Nationals Baseball: An embarrasment of pitches

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An embarrasment of pitches

With Edwin Jackson's gem two nights ago (that would have likely beat the Jays regardless of Morrow's status) the Nats #1-#4 starters have ERA+s of 130 or higher. That's fancy stat shorthand for - they got 4 really good to great starters.  That got me thinking. Has there ever been a staff this good? And this young? (Assuming they can keep this up the whole year).  Digging around I came up with a couple of fun facts. 

Fun Fact #1 : If my research is correct there's only been two other teams to have a rotation like this (4 guys, ERA+>=130, all qualify for ERA title) in the last 100 years: the 1997 Atlanta Braves and the 1942 Detroit Tigers. A war year team and our generations signature squad for great starting pitching.

Fun Fact #2 : Leaving Edwin out of it (because he's slightly older and not beholden to the team after this season) the Nats have 3 pitchers age 26 or younger that have ERA+s of 130 or higher.  The only team since 1995 to meet that criteria?  The 2003 Chicago Cubs.

But we're having fun with endpoints here.  I could probably tighten a restriction here and make the Nats squad look like the best ever, or loosen a restriction there and lump this rotation with a bunch of good, but not special squads.  What we really want to see is who recently has had a pitching staff that's this young and this good?

So abitrarily I decided to look at teams with 3 pitchers, age 27 or younger, with ERA+s over 120 and at least 150 IP (to not leave out a good rookie - or Strasburg esque part time pitcher).  And I went from 1980 because that's about when I can talk with first hand knowledge.  Here's the teams a I found and how they did.

1985 Mets
  • Dwight Gooden (20), Sid Fernandez (22), Ron Darling (24)
  • Together until 1991, Fernandez and Gooden until 1993
  • 2 playoffs appearances, 1 WS appearance, 1 Championship
This was a different time really.  These guys never had the advantage of the WC and during their 7 year run together they'd have 4 2nd place finishes to go along with the 2 division titles. Suffice to say in modern times they might have looked even better.  As far as the talent goes this might actually be the least impressive group here.  While 1985 looked magical, neither Darling or Fernandez were elite pitchers during their time together.  Darling became average after a great '86, while Fernandez would have his best years starting with 1991. We all know the story of Doctor K (Not to be confused with John "The K Doctor" Patterson).

1993 Braves
  • Greg Maddux (27), Tom Glavine (27), Steve Avery (23)
  • Together until 1996, Maddux and Glavine until 2002
  • Until 2002 - 9 playoffs appearances, 3 WS appearance, 1 Championship
The Braves of this era go right up there with any starting staffs you can name. The only thing that keeps the franchise from being lauded is a lack of championships, but any fan that doesn't sign up for this level of success is a fool. Avery would get injured at the end of 1993 and would never really be the same but that hardly mattered.  Maddux and Glavine would go on to Hall of Fame careers and would be joined by another possible Hall of Famer when John Smoltz when he finally put it together in 1995 (at age 28).  The Braves would go on to have a 4 year run of the best starting pitching you'd ever see, where arguably each of their top 3 pitchers put up a #1 type season every year.  Eventually, an injury would force Smoltz to the pen to end the run.

1993 White Sox
  • Alex Fernandez (23), Wilson Alverez (23), Jack McDowell (27)
  • Together until 1994, Fernandez and Alvarez until 1996
  • 1 playoffs appearance
The 1993 White Sox? Really?  Yep, really. This team doesn't stand out in our collective memory because of circumstance.  After losing to the Blue Jays in 1993 playoffs, they'd finish first in the strike year. Then McDowell, due up for a big contract, was dealt away.  The Indians would rise and make the Sox perennial also rans, thanks also in part to some very terrible staffs behind Wilson and Alex. Fernandez would walk away after 1996 and Alvarez would be dealt away in the "White Flag" trade of 1997 where a competitive Sox team would "No Mas" a run at the Wild Card.  All three of these were pretty talented pitchers but all three would see injuries around 30 derail their careers. Only Alvarez would pitch past age 31.

