The Washington Nationals continue to insist they will shut down Stephen Strasburg in September.
If the Nats have imposed an innings limit of 180 on their young star, as is generally presumed, then he has approximately 30 innings remaining this season after pitching five innings in a loss to the Miami Marlins on Aug. 28.
Strasburg averages six innings per start, so that gives him about five more games to pitch this year. If he stays on a five-day rotation, assuming manager Davey Johnson doesn't move anyone around based on off-days on the schedule, Strasburg's season will end Sept. 24.
As absurd as it seems for the Nationals to go into the postseason and contend for a World Series without their best pitcher, their pitching staff is deep enough to provide another excellent pitcher to start Game 1 of a playoff series.
Gio Gonzalez has been one of the best pitchers in the National League this season, performing just as well—if not better—than Strasburg at various points throughout the year. On many other staffs, he would be the No. 1 starter.
Some might suggest Jordan Zimmermann—whose 2.63 ERA is the second best in the NL as of Aug. 29—would be a better choice to start Game 1 of any postseason series for the Nationals.
While that ERA obviously shows how effective Zimmermann has been this season, Gonzalez has performed even better, as several statistics demonstrate.
No other number might indicate Gonzalez's proficiency this season than his opponents' batting average.
As of Aug. 29, batters are hitting only .214 against Gonzalez. That's the second-best mark among major league pitchers, tied with Justin Verlander. (If a pitcher is tied in any category with Verlander, he's likely doing something very well.)
Gonzalez is equally effective versus hitters on both sides of the plate as well. There is no platoon advantage against him.
Left-handers have a triple-slash average of .218/.290/.347 in 140 plate appearances against Gonzalez. That could give the Nationals quite an advantage in a Game 1 start of any potential playoff series.
Gonzalez should be effective while facing top left-handed sluggers like the Reds' Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran, the Braves' Freddie Freeman, the Giants' Pablo Sandoval or the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.
But right-handed batters would presumably have a higher average against Gonzalez, right?
Actually, he's even better against righties, allowing a .213/.290/.304 average in 524 plate appearances.
So batters like Matt Holliday or Yadier Molina from St. Louis, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence of the Giants, Atlanta's Jason Heyward and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp don't figure to enjoy much of an advantage, either.
As could be expected from someone allowing such a low batting average, Gonzalez also allows 7.06 hits per nine innings, the second-lowest rate in the NL and third lowest in the big leagues.
With 168 strikeouts, Gonzalez has the NL's fourth-highest total. His rate of 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-best in the league, trailing Strasburg. It's also the best rate he's posted in three seasons as a regular major league starting pitcher.
In 26 starts this season, Gonzalez has allowed more than three runs in only five appearances. The most runs he's given up in a game this year is six. Gonzalez doesn't have the big meltdown and hasn't gotten knocked out early very often.
Gonzalez has pitched even better than his 3.28 ERA might indicate. He has a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 2.86, as measured by Fangraphs. The Nationals have the seventh-best team defense in baseball, according to Ultimate Zone Rating.
Yet as that FIP shows, Gonzalez has been even better when he doesn't let the ball get to his defense.
Strasburg is the Nationals' best starting pitcher. While the team's desire to protect his surgically repaired arm and not overextend him is understandable, steps could be taken to extend his season into the playoffs. Yet from all indications, the Nats fully intend to go into the postseason without him, as inconceivable as that seems.
But if any team can afford to sit Strasburg down and still contend for a World Series championship, it's the Nationals. The starting rotation goes five—even six—pitchers deep.
Gonzalez is a more than capable replacement as a Game 1 playoff starter. The argument could even be made that he should start Game 1 of any playoff series even if Strasburg was available.
It can't be said that the Nationals won't miss a beat without Strasburg because no team is the same without its No. 1 starting pitcher. But, Gonzalez has pitched like an ace this season and there's no reason to think he can't continue that level of performance during the Nats' playoff run.
If not for his presence, the Nationals might not feel as confident about shutting Strasburg down as they appear to be now.
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