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Can the Nationals be a Surprise Team Part 1: Pitching

There are just four Thursdays left until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, and as I have just finished on one cliché of good teams win close games I am going to move onto another cliché for this four part series. The cliché I will be looking at is that teams win because of pitching, defense, and timely hitting. I am going to add intangibles onto the end just to make it a four part series. The last two have some definition issues to be worked out, but that is still a couple weeks away, and I am ready to get to the meat of this column, but there is one more thing. Just what makes a team a surprise team? I am going to define it as exceeding the teams expected win total by ten or more games. Looking around message boards and some early prognostications from beat reports has the Nationals anywhere from 59 to 78 wins. I am going to say most reasonable people will be expecting the team to win around 72 games. So, in order for the Nationals to be a surprise team they have to at least win 82 games.

In order to understand where the Nationals pitching needs to go it must be understood where it has been, and that is nowhere good. A quality start is defined as a pitcher pitching six or more innings and giving up three or less earned runs. By itself it tells nothing about an individual pitcher. An innings eater with a mid 4.00 ERA and 200 innings can easily amass a good number of quality starts, but it is a measuring stick, and it is very telling when an entire pitching staff can only manage 69 quality starts when league average is 86, and it is even more telling when that same rotation can only manage to average 5.5 innings per start against a league average of 5.9. The Nationals starting rotation in 2010 was nothing short of awful.

While the starters put up an ERA of 4.61 in 889.1 innings the bullpen was able to pitch to a 3.35 ERA over 545.2 innings. The troubling thing is as good as the bullpen was they were more often than not put in a position where they couldn't succeed. 162 times the Nationals used a reliever for more than one inning. This isn't just bad it is 32 more times than the next worst team, and 57 more times than a league average team. With starters only averaging 5.5 innings a game using a reliever for more than one inning becomes necessary.

The bullpen was the anchor of the Nationals pitching staff, but they were often put in a position to fail. Nationals' relievers entered a game with a lead 186 times and with a tie 76, both numbers are in the bottom five, while they entered the game 232 times when the team was already behind. That last number is the third most times in the National League by the way. All of this led to Nationals relievers finishing second to only Arizona in losses in relief with 29. The Nationals bullpen also led the league in times entered with a runner on base at 164 and 33% of the time at least one of those runners scored.

The Nationals last season were a team with terrible starting pitching that put a solid bullpen in a position to fail. In order for the Nationals to be a surprise team more than a few things have to go right with the starting pitching, and not much can go wrong with the bullpen. A league average team averaged 5.9 IP from the starters in 2010. It isn't hard to imagine the 2011 Washington Nationals pulling it off. A Look at Bill James projections tell us that Livan is projected to lead the staff with 218 innings followed by Lannan at 174, Wang at 140, Gorzelanny* at 133, Jordan Zimmermann at 132, and Marquis at 105. That equals out to 902 innings which is too low by around 50 innings, and it isn't hard to imagine some combination of Maya, Detwiler, an others combining to give the Nationals the necessary innings, and it also isn't hard to imagine Marquis exceeding the projected 105 innings. For his career Jason Marquis has averaged 192 IP.

*A brief aside on Gorzelanny. A few times when people asked where the Nationals top of the rotation pitcher was or where the pitching targets were a common answer given was Milwaukee and Colorado. Seeing Gorzelanny compared again and again to John Lannan with a better strike out rate I got curious and looked up Gorzelanny compared to the pitcher the Nationals lost out on to Colorado, and I don't know if this tells us more about Gorzelanny or De La Rosa.  

2010 Jorge De La Rosa: IP 121 ERA 4.22 WHIP 1.315 HR/9 1.1 BB/9 4.1 K/9 8.4 ERA+ 110 WAR 1.7

2010 Tom Gorzelanny:  IP 136 ERA 4.09 WHIP 1.496 HR/9 0.7 BB/9 4.5 K/9 7.9 ERA+ 106 WAR 2.3

Getting to an innings pitched goal is nice but a bunch of innings eaters are just that. In order for the Nationals to surprise anyone those innings are going to have to come with just a little competence. Projected ERAs for Nationals starters don't look that great, but the goal here is more to save the bullpen and let them shine. Of the pitchers projected to spend the most time in the rotation Jordan Zimmermann leads the way with a 3.75 ERA followed by Wang at 3.99, Gorzelanny at 4.06, Lannan at 4.40, Marquis at 4.46, Hernandez at 4.71, and throw in a 5.30 for a spot start or two and the Detwiler, Maya, Atilano starts and the Nationals starters can expect to pitch to a combined ERA of 4.31. In total the Nationals starters should allow 457 runs which is 3 runs higher than last season. The big difference will come from the 66 extra innings the Nationals starters should be able to pitch.  

Mike Rizzo could have sat around and ignored the bullpen. It wouldn't have been hard. Storen had a good rookie season, Sean Burnett had a break out year, and Tyler Clippard pitched well in his first full season in relief. Rizzo could have penciled those guys in as his 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys, but he didn't. He went out and added Elvin Ramirez, Henry Rodriguez, and Todd Coffey to go along with what he already had in house. The late season emergence of Collin Balestar and the Arizona Fall League performance of Cole Kimball gives the Nationals some nice fallback options if anything goes wrong. Relievers are tough to project, but the bullpen should be thought of as a single entity often greater than the sum of its parts.

With Nationals starters projected to pitch 66 more innings than last season the bullpen will be pitching 66 fewer innings or 479 innings. Being that relievers are hard to project and some relievers don't even have Bill James projections for arguments sake I am simply going to prescribe last season's ERA of 3.35 to the 479 innings that the Nationals bullpen is expected to pitch, and if the bullpen doesn't have to pitch as much and there are talented relievers ready to take the place of any that falter then it isn't too hard to imagine them as a group pitching to the same level as last season. That ERA over that number of innings leads to a total of 178 runs allowed. Added to the runs allowed by the starters and that is 635 runs from the pitching staff. Last season's pitching staff allowed a total of 658 earned runs. Note that next week the defense will be discussed and more focus will be placed on the 84 unearned runs the Nationals gave up and what to expect from next season's defense.

If 10 runs over the course of the season equals a win then the Nationals pitching staff should be around 2.3 wins better than they were in 2010. To understand this better the Nationals pitching staff accounted for 13 WAR in 2010 and league average was 15 WAR that 2.3 win difference isn't likely a full 2 WAR but it should help the Nationals get closer to league average. For the area that the Nationals had the least amount of success on improving a 2.3 positive difference looks good, and the path from 69 wins to 82 has only begun, and next week will be the real fun when the defense is examined.