2001 A's
  • Tim Hudson (25), Mark Mulder (23), Barry Zito (23)
  • Together until 2004
  • 4 playoffs appearances
Not quite Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, but possibly the best we've seen since then. The A's are probably best known for Billy "Moneyball" Beane's GMing during this time, but any knowledgable baseball fan will tell you it was the development of these three into stars that made the A's. They never could get to the World Series but were one of the dominant teams as long as these three were pitching.  Zito was the least successful of the three - slowly fading over time into an average pitcher. Mulder would be pretty good as long as he was with the A's and Hudson was (and is) very special. After 2004 the small market A's would let Hudson walk and would deal Mulder, up for his own FA deal soon, to the Cardinals. Mulder would end up getting injured in 2006 and be out of baseball at age 30.

2003 Cubs
  • Mark Prior (22), Kerry Wood (26), Carlos Zambrano (22)
  • Together until 2006
  • 1 playoffs appearance 
Oh the 2003 Cubs. Their only playoff appearance would be this very season as they'd watch an emotional implosion cost them a game they should have won that would have sent them to the World Series.  They'd actually win more games in 2004 but finish behind a great Cardinals team and the Astros. After that injuries to the pitching and a terribly constructed offense would make them an afterthought.  The injuries mean that it's not fair to say that the Cubs had these three together at any time after 2003.  Prior would have only one more decently full season in 2005. He'd lose most of 04 and 06 and then never pitch again.  Wood would be injured in 2004 but still do ok, then he'd pitch only 110 innings over the next 3 years before converting to a closer. Zambrano would continue to pitch well and still is today, though now for the Marlins. 

What do these glimpses tell us about the Nats young guns?  I'd say this. The Nats will be real lucky if they don't lose one to injury. Fully half these guys after the Mets saw their careers ended way too early by injury. That's gotta be the biggest concern to any Nats fan. Bad luck or bad medical staff work (uh oh) blowing this all up before it can even really get started.  Still, if that does happen then it's not automatically a death knell for a team. How well the rest of the squad is constructed plays a huge role in if they can continue to be a factor.  Put together a decent offense like the White Sox did and you might stay relevant. Let everything go to pot like the Cubs and you are going to find yourself a mess.  If the Nats do get real lucky though, and they could, the A's and Mets did, and have all three for all of 2012-2016 it's a recipe for sustained success, even if one or two of Strasburg, Gio, and ZNN likely show themselves to be more good pitchers than great ones.

But for sustained excellence, like the 90's Braves, which has to be seen as the ultimate goal, you need everything.  You need the health. You need the pitching to be great not just good. You need the good bullpen. You need the good offense. That last one is the key for this franchise because for the most part the Nats have the pen and back of the rotation covered (and developing into great pitchers year after year involves some luck).  Going forward if the Nats want to be a dynasty there is more work to be done. Bryce Harper is step one.


Ryan said...

this is a fantastic post

DezoPenguin said...

It's nice to read about good news, and the Nats rotation this year certainly qualifies as good news. Boras is starting to look brighter than advertised (...probably that shouldn't be all that surprising) with EJax on that one-year deal, since if he keeps pitching like he has this year he'll get that big multi-year from someone, maybe even the Nats (lack of wins may not win over the fans, but sensible baseball people won't be fooled).

Wally said...

Ditto on Ryan's 'great post'.

And kind of following up on a comment I made several posts back: if you could lock up EJax for 3/$40m, would you do it? He has taken a step forward this year, but his improvement had been happening over the last several years, so the 'flash in the pan' risk isn't too large.

I'd do that deal (not sure EJax would), since I think it is good value plus and he looks like a cut above any alternative currently within the system. Also, it is a hedge against the injury to the top 3.

Section 222 said...

Anytime a player is great for a month, there are calls to lock him up long term. That's silly. I love E-Jax. He's a great addition to our young trio. But his history has to make you cautious about a long term deal. At the very least, let him go the whole season and then make a decision. As Wally suggested, he's not going to go for a 3 year deal at this moment anyway, and it would be lunacy to offer him any more than, at least until he keeps up his current pace, or something close to it, for the whole season.

