This has been a great week to be a Nats fan living in Chicago, let me tell you. All corners of the Windy City are ablaze with #HotTakes as talking heads and fans alike panic about the Nationals’ B-team going to Wrigley and taking care of the Cubs in two of three games. For good reason, too: Erick Fedde shut down everyone besides Willson Contreras and “closer of the future” Carl Edwards Jr gave up a grand slam to light-hitting Matt Wieters, neither of which inspires confidence about a ball club. While ESPN Radio Chicago spent the week with entire afternoons dedicated to lamenting the Grand Canyon-like gap between the Nats and Cubs, rational thinkers considered the true impact of a series two months before an NLDS game with at least a half-dozen major contributors not playing a single inning. Some immediately said that nothing about it mattered at all, but I got to wondering: Did Washington actually luck out by not allowing their likely playoff foe to see the top of the rotation?
My assumption was that pitchers would fare worse if their opponent had seen them recently. Film is helpful, but it pales in comparison to actually being in the box seeing a pitcher’s release point and spin. I wanted to see if the numbers actually support the theory. With that in mind, I totaled all starts in 2017 that those three made against teams they had faced within the last two calendar months: five total starts for Gio Gonzalez (including New York, Philly, Atlanta, and Miami twice), eight for Stephen Strasburg (Cincy, Philly twice, New York twice, Atlanta three times), and six for Max Scherzer (Philly, Arizona, New York twice, and Atlanta twice).
Gio Gonzalez’s first start against these teams: 25 1/3 innings, 2.49 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 6.8 K/9.
Gio Gonzalez in subsequent starts within two months: 34 2/3 innings, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.5 K/9.
Stephen Strasburg’s first: 26 innings, 4.50 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.7 K/9.
Strasburg subsequently: 47 2/3 innings, 3.02 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.2 K/9.
Max Scherzer’s first: 27 2/3 innings, 2.28 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 12.0 K/9.
Scherzer subsequently: 37 2/3 innings, 5.02 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 12.0 K/9.
What does this all tell us? Gio Gonzalez was slightly worse in his first start against these teams, not to mention incredibly lucky when you look at how few runs scored with all of those baserunners. Strasburg’s first time ERA is pretty glaring, but the small sample size magnifies one of his worst starts: a five inning start the first time he faced the Reds, where he gave up five runs on eight hits. Still, you certainly cannot say that neither Gio nor Stras were in any way more beatable when a team faced them recently.
Max Scherzer, on the other hand, aligns with the original line of thinking. His repeat battles often left him battered with an ERA in replacement-level territory. When you think about what makes Scherzer so good, this makes sense. Swing-and-miss stuff works best when players are confused, which is less likely to happen the more someone faces Scherzer. Some of his best starts this year have been against non-NL East teams: Scherzer shut down the Dodgers in LA across seven innings, threw a complete game against the lowly Giants, and worked six strong against the Cubs in June. He has given up three or more earned runs six times this year. Five against NL East teams, and once against the Diamondbacks — the second time he faced them this year.
Of all the starters who may have benefited from avoiding the Cubs in Chicago, Scherzer is the only one you can make that argument for. Of course, the best argument against that is last year’s NLDS: Scherzer struggled in Game 1, but rebounded six days later to hold the Dodgers to just one run on five hits.
Essentially, trying to take away anything from an early August series where none of the Nationals’ top three starters, starting shortstop, or starting left fielder were playing is somewhat pointless. The best takeaway might be that Washington has depth that any team in the league would envy. If you think it was an advantage that the Cubs didn’t get to see the front of the rotation, feel free. But know that regardless of success or failure in the first half of October, who pitched in a trio of midday games on the North Side in August had no real impact.Tags: Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Nationals, Nats, Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals