Nats starting pitching: Yes, as bad as you think

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’1ST_4709′
courtesy of ‘MissChatter’

Cherry blossoms have come to D.C. and with them the idea that it should be Spring here in the nation’s capital. Yet, the weather does not seem to agree with a patina of chill and frost still clinging to the ground every morning as we wait for the bright sun and temperatures of April to finally melt away the doldrums of winter.

Nevertheless, it is time to play baseball.

The Nationals start their regular season tomorrow with the general hope that today will be better than yesterday. That is not a hard hope for a team that has averaged 62.33 wins a year over the last three years. Nats fans have had a dismal time of it and late-season empty stadiums have been the proof that baseball in Washington is not yet a full-fledged member of the city’s pastime.

Well, here at WeLoveDC, WeLoveBaseball.

Tom Bridge, Rachel Levitin and I are all credentialed for Nats home games this year and will bring you the blow-by-blow of how the Nats fare, through the hope of spring into the eventual doldrums of another losing summer. Belief me this: it will be another dismal year.

But there is hope.

Success in baseball is often a fairly easy thing to predict. Yes, there are teams like the 2010 Reds or the 2008 Rays that make surprising runs, but each team has signs present that a revival was in the works – young prospects coming into their own, deep pitching talent, a buzz about the league and dark horse predictions. The harbinger for the Reds last year was rookie pitcher Mike Leake, who had never spent a game in the minor leagues, starting off the year as one of the winning-est pitchers in baseball. It is one of those things where a fan base wakes up and says “maybe there is something about us this year.”

Like the Reds, when the Nats finally do get up off the mat, it will be surprising young pitchers who lead the way.

This is not that year.

The phenom, of course, is not coming back anytime soon. Stephen Strasburg is in the midst of recovering from Tommy John surgery, a process that takes at least 12 months and maybe as much as 18. He may pitch a few games in September but I wouldn’t count on it. Make no assumptions: Strasburg will not be a factor in 2011.

Who then is in manager Jim Riggleman’s cupboard and how far can we expect this pitching staff to bring us?

The Starters
Depth chart according to MLB.com
No. 1 – Livan Hernandez
No. 2 — John Lannan
No. 3 — Jordan Zimmermann
No. 4 — Jason Marquis
No. 5 – Tom Gorzelanny

That … is a painful list.

In context, that list does not truly have a No. 1 or a No. 2. The Nats have been trying to land a top-two starter the past couple of off seasons but, until Washington shows it can be a baseball town and competitive, not many marquee free agents wants to sign. Compound that with the fact that the farm system is still a bit of a barren wasteland and making trades for a top-tier starter (the way the Brewers did for Zack Greinke) has also fallen short.

Let’s re-rank the starters in a more realistic fashion:

No. 3 – Zimmermann
No. 4a – Gorzelanny
No. 4b – Hernandez
No. 4c – Lannan
No. 5 – Marquis

What the Nats do have is some truly remarkable mediocre depth. If you wanted to extend that list past five pitchers, the Nats have several others who could easily slot into being No. 4s and No. 5s such as Ross Detwiler, Yunesky Maya (who has big potential, as does Zimmerman), a healthy (as-if) Chien-Ming Wang, Craig Stammen and Colin Ballester. Any one of those pitchers could take any slot in the rotation, expect for Zimmerman’s.

How about expectations?

There is an item in advance baseball statistics (sabermetrics) called Wins Above Replacement (WAR). It factors in runs saved above replacement, with replacement being basically what scouts and general managers call a “Quadruple A” player – a player good enough to bounce between the big leagues and AAA all years. A theoretical replacement player would be expected to contribute at a level equal to zero – he does not help the team nor does he really hurt the team. Pitchers are evaluated on runs saved above replacement (RAR) with every 10 runs or so equaling a victory for his team. For example, if a pitcher has a RAR of 15, his WAR would be 1.5. In the general scale of WAR, a player between zero and two is a major league platoon to average regular. WAR of three to four is a solid, above-average major leaguer and possible All-Star. WAR of 5 is a definite All-Star and fringe MVP candidate. WAR between six and nine is a bona fide MVP candidate.

According to FanGraphs, a leading sabermetrics site, the top member of the Nats supposed rotation – Hernandez – is slated for a WAR of 2.1 on the strength of 21.1 RAR on 195 innings pitched (IP). For an ancient horse like Hernandez, that is still a great prediction and shows that he still has what it takes to be a regular in the big leagues, if only a real contributor in a mediocre rotation such as the Nats. Hernandez this year, like every year, will be good to eat some innings and pick up several wins if he gets decent run support.