If he does keep it up, my guess is the Nats offer him a 3 year deal for lots of money, maybe even $50 million. And if he wants to be part of a rotation that could go to the playoffs all three years, he might just take it. But with the the big 3 under contract, and the kind of pitching we have coming up through the system, there's no reason to offer him more than 4 year deal.

WiredHK said...

Very good post, thanks for putting this together. If these guys are who we think they are (go ahead, say it in Dennis Green's famous voice) AND they can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.

A sidenote, crazy random thought - for this year anyway - EJax salary is roughly equal to that of Stras, Gio and ZNN, combined.

blovy8 said...

Yeah, at the very least, it looks like an arbitration offer to EJ to qualify for compensation if he turns it down will not be silly.

Harper, two of the top guys have already had TJ surgery, you think that's lucky? So in order for the Gods to be appeased Gio must also be sacrificed?

The 90s Braves comparison is looking really good, but I happen to like Davey as a manager a lot more than Cox, and they always seemed to have bullpen problems, which have not been the case here, so maybe the Nats are in even better shape.

Froggy said...


Just when I'm about to kick you to the curb because of your closet AL East allegiance, you come up with a really interesting post like this and lure me back in...dang!

Help me out since I'm not a Watson/Deep Blue statistic guy, would you explain the ERA+ formula again?

Harper said...

Ryan / Wally - thanks

Dezo - The Nats rotation is what happens when no one disappoints. EJAX is on to his best year ever - so I guess Boras is smart and can see the future.

Wally - No. Well really - not assuming they aren't becoming the Yanks/Sox. I don't think he's a flash in the pan but I do feel like this may end up being his best year, and one common thread you see looking at these pitchers is a lot of injuries around that 30 year old range. So if money has to be spent somewhere I'd prefer a either a hitter or Greinke (personal pref and more historically awesome). But all best are off if the Lerner's are fine adding a ton to the payroll. Sign him then.

222 - I don't see a 3 year deal. Werth and Zimm are the only ones with deal that long right? 2 year - good money.

Wired - If you think about it I looked at 700-800 team/years and found 5 examples. What the Nats have is special. Also something to think about - only one, the White Sox, would repeat this level of pitching the next season. (the A's would do it again in 2003, Maddux and Glavine would do it a bunch with Smoltz but not Avery) so again - special collection of guys having a special year.

blovy - you know I didn't look at these guys before they got to this year. Perhaps some of them also overcame injury. I like Davey too but the Braves had much better offense, typically above average scoring runs.

Kenny B. said...

Let me echo the "fantastic post" sentiments. The analogy of Nats:2010s::Braves:1990s is pretty exciting to think about.

In any case the comparisons you make in this post are illustrative of why this team has caught so much attention lately, and why the outsize focus on Harper is somewhat misguided. Harper's an amazing addition and fun to watch, but as you've said repeatedly, the pitching is the story. It has continued to be consistently incredible, and barring injury, it seems sustainable. And as noted in comments above, two of the top three have already had TJ and come back as excellent pitchers, so by the law of averages we may be covered on major injuries.

This team is so likable, it seems opposing fans almost enjoy it when we beat them. I've seen a lot of very positive comments from other teams' fans around the interwebz.

Harper said...

Froggy - Closet AL East allegiance? I am out and proud! Waving my rainbow Yankee flag in the AL East Pride parade!

ERA+ adjusts mainly for the league average ERA with an adjustment for ballpark. So a guy with a ERA that matched the league average in a park that showed itself to be equally fair to pitchers and hitters would have an ERA+ of 100. It's not perfect because ERA can at times be flukey, but it works well enough.

Personally I think around 120 is where you get into the very good seasons.

Harper said...

Kenny B - positive comments come more from being a loser for so long. Trust me, Nats win division this year and in 2013, and are making a push in 2014 and other team fans will find reasons to hate Nats fans.

