Tanner Roark pitched one hell of a game last night against the San Diego Padres. The complete-game shutout was easily the best start by a Washington Nationals pitcher all season, and fortunately for the drained arms of the club’s bullpen, came one night after another excellent outing in which Stephen Strasburg logged seven scoreless innings for the first time since August of last year.
It’s this type of starting pitching that led many to believe that the Nationals would be one of the best teams in the league in 2014. Unfortunately, this type of output has not been consistently seen from Washington’s twirlers, which have left the Nats with a solid but underwhelming 14-11 record through the first 25 games this season.
Keeping them afloat has been their lineup, who has scored 113 runs this season. That’s good the third best offense in the National League. When you consider that their starting third baseman, and their starting catcher, who just so happen to hit right in the middle of their order, have been out with injuries, that’s quite an accomplishment. Tremendous contributions from guys like Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, and Adam LaRoche has helped the team rank in the top three in the league in hits, total bases, and OPS.
Where the team is struggling is that they’ve given up 101 runs on the year, which is tied with the Chicago Cubs for the third worst in the NL. To put that in perspective, while they do have a +12 run scored/allowed difference, they have given up 43 more runs than the Atlanta Braves. On the surface, that looks like a BIG problem for Washington. The Braves pitching staff will arguably only get better as their injury problems clear up, and Washington is giving up 43% more runs than their arch rivals. Pitching was supposed to be the Nats big edge against the Braves this season, but the script has been completely flipped early this year.
The good news is the writing on the wall isn’t as bad as it seems. While Washington has given up a surprisingly large number of runs early on this season, only 82 of those runs have been earned. That means that that nearly 20% of the runs they’ve allowed this year have been unearned, meaning that despite the team’s defensive woes, the club’s pitching is not as bad as it seems. The Nats currently lead the majors in errors, which given the club’s defensive history, is likely to correct itself over time. And while the Nats are giving up runs at a high rate, they are actually doing a few things very well.
Most importantly, Washington leads all of baseball in pitching strikeouts. The Nats have struck out 242 batters through their first 25 games this season, which is 13 strikeouts ahead of the No. 2 Los Angeles Dodgers. They also have the highest K/9 in the league, 9.61, and the third best K/BB, 3.23. Those numbers, plus the fact that Washington has the second lowest Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) in baseball, 3.15, point to the Nats simply being unlucky early on this year.
The takeaway here is that yes, Washington’s pitching has not dominated the way it traditionally has in the past. That being said, parts of their game, the most difficult parts, have been excellent. Other parts, such as relying on defenders and putting balls in play, have simply been an aberration of what should actually be happening. While they likely can’t continue to strike batters out at this high of a rate, their defense and luck should improve to even things out.