If Starting Pitching Wins Championships, Then be Prepared to Crown the Nats
Apart from losing one of the most polarizing figures in baseball, this season started eerily similar to every other season for the Washington Nationals. An average lineup with some stars, and a rotation that, on paper, should be the best rotation in baseball. Up until recently though It's only been an on paper thing. For the most part it's been the Max Scherzer show with a bunch of under-performing starters behind him.
This year showed to be a little different for the "on paper" best rotation in baseball. They finally had a set of four starters in reality that you felt confident about getting you a win night in and night out. Whether it be ace Max Scherzer continuing his dominance, Stephen Strasburg emerging as the number one guy that he was always touted to be, Patrick Corbin living up to the crazy offseason contract he got, or Anibal Sanchez coming out of nowhere to be one of the more consistent starters in the game down the stretch, the rotation gave you something deadly night in and night out.
It wouldn't be fair to the group to talk about them as a whole, given the incredible run they've been on, so let's break them down and take a look at the success of each starter.
1. Max Scherzer
Mad Max had himself a bit of a regression year. Luckily for the Nats, Scherzer has been so utterly dominant that his "regression year" means having an ERA that didn't sit at around 2.50 (2.92), a WHIP that finally wasn't sub-one (1.02, the first time in five years), and because of a couple injuries he didn't reach the 200 inning plateau for the first time since 2012.
Despite not quite putting up Scherzer-esque numbers, Max is still sitting fourth in the NL in WAR and will garner a handful of votes for the Cy Young award. He continued to establish himself as one of the best starting pitchers in the major leagues all season long.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better for the Nationals, playoff Max strutted his stuff out to the mound and has showed the world just how dominant he can be.
Things didn't get out to a great start for the former Cy Young winner. After being handed the ball for the NL Wild Card game against the Brewers, he gave up a two run shot to the second batter of the game and a solo shot to the lead off man in the second. Since that homer though, he has gone from "Max Scherzer" to "Mad Max."
He managed to settle down in that game, not allowing another run while compiling six strikeouts before handing the ball over. His next appearance, a surprise relief appearance in game two of the NLDS, Max was on a whole new level, striking out the side in the only inning he pitched on just 14 pitches.
Just three days later, Max was tasked with keeping the Nats season alive with the do or die game four start. He responded with a dominating performance where despite giving up a first inning home run to Justin Turner, Max held the best team in the majors to no more runs, while striking out seven over the course of his seven innings.
How could he top a performance like that? Try a seven inning domination of the St. Louis Cardinals in which he went six innings before giving up his only hit of the start, and struck out 11 en route to picking up his second win of the postseason. The victory brought his postseason ERA to 1.80 with 27 strikeouts in just 20 innings.
After what'll be 10 days off for Scherzer, it's likely that he'll get game one of the World Series on plenty of rest. Whether or not the excess rest will help him or hurt him remains to be seen, but from what we've seen so far, Max looks just as good as he's ever been.
2. Stephen Strasburg
Stras has been the number two to Max Scherzer for the past three seasons in Washington, and has dealt with injuries for most of his career. He reached the 200 inning mark only once in his career before this season with 215 IP in 2014. This year, injuries didn't effect the 31 year old and he managed to get in 33 starts for the Nats.
In those 33 starts, had an ERA of 3.31, a WHIP of 1.02 and set a career high in strikeouts with 251. He is largely believed to be on pace with teammate Max Scherzer in the Cy Young voting after finishing with a 6.3 WAR (.4 better than Scherzer).
His postseason started off in unusual territory with him getting his first career appearance out of the bullpen. Stras ran with it though, shutting out the Brewers over three innings while striking out four en route to getting the win.
Strasburg has continued to look great since that appearance. He picked up wins in game two and five against the Dodgers, striking out 10 and seven respectively over the course of 12 innings. He was handed the ball again in game three against the Cardinals and proceeded to strikeout 12 over seven innings while allowing just one unearned run.
He should be slated to bring his consistent postseason dominance into game two on Wednesday against the Houston Astros.
3. Patrick Corbin
In the offseason, Corbin was handed one of the biggest deals of the winter with a seven year $210 million contract. In what was one of the hardest deals to live up to, the Nationals third starter managed to do just that. He finished the year with similar numbers to last year, with a ERA just 0.1 higher than last year, three more earned runs, and just eight less strikeouts in two more innings pitched.
Due to the lack of depth in the Nats bullpen, Corbin has had to assume a bit of a hybrid role for the postseason. He has five appearances so far this postseason and only two starts. He had a great start in game one of the NLDS and came up with nothing to show for it. He was then tattooed for six runs over 0.2 innings in his first relief appearance just three days after his start.
Since then Corbin has been the most reliable arm out of the bullpen, and had one win as a starter in the St. Louis series. he has five strikeouts over 2.1 IP as a reliever with no runs given up in his last two appearances, and had 12 strikeouts over five innings in his only start against the Cardinals.
Given the postseason success of Anibal Sanchez, it's unclear whether Dave Martinez will go with Corbin or Sanchez in game three of the World Series. If they decide to go with Sanchez however, Corbin looks like he may have found the secret to success in being the hybrid guy.
4. Anibal Sanchez
He may be the four starter, but he might've been the most talked about in the last series for the Nats. After Washington was forced to burn both Scherzer and Strasburg in game five of the NLDS, Sanchez was forced into starting game one of the NLCS. Not an ideal spot to be in if you're the Nationals right? Ask Sanchez if he cares.
He stepped onto the mound in game one with zero expectations and hurled 7.2 innings of no hit baseball, completely baffling a team that was fresh off of a 13 run outburst against a really good Atlanta Braves team. The start dropped his 2019 postseason ERA to 0.74 and his WHIP to 0.66.
For a guy entering the 2019 campaign as an afterthought on the end of his career, Sanchez has done an incredible job transforming himself into one of the most reliable arms in the postseason.
The saying you hear a lot come postseason time is "starting pitching wins championships." In rare cases that may not ring true, but it's a solid way to build a championship team. This year, we are spoiled to see some absolute stars in both World Series rotations.
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are easily two of the best pitchers in the game today and will more than likely miss a ton of bats in the finals. However when it comes to the better rotation, there is no question in my mind that the Nats have the better rotation. If the previous saying rings true, then we may be looking at the 2019 World Series champions in the Washington Nationals.