On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Nationals set their rotation coming out of the All Star Break. They announced that Jordan Zimmermann will start Friday's game against the Dodgers and be followed by Doug Fister and Max Scherzer in the rotation. With every starter on at least regular rest after the four day All Star break, the way that the Nats have decided to align the rotation is a bit of a surprise.
The Nats will face a difficult slate to open the second half. Before their next off day on July 27, they'll play ten games against contending teams with a combined record of 151-116. Three of those games will be against the Nats primary competitor in the NL East this season, the New York Mets. After a four game set with the Marlins, they'll face New York again as the calendar turns to August. That's where the decision to set the rotation up this way after the break becomes odd.
Jordan Zimmermann has been fantastic again this season, just as he has for most of his tenure with the Nats. Max Scherzer has been far and away their best starter so far this season, though. His 2.11 ERA is more than a full run better than any other pitcher in the Nats rotation (Zimmermann is second at 3.22). His 2.20 FIP is nearly a full run better than anyone else in the rotation (again, Zimmermann, 3.17). His 4.7 WAR (by both versions) is more than double Zimmermann's 2.3 fWAR and 1.9 rWAR, which is (again) second on the team.
Yes... Max Scherzer has been the best starter on the Washington Nationals so far in 2015. With two upcoming series against your closest competitor and the option of setting your rotation up however you would like out of the break, one would think that Matt Williams would set the rotation up so that Scherzer would start a game in each of those series. Instead, Scherzer will be lined up to make zero starts in those two series against the Mets. Friday's starter, Jordan Zimmermann, will instead make a start in each of the series against the Mets. Assuming the rotation stays intact for the next few weeks, Zimmermann will start the final game of each of those series.
For their part, the team chasing the Nats in the NL East have a tough slate coming up themselves. Apart from their two series with the Nats, the Mets will face the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Padres. New York manager Terry Collins seems to have placed a premium on the two series with the Nationals, though. They'll start rookie Noah Syndergaard in the first game after the break, following him with Bartolo Colon and Jonathon Niese. A quick look at the schedule tells us that the Mets will have the same three starters lined up for their two series against the Nats: Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Syndergaard.
This leads us to the question of whether or not head to head matchups with your closest competitor are really any more important than other games throughout the season. Many will tell you that they aren't, particularly given the 162 game marathon that the MLB season is. If your team wins (just spitballing) 95 games, it doesn't really matter at the end of the season who those 95 wins came against... or those 67 losses. All that matters at the end of the day is how many total wins each team ends up with. Games in April count the same in the standings as games in September, and it would follow that games against individual opponents hold the same value as well.
Then again, there is one respect in which those games against the Mets are more important. Each win that the Nationals get against the Mets comes with the assurance of a Mets loss as well... and vice versa. When the Nats are playing some random NL Central opponent and win/lose a game, there's no assurance that the team(s) chasing them in the NL East will do the opposite and gain/lose ground in the standings. While the games count the same, it feels like games against opponents that are battling each other near the top of the standings are more important.
Assigning value to the games against certain opponents throughout the season seems like something that we could compare to the Leverage Indexes we see in individual games. In order to win a ballgame, the winning team is (generally) going to retire 27 hitters on the opposing team. In a vacuum, each of those 27 outs is equally important, just as winning the 90-95 (or whichever number it will take to win the division) games are equally important throughout the season.
However, as statistical analysis is constantly improving, we've seen advancements in how we look at individual situations throughout a game. We've seen the rise of things like the Leverage Index, which tries to quantify the importance of individual plate appearances throughout a ballgame based on the score and situation in the game. Evaluating the impact of an individual game (or series) on the season as a whole is something that, in theory, could have a leverage factor placed on it as well... particularly when those games (or series) are played between two teams in close competition.
Regardless of how you feel about the importance of the Nats head to head games about the Mets, Matt Williams and Terry Collins seem to have made their feelings known by how they set their rotations coming out of the break. Terry Collins lined up his three best power arms for the two series against the Nats, indicating that he feels those games will have a huge impact on how the race plays out. Matt Williams won't have his ace throwing in any of the six games coming up against the Mets in the next three weeks. At the same time, it's both fascinating and frustrating to see how Matt Williams decided to handle this coming out of the All Star Break.
As a fan who doesn't believe that the Mets are going away, I'd certainly like to see the Nats putting more of a premium on setting up their top starters to face New York in their two upcoming series. My preference would have been to see Scherzer start the first game out of the break, and I think it might have made sense to hold Zimmermann back until Monday to ensure that both Zimmermann and Scherzer would start in both series against the Mets. The first step to bringing a championship home is to win the division, and you focus on making sure you give yourself the best possible chance against those division opponents.
As an analyst, it's fascinating to see how Williams plans things out and try to surmise exactly what his thought process might have been. Williams makes a lot of decisions that occasionally seem stubborn. The obvious one that we've discussed the most is his handling of the bullpen, going back to the playoffs (OK... before the playoffs) last season when he went to rookie Aaron Barrett in the most crucial situation of the year because that's how he would have handled the situation in a regular season game.
This seems like kind of a similar situation. Williams doesn't seem to be placing any more importance on the games with the division rival Mets than he does on the games with the Dodgers and Pirates. While Collins has chosen that this presents his team with an opportunity to sprint for a couple of weeks while the team they're chasing is in view, Williams seems content to keep jogging along confidently and think he'll win in the end. Will he?