The Nationals took some chances this offseason, going after two potential strong arms who have suffered control issues in their young careers. Counting on their own young talent to supplement the reinforcements left most analysts expecting growing pains from the Washington franchise. The team has been a nice surprise, and with a playoff-contending Orioles team right next door, there is some interesting baseball to be played in August in the DC area for the first time in a long time.
The Nationals made two key pickups this offseason by adding Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez and free agent Edwin Jackson. Gonzalez was a target by many teams over the winter, but his control issues were a big question, and some wondered if leaving Oakland would hurt his numbers. Jackson had the same questions, as his control has been good some years and bad in others.
The move to the NL was sure to help Gonzalez, but while his ERA was near 3.00 the past two years, his skills suggested that mark would be closer to 4.00 in a neutral park. His home runs-per-fly ball the past two seasons averaged near eight percent, which was sure to rise when he left the AL West. That hasn’t been the case so far this season as his HR/FB has been 5.2 percent, suggesting some ability to limit home runs.
The big change has been that Gonzalez has gone from a solid strikeout pitcher with worrying walk totals to a dominating ace. His strikeouts-per-nine innings has jumped from 7.67 in 2009 to 8.78 in 2011 and has climbed again in 2012 to 10.62 through 107.2 innings. That improvement, on top of a slight drop in walks, has given him a 3.02 K/BB this year, far and away the best mark of his career.
For those worried about his strikeout rate being unsustainable, Gonzalez has some positive signs above and beyond simply moving to the NL. His velocity has increased for the second straight season, and his drop in contact rate seems to go with the lower contact rate of NL hitters.
The addition of Jackson has not been as stellar, but he is a solid addition and is giving them fair value for his contract. He is clearly a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but Jackson’s 3.89 ERA is thirtieth among starters in the NL with qualified innings. That’s a fair return for the Nationals’ $11 million owed to Jackson this season.
Unlike Gonzalez, it appears Jackson is pitching much the same as he did last season. His strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical, and his groundball rate is, as well. He has seen some luck with a BABIP of .251, but it shouldn’t worry the Nationals too much.
Depending on the outcome of the 2012 campaign, the Nationals probably would love to bring Jackson back next season on a similar deal, but with Scott Boras running the show, that seams unlikely. While he has been solid this season, Jackson is going to be 29 next season, and signing him to a long-term deal at similar money to this one would be a mistake.
The returning pitchers
The Nationals had some injury concerns with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Also, Ross Detwiler has never topped 100 innings in the majors. Strasburg is the staff ace and while he has dominated this season, his velocity is still down a bit from his first season in 2010. His long-term health should be a question mark, but the encouraging signs are all there. He has returned to strikeout rates over 30 percent and is not walking hitters often, which frequently is an issue after Tommy John surgery.
The one pitcher who looks to be pitching well beyond his skill right now is Zimmermann. His ERA stands at 2.48, but his numbers just don’t look like he can sustain that for the rest of the year. His strikeout rate and walk rate are both similar or slightly worse than last season. This isn’t all bad, as no one went in expected anything near this from Zimmermann. His FIP of 3.59 is something much closer to what you would have called a “good” season for Zimmermann and what we should expect in the second half.
The Nationals rotation hasn’t been just luck and surprise. They are a really good staff who have only youth to limit their expectations. There maybe some hiccups in the second half, but the rotation should be strong enough to keep Washington in the NL East title race. The offense, on the other hand, may be limited and will need to show some improvement to make a playoff run. The fact that Strasburg is the sixth-best player based on positional WAR and Zimmermann is tenth should be sign enough that the offense must get better.