August 14, 2020

Washington Nationals boast candidates for Cy Young, but real strength is in numbers

Nats top three starters Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann – Philadelphia Philles v. Washington Nationals, August 1, 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

There are 49 pitchers that qualify for the N.L. ERA title this season. Among those 49 pitchers are five Washington Nationals, and they all rank in the top 24 in WAR (according to in that group. Sure, WAR isn’t the end-all when talking about a pitcher’s contribution to his team, but it gives us a starting point to be able to look at the pool of candidates as a whole.

It’s pretty impressive that the entire Nats’ rotation ranks that high for a couple of reasons, and it perfectly illustrates why the Nats hold a 6 1/2 game lead in the division with about 20 games left in the season.

1) Health. Other than Chien-Ming Wang, no Nats starter has missed a game due to injury, pending “The Shut Down”. I can’t stress how unusual that is. The Nats have five qualifiers for the ERA title. Only Cincinnati and San Francisco can share that claim this season. Only St. Louis and L.A. have four starters that qualify. Notice a common trend among those five teams? All are first or second in their division and all either occupy a playoff spot today or are within one game of the Wild Card. These are the best teams in the N.L.

2) Youth. All five starters are in the younger half of the bracket, with only Edwin Jackson outside the youngest 14 in the league that qualify. Stephen Strasburg, 23, is the second youngest among qualifiers (Madison Bumgarner). Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler are all in their age 26 seasons.

3) Quality. Based on WAR, Edwin Jackson is the least valuable Nats starter. He’s 24th out of 49 qualifiers in the N.L. But he’s the fifth Nats starter to qualify. Gio is fourth overall, Zimmermann is eighth, Strasburg is 14th and Detwiler is 21st. Cincy and San Fran have multiple starters each in the lower third of the candidates (including Tim Lincecum, last among N.L. ERA qualifiers in WAR). All five Nats are also in the top 20 in OPS+, with only Jackson outside the top 12. This tells us the Nats starters as a whole excel at keeping runners off base and not giving up extra base hits. That’s good.

Nats manager Davey Johnson supported Gio Gonzalez for the Cy Young after Gio won his 19th game of the season Monday night, tops in the N.L. “No question,” Johnson said. “No doubt about it. I know [Mets starter R.A.] Dickey gets a lot of attention, but you’re talking about a last-place club. It’s a little bit different. We’ve been on top and getting all those wins.”

Davey cites the oldest of old-school stats ever in backing his pitcher for the Cy Young. That’s okay, he’s 69 years old. But even he knows better. He knows that the voting members in the BBWAA still cling to the notion that starting pitchers are supposed to win games for winning teams, when in reality it’s their job to make outs and pitch deep into games. Dickey has one fewer win than Gio going into Tuesday night’s game, so isn’t it more impressive he’s pitched well enough and deep enough that he’s qualified for all those wins on a losing team?

But I digress.

The point of this wasn’t to tear down R.A. Dickey, or to boost the qualifications of any of the Nats individual pitchers. Rather, it was to illustrate just how good the Nats rotation has been in total. Sure, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann will garner votes for the Cy Young Award, and rightly so — regardless the criteria the individuals on the voting committee employ. But as a group, there hasn’t been a better starting staff top-to-bottom than the Nats. I’ll take that over essentially meaningless awards any day.

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