rather well, you'll still make some good dough, because: (1) not that many guys can pitch lots of innings, and (2) even fewer guys can do that rather well.

In other words, completed innings have value; every subsequent inning a guy can complete yields more and more value.

As discussed last time, the Nats had one guy who pitched anything close to lots of innings, Ramon Ortiz. Unfortunately, Ortiz didn't quite pitch rather well. BaseballReference.com released the updated 2006 stats today, and Ortiz's ERA+ figure---the ratio of the league's ERA (adjusted to the pitcher's ballpark) to that of the pitcher---clocked in at 79. That's like replacement level stuff. You can tolerate replacement level-quality pitching if you have to fill a gap here and there; it's somewhat inevitable that you'll have to settle for it. But when your top innings-eater is essentially a replacement level pitcher? Yikes.

Just for posterity, here's everyone who started a game for the Nats in 2006:

Pitcher GS IP as Starter ERA as Starter
Ortiz 33 190.2 5.57
Armas 30 154 5.03
Hernandez 24 146.2 5.34
O'Connor 20 103 4.81
Astacio 17 90.1 5.98
Traber 8 36 7.75
Patterson 8 40.2 4.43
Bergmann 6 30.2 6.46
Hill 6 36.2 4.66
Day 5 26.2 4.72
Perez 3 15.1 4.70
Drese 2 8.2 5.19
[TEAM 162 879.1 5.37]

The Nats received thirty starts from what one could reasonably characterize the "fill-ins": Traber, Bergmann, Hill, Day, Perez, and Drese. Thirty starts, 153.1 innings pitched, ninety-nine earned runs, 5.83 ERA. That's basically Armas-like efficiency with essentially Ortiz-like quality. Ortiz and Armas, you might have noticed, led the team in innings pitched.

The fill-ins were pretty much of the same quality as the main-line starters. What is more, that is counting Mike O'Connor, a guy who had never pitched above A-ball prior to last season, and Pedro Astacio, a guy with a six-ERA, as main-line starters.

As feared, the 2006 Nats suffered from an innings gap. But things proved worse than that. By midseason, it became clear just what kind of damage a bad Hernandez, a sidelined John Patterson, and a completely forgotten Brian Lawrence could cause.

And, now that I've said way too much about the subject already, I'll add that the less said about this the better.

* * * *

Well, where do we go from here? Unfortunately, that does indeed take another---I promise brief---look at where we've been.

In 2006, the average National League team received 941 innings from its starters, yielding a 4.66 ERA. To put that another way, the average NL starter went 5.85 innings per start and posted a 4.66 ERA. By comparison, the average Washington starter went 5.43 innings per start and posted a 5.37 ERA.

Let's take that innings gap first. Employing some shady methodology, let's multiply the 0.42-inning gap between the Nats and the NL average by 162 games played: that's roughly sixty-eight innings unaccounted for, sixty-eight innings presumably foisted ungraciously on the bullpen.

Rest easy, though---the bullpen only lugged fifty-three innings more than the NL average bullpen (557 to 504). One explanation for this discrepancy is easy: When you're on the road and you're behind, they don't even require you to pitch the ninth inning. The bullpen was hardly first- or second- (or perhaps even third-) rate, but it certainly wasn't the component that sank the team's battleship.

(Judging relievers by ERA is kind of stupid, but are you feelin' stupid? I know I am! Natty relievers had a 4.49 ERA, as opposed to a 4.16 reliever league average. Doesn't sound too good? Go back and compare the starter numbers.)

At any rate, it's not exactly startling insight to recommend the Nats get better starting pitching. It helps not to fall behind early in games, and it helps to relieve the burden on your bullpen.

So, where do we go from here? For now, let's take an optimistic approach:

  • Receive a healthy and effective John Patterson.
  • Explore the depths of the earth with Bodesian aplomb.
  • Pray.
Bullet one is self-explanatory. Patterson is sort of our poor-poor-poor man's Roy Halladay. He's not as good as Halladay, and Halladay routinely waits until he's logged a couple of hundred quality innings before he injures himself. Nevertheless, although Patterson can't reasonably be termed a reliable stabilizer, he's almost certainly the Nats' only viable hope at an ace/stopper/what-have-you for the foreseeable future.

Bullet two sounds sort of like what Bowden did after Brian Lawrence came up lame; heck, it's pretty much what Bowden did before Lawrence came up lame, too. There weren't many bidders for Ramon Ortiz, as I recall. From there it was Astacio, the triumphant return of Ryan Drese, the humble return of Zach Day, O'Connor, Shawn Hill, an actually somewhat healthy Astacio, a starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Jay Bergmann, Beltran Perez, some guy named Gabbo, etc. Half of those guys have since been released. In fact, the initial press release had Drese being released twice, which seems sort of fitting. Anyway, I suppose searching the "depths of the earth"---or the bargain bin---is an acceptable manner of accumulating pitching, but I'm not sure I'd even pay a guy Astacio money in such an endeavor unless I knew he was physically capable of pitching real quantities of innings. I guess what I'm getting at is you might as well either: (a) sign (and pitch) a whole bunch of ultra-cheap and presumably hungry minor league free agent types, hoping in the process you strike lightning (or just a flint spark) in the bottle with maybe one of them, or (b) cut the middle man and just re-sign Ramon Ortiz to what you paid him this season, because at least then you know that you can concentrate a base line of innings in one guy.

Bullet three is the aforementioned lightning in a bottle, one of Bodes' favorite expressions. That's something like receiving 200 innings out of a Mike O'Connor instead of 100, or a Shawn Hill type coming up and completely fulfilling his projected ceiling, or a real prospect like Colin Balester being rushed up and thriving. Maybe one of the guys acquired for Livan Hernandez will turn that trick.

Speaking of Livan, his departure clears $7 million off of the 2007 payroll, but it also adds another 150 innings from 2006 to fill. Now, he pitched horribly for the Nats, but remember our little exercise from above: those terrible innings were in a mix with all of:

  • Ortiz's terrible 190 innings;
  • Armas' bad 150+ innings;
  • another terrible 150+ innings from the "fill-ins"; and
  • about 200 undefinable innings from O'Connor and Astacio---undefinable in the sense that they weren't really fill-in innings, but were certainly pretty bad.

The think tank will be working on solutions this offseason---if not actual solutions, then patches. Maybe they'll work out, and maybe they won't; we'll all be rooting they do work out, of course. In the coming weeks, this blog, as will the other Nats blogs, will opine on possibilities for the starting pitching. What the Nats face is certainly daunting, but on the bright side, the options are now wide open.

They might not be any good, but at least they'll be interesting.