Nattydread said...

2014? That's way too far in the future. But we will get used to winning and we will get obnoxious about it.

Great article.

4/5 of the Nats rotation got the win over the past 5 games. How often do all 5 in the rotation get consecutive wins? When was the last time it happened with the Nats?

Nattydread said...

2014? That's way too far in the future. But we will get used to winning and we will get obnoxious about it.

Great article.

4/5 of the Nats rotation got the win over the past 5 games. How often do all 5 in the rotation get consecutive wins? When was the last time it happened with the Nats?

blovy8 said...

I think there are some vague parallels, that worst to first team that lost to the Twins in 7 didn't have Maddux or a lot of later offensive players like Chipper and Andruw Jones, or Javy Lopez. The middle of their order was something like Pendleton, Justice, Gant, and Bream. They scored a good amount of runs but Fulton County was a great hitters' park. Glavine, Smoltz, Avery and Leibrandt carried that team with Pendleton having a really good year, but an undeserved MVP over Bonds. Talk about lucky - they got 141 starts from four guys. That's guaranteed not to happen for the Nats.

Hoo said...

So the take-away is darn the future and plan to win it all by 2014 b/c odds are someone is really hurt in the next few years?

Could I possibly counter that in the 25 years since the '86 mets that surgery has come a long way and pitchers can have a better career?

Wally said...

Sec 222 - on EJax, my comment wasn't based on 1 fantastic month (not sure if you addressed that to me). He has been above average the last three years, with WARs of 3.6/3.8/3.8.

I think that there is even a decent argument that his results this year are mostly in line with the last three years. ERA is better (as is BABiP which will likely cause both to regress), but everything else is mostly in line with the past.

If the Nats decided to invest even more heavily in pitching, and could pick between 5/$125m for Greinke or 3/$45m for EJax (and that is more than I would offer EJax), I think EJax is the better deal. But as I think that we both said, it is mostly moot since I doubt he bites (and 3 years is all that I would offer him). But with hamels and Greinke out there this offseason, who knows? Maybe they get a good result in the MASN fees suit and they throw it out there.

I do think that over the next three years, he is substantially better than any internal option like Lannan, Rosenbaum, Purke, Meyer, ... Beyond that no, but that is partly why I wouldn't go beyond 3 years.

Anonymous said...

An embarassment of Pitches? or Pitchers?

Section 222 said...

Wally, I wasn't picking on you. Lots of folks on NatsInsider also want to lock up E-Jax. Seems to me that most long term deals entered into in the middle of a season are a mistake. Thank goodness Rizzo didn't cave to Riggs for example.

I think we're pretty much in agreement about the value of E-Jax. We should have the inside track to keep him, whereas there will be lots of suitors for Greinke and Hamels. If he has a good season for playoff bound team like us (knock on wood), I'll bet he'll get offers for more than 2 years (he got a three year offer from the Pirates last fall and turned it down). So we're going to have to come up with three or more years and big money. I think he's worth it, for no more than 4 years. And he might just want to stay -- he seems to be having a great time on this staff.

Donald said...

The one quibble is with the age dimension. It's great that they are having fabulous seasons AND they are young, but there are a bunch of examples of teams that had 3-4 great pitchers for a season or two.

Anonymous said...

Your Prediction through the end of inter-league play: 16-17
My Prediction: 18-15 (I knew I shouldn't buy into the AL East as an intimidating force)

Record so far: 15-8, 9 games left. They need to go 2-7 to get back near the pace you set, and 4-5 for mine.

This is what happens when I let people tell me the AL East is actually good. I knew the Nats would steamroll these clowns. Wait til they take 2 of 3 (at least) from your precious Yankees.

Johnny Snakehead said...

