Once again, we’re in the difficult position of evaluating an off-season move without immediate data, and as far as the Clippard/Escobar trade can be the sort of dejecting move that leans on past data for pessimism, the aquisition of right hander Max Scherzer gives us the sort of situation to be optimistic about and to play with some numbers.
Adding perennial Cy Young candidate to the rotation, the Nationals a shot at a pitching rotation that could be favorably compared to the 1996 and 1997 Braves or the 2011 Phillies.
The Scherzer signing appears to be a massive one in more than just his contract. Scherzer’s 6.0 WAR ranked eighth last year in all of baseball, but his 723 strikeouts over the last three seasons lead the Majors over that period, and outstrip Clayton Kershaw’s 700 and Stephen Strasburg’s 630 by a fair margin.
On paper, the Nationals have now assembled a pitching rotation that joins the 1996 and 1997 Braves, and the 2011 Phillies in terms of quality. We could sit around and talk all day about which of those rotations were the best, but of those four, at least on paper based on this past year’s performance, the 2015 Nationals would likely stack up fourth. The problem here is that we’re getting into that dangerous “predicting the future” part of this job that really isn’t the sort of thing I’m known for doing with any accuracy.
However, we can look at some past data to see the regular season results. I want to focus on three post-strike/post-expansion teams: The 1996 and 1997 Braves, and the 2011 Phillies. I started these comparisons by looking at Cy Young Award Vote-getters, but I decided that data was too subjective, as it was looking for a single best player, and not a best rotation, and that lead me to the Pitching WAR scoreboard over at Baseball-Reference.com.
The 2011 Phillies put together one of the most remarkable pitching staffs we’ve seen in a generation, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combining for 24.1 WAR that season. Halladay and Lee hardly walked anyone, and though Clayton Kershaw topped many individual categories, the Phillies’ 1-2-3 punch was substantial. Lee threw six complete game shutouts, and Halladay added eight complete games of his own. It’s hard to imagine a more dominant three-man combination.
When it comes to dominant rotations, though, you have to look at the 1990s Braves. The 1997 Braves combo of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle combined for 22.6 WAR, representing the second, fifth, eighth and ninth positions on the NL board for that season. The 1996 Braves combo of Smoltz, Maddux, Neagle and Glavine put up 26.2 WAR, representing second through fifth positions on the board.
Both of those are just absolutely staggering marks, and there’s a reason that Glavine and Maddux are in the Hall of Fame, and Smoltz was just selected.
I’m not saying that the 2015 Nationals are guaranteed be any of those three, but I am saying that this is their best chance at becoming something unique and wonderful for the fans to watch. I, for one, look forward to seeing how a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister will handle a year together. There isn’t an “easy” day in there for the opponents.
Hell, there isn’t even a “just medium-hard” day in there.
If you use the 2014 numbers, Scherzer, Roark, Zimmermann, and Fister would have combined for 20.5 WAR, representing the fourth, seventh, eighth and 10th positions on the NL leader board for pitcher WAR. When you consider that Roark is likely the odd man out, the Nationals rotation combined for 15.2 WAR across the other four starters, which goes to 21.2 WAR when Scherzer gets figured in. For comparison’s sake, the reigning World Champion Giants’ rotation in 2014 ended up with about 8.8 WAR.
The biggest question become: What do you do when you have six pitchers for a five-man rotation? How does Tanner Roark handle a move to the long relief slot in the bullpen? Do you execute a trade for more offense now, and if so, whom?
Zimmermann’s name has been mentioned on the hot stove all winter long as a pending free agent at the end of the year. Over the weekend, media reports said the Nats would listen to offers for Strasburg. Roark has the most cost-certain number of years. Fister is an impending free agent himself. And even the almost-forgotten Gio Gonzalez was mentioned early in the offseason as a potential target for some teams.
These are all impossibly weird questions to consider for a team that was, five years ago, losing ninety to a hundred games a year.
The Nationals are a franchise that has now made the commitment to go for broke in the 2015 season, betting that a championship now — where none have existed in the District in almost twenty-five years — would be the sort of generational uplift that a newer team needs to make for an immensely profitable enterprise, and not just the sort that makes several million in profit. This is a commitment to winning a whole generation of young fans and commit them to a club for decades to come, and it’s the sort of thing that a baseball team needs more than ever right now in a football-heavy market in a time when baseball’s popularity has been on the wane.
The structure of Scherzer’s deal suggests that the Nationals are using this as an uplift contract — much as they did with Jayson Werth’s deal, which has largely proved worth its asking price — with some of the money deferred over the 2022-2028 timeframe. It’s impressive to think that my son, who is barely walking at this point, will be in high school before the deal is paid off, but that’s what has me thinking this deal was a statement to the rest of the players, the division foes, and the league. That statement is unequivocal at this point: this is the year the Nationals go the distance.
Is it enough? Can a team with dominant pitching and a good-if-not-world-class offense go on to win it all?
Suffice to say: this is rarified air, and the sort of thing that can get you deep into the playoffs. But none of those three previous teams won all the marbles. The 1997 Braves lost the NLCS to the Florida Marlins, a team with 10 fewer regular season wins. The 2011 Phillies didn’t make it past the Cardinals in the NLDS, who had 12 fewer regular season wins. The 1996 Braves lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Stellar pitching isn’t the entire playoff picture. They’re not going to win it all based on pitching alone, but without that pitching, this isn’t a team that gets anywhere close.