The harbinger for the Nats rise will be when Hernandez is no longer part of this discussion.

Zimmermann, the best of the Nats not named Strasburg (and coming off his own Tommy John surgery last year) provides the greatest hope. FanGraphs has him with very respectable numbers in the value department with a 3.1 WAR on a modest prediction of 155 IP. In most big league rotations that would slot him as a solid No. 2 or No. 3. For the Nats he is the de facto No. 1 and, when Strasburg is healthy, will make a decent compatriot.

Then there are the rest of the boys.

Lannan is one of the good guys in the Nats clubhouse. He is respectful and well liked. He is also just a fringe major league pitcher at this point in his career. He has the potentials to be a Hernandez type with his solid sinking fastball, but make no mistake, this is no Brandon Webb (when healthy) wannabe. The Nats this year will ask him to eat innings and at this point in his career, Lannan should be able to rise to that call. If he cannot, then he probably will find the rest of his career very short because mediocre pitchers who cannot be innings-eaters and do not have fastballs good enough for the bullpen tend to find themselves out of a job. FanGraphs has Lannan predicted for 143.1 IP as a starter and a WAR OF 1.2.

Gorzelanny is still is solid, if unspectacular, which is kind of the theme running around the Nats’ staff (at least the starters). His best year was 2007 when he had a WAR of 2.9 in his first full year as a starter. He was decent last year with the Cubs, putting up a WAR of 2.3. FanGraphs this year has him repeating that number, again going for 2.3 WAR on a 22.8 RAR. Given his track record and age (still relatively young at 28, turning 29 in July), that is a reasonable expectation and it is not out of the realm that he will be between a two and three win pitcher for the next couple of years.

Marquis is a misnomer. He can be very decent or he can be atrocious. When the Nats signed him, it was always as a stop-gap while developing their other mediocre talent. In ten years in the league, he has a 10.6 cumulative WAR with a disproportionate amount of that coming in his very surprising 3.8 WAR season for the Rockies in 2009.

But, Marquis was injured and ineffective for the Nats most of last season and FanGraphs, which puts a lot of weight on recent past performance, is not bullish on Marquis being worth the money the Nats are paying him. For 2011 he is listed as below replacement, coming in with a -.3 WAR. In monetary terms, he is actually costing Washington $1.1 million in performance. He can bounce back and be a one to two win pitcher, perhaps higher. Or he could flop his way around the mound for six months. Get back to me in June for a better prognostication of what kind of pitcher we are seeing Marquis in 2011.

Add up the predictions and the Nats starting five heading into the year has a cumulative WAR of 8.4. Essentially, as a unit, they only slightly more valuable than Cliff Lee was by himself last year (7.1 WAR).

To put that in a team perspective, the Boston Red Sox are considered to have one of the deepest staffs in baseball. The cumulative WAR of their starters heading into 2011 is 18.7 with only Daisuke Matsuzaka below the 3.0 WAR line at 1.9.

*A note on WAR and FanGraps – Sabermetrics are good guidance tools and a favorite utility of mine in explaining baseball. WAR is by no means the definitive answer on a player’s performance but rather an indication of value in regards to other players based on a sum total of varying stats. Through the year we will go into further detail on pitchers’ and players’ performance from a sabermetric slant.

Yes, it will be a long year in Nats Town. The lineup will be exciting (barring injury) but the next step in evolution is not yet there for Washington. Next time we will take a closer look at one of the strengths of the team – the bullpen – and how it can factor in to putting curly W’s in the win column for the Nats this year.

Dan Rowinski

New England raised, transplanted in Virginia. Sports writer who has spent several seasons on the NHL beat covering the Boston Bruins along with stints writing about Boston College, Red Sox, Capitals and Nationals. Has worked for the New England Hockey Journal, WEEI.com, Fire Brand Of The American League, TBD.com among others. Also a technophile covering technology for ReadWriteWeb. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Rowinski or email him at dan (at) welovedc.com.

2 thoughts on “Nats starting pitching: Yes, as bad as you think

  1. Nice to see that you will use sabermetrics. The WaPost is still using W-L, Batting Average, sigh…

    Shall I tell what Walter Johnson’s career WAR was?

    127.7. He reached at least nine, six different times.

  2. The Nats failing to land Grienke and having SS hurt really is a program changer slew of changes.

    Getting those 2 would have put the Nats into minor playoff contention

    Now? It is no longer even remotely possible to get to .500