You are insane. You ask, "Has there ever been a staff this good?" and you barely even consider anything before the year 2000. How can you ask that question and not bring up the O's staffs of the early 70's? Look, Stras and Gio are great, and EJ, Zimmermann and Detwiler are all pretty good (and I hope wang gets in the act), and they may have four guys close to winning 20 games (which needs help from a potent offense, I admit), but to not even mention the O's staff of Palmer/Cuellar/Dobson/McNally that actually DID win 20 each is just plain silly. I mean, come on. And look, I am a Washingtonian and a big homer. But you can't ask that question and then not address THE most obvious example.

Ben said...

Before raging, you should read the criteria he was setting.

As for the resigning Edwin AND going after Hamels/Greinke pipe dream, that would bring up a pretty interesting "downside", how would you showcase any of your ready-for-the-bigs pitching prospects that you'd want to trade to upgrade the offense? That is, if you have 5 front of the rotation starters the value of your farm probably goes down a little bit, haha.

Also, count me in the camp of no long term Edwin contract, smells like a classic baseball FA year to me. Though I guess if he was a playoff beast the Nats end up overpaying and everybody still feels good about it.

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harper said...

ND - I don't know. Not this year - this is only the 2nd 5 game winning streak the team has had and it didn't happen then. My guess is it's pretty rare in general.

blovy8 - no but give the Nats 120 and I don't see the Nats missing the playoffs

Hoo - not necessarily, more like plan for injuries by making everything else good. Don't settle for what the Nats have now - make it better because you don't know what's going to happen.

Anon - I was trying to rhyme with "An embarrassment of riches". I'm not the most clever man.

Donald - the age was a needed restriction though - I wanted to compare the Nats to staff to see historically how young good staffs turn out. Less prone to injury (supposedly), less prone to decline, less likely to be in last couple years of contract. They wouldn't compare well with a staff of a 31 33 and 34 years old (but you're right I'm sure we'd see dozens if I loosened that

Anon - My prediction is pretty much screwed unless the Nats play their worst baseball of the year in the next 2 weeks. Oh well.

As for the AL East, by any objective standard the AL East is either the best or 2nd best division in baseball. That doesn't mean the Dodgers and Nats might be better than everyone in the AL though. As for taking 2 of 3 from the Yanks - sure. They've actually done it both other years they've played them when the Yanks were clearly better and the Nats were losing to everyone. Anything can happen in 3 games

Snake - Really the article ended up being about young staffs that were this good, which meant no 70's O's. As for the question - is this the best staff ever - that's just unanswerable right now. If the Nats kept this up they'll have arguably the best SEASON a staff might have had but they have to keep this up for another 60% of the season and that doesn't make them necessarily the best staff ever. They'd have to have repeated success. Don't worry I'm not putting them up with the 70s O's just yet.

Ben - wouldn't worry about the showcasing - if they are killing it in AA or AAA the other teams will be biting. (and as I kind of get by your tone - if you do have all those 5 you aren't really worrying about anything)

Harper said...

Anon - I mean "That doesn't mean the Dodgers and Nats aren't better than everyone in the AL though."

Chuck said...

As a Mets fan since '62, I've been through it all, so I can empathize with the struggles Washington has gone through, especially without the occasional peaks the Mets have had, and especially for decades without any team to root for. And yes, I still remember the old Washington Senators. I am glad for the Nationals, that things are looking so well nowadays. I even applaud the decision to bring in Davey Johnson to manage this club. That was a good decision. I wish your team well, except for when they're playing the Mets! God bless!

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain this ERA > 130 stat? I thought ERA = Earned Run Average, that is 9 x (earned runs / innings pitched)

Harper said...

Chuck - Good luck to the Mets too - having a surprisingly good year so maybe they can sneak into the WC

Anon - this is ERA+ not ERA.

ERA+ adjusts mainly for the league average ERA with an adjustment for ballpark. So a guy with a ERA that matched the league average in a park that showed itself to be equally fair to pitchers and hitters would have an ERA+ of 100.

A simple way of thinking about it is (League ERA / Pitcher ERA)*100 so if I had an ERA of 2.00 and the league ERA was 4.00 I'd have an ERA+ of 200 (4/2*100). That's not exactly what it is but it's most of it.

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