What It Will Take for Nationals to Become True Historic 'Super Rotation'

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 6, 2015

Included among the requirements are Max Scherzer (L) being himself, and Stephen Strasburg (R) making a much-needed improvement.
Included among the requirements are Max Scherzer (L) being himself, and Stephen Strasburg (R) making a much-needed improvement.David Goldman/Associated Press

As soon as the world learned the Washington Nationals were adding Max Scherzer to an already awesome rotation, the word started to circulate:

"Historic."

Understandably so, as a starting five of Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and—assuming he beats out Tanner Roark—Gio Gonzalez does look like a Super Rotation on paper. Only Gonzalez wasn't a top-10 Cy Young finisher in 2014, and he of course finished third in the 2012 voting.

Predictably, however, Nationals skipper Matt Williams doesn't want to hear "historic" just yet.

“The word 'historic,' I don’t think we can put in our vocabulary at this point,” Williams told Tom Schad of The Washington Times. “We haven’t gotten there yet. This is spring training. We don’t know. All we have to do is look to last year to know that we don’t know what can happen.”

He's right, you know. There's a long way to go between now and the end of 2015. And if this rotation is going to take its place in history, much will have to go right.

First, it almost goes without saying that all five projected starters will have to stay healthy. In and of itself, that's a potential deal-breaker. Strasburg isn't known for his durability, and both Fister and Gonzalez spent time on the disabled list in 2015.

But if we go out on a limb and take good health for granted, then the Washington Super Rotation taking its place in history will simply come down to the individual performances.

To that end, what the Nationals will need is...

More of the Same from Scherzer, Zimmermann and Gonzalez

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

It certainly doesn't look like Scherzer or Zimmermann need to change anything. Scherzer owns a 3.02 ERA since 2013, and Zimmermann is coming off a 2.66 ERA. Clearly, they're among the class of the league.

But just as important is how they got there and how they're going to stay there.

In Scherzer's case, it's easy to conclude that his recent dominance was borne out of him getting control of his power stuff, as he's gone from a 3.0 BB/9 between 2008 and 2012 to a 2.5 BB/9 since 2013.

But as Brooks Baseball can vouch, Scherzer's dominance also stems largely from his not relying on his pure power. His fastball usage has dropped every year, and he's also incorporated a curveball as an extra weapon against left-handed batters. 

Obviously, mixing power stuff with good command and an unpredictable pitch selection has made Scherzer an elite strikeout artist. What it hasn't done for him yet is make him a good contact manager, but FanGraphs' Tony Blengino argues he's not entirely to blame for that:

...[Scherzer] has not been the historically bad [contact manager] that his actual numbers say he is. His team defense has hurt him quite a bit over the years, and his ability to manage fly ball authority has gradually trended positively.

Per Defensive Runs Saved, Scherzer pitched to the third-worst outfield defense in baseball last year. Washington's outfield defense wasn't good in its own right, but it was about 20 runs better than Detroit's.

Scherzer's fly-ball habit should benefit from that improvement. If it does, his ability to miss bats, limit walks and pitch to contact could push him further up the ranks of MLB's elite hurlers.

As for Zimmermann, his outlook is less complicated.

Zimmermann always had great stuff and command before, but he somehow avoided being overpowering. That changed in 2014, as he upped his K/9 rate to a career-best 8.20 and pushed his infield pop-up rate to a career-best 14.2 percent. 

The trick? High fastballs and lots of them.

BaseballSavant.com can vouch that Zimmermann threw a ton of high heaters in 2014, and that they accounted for almost all the whiffs and all the pop-ups he drew with his heater. Further, his dominance with high heat opened up the door for his curve, slider and changeup to do work down low.

So whereas Scherzer's recent dominance has come from less predictable pitch selection, Zimmermann's has come from less predictable location. More of the same should serve him well.

That brings us to Gonzalez, who you might be surprised to see in a "more of the same" discussion.

Gonzalez's control is what it is, but his style is overpowering enough to make up for it.
Gonzalez's control is what it is, but his style is overpowering enough to make up for it.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

True, Gonzalez only had a 3.57 ERA last year. But his Fielding Independent Pitching—or FIP, which measures what a pitcher's ERA should have been—was a much better 3.03. The left-hander earned that by posting a 9.19 K/9 and 3.19 BB/9 and only allowing 10 homers in close to 160 innings.

This is a repeatable performance. Gonzalez may be leaking velocity, but he helps himself by not missing over the middle with his fastball. To boot, his changeup is becoming a better righty killer every year, while his curveball continues to utterly annihilate lefties.

So, here it is. If Scherzer and Zimmermann keep doing their thing, they'll be among the best one-two combos in the league. If Gonzalez continues to do his thing, he could be the league's best No. 5 starter.

Really, the pressure is on Strasburg and Fister to step up. And that could be tricky.

How Strasburg and Fister Can Step Up

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 03:  Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants during Game One of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 3, 2014 in Washington, DC.  (P
Al Bello/Getty Images

If the first thing you look at is the 2.41 ERA that Fister authored in 2014, you're going to wonder what it is, exactly, he needs to fix. That is a pretty good ERA, after all.

Yes, it is...But it doesn't pass the smell test.

Next to Fister's 2.41 ERA in 2014 was a a 3.93 FIP. That's indicative that he required a gargantuan amount of luck to finish with such a low ERA. And beneath the surface, there's some truth to that.

Fortunately, good command is at the very bottom of Fister's list of problems.
Fortunately, good command is at the very bottom of Fister's list of problems.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

There's no complaining about the 1.32 BB/9 Fister posted, but we can complain about his 5.38 K/9 and his 48.9 ground-ball rate. Both were way down from where he was (6.86 and 54.3) in 2013, and a repeat performance in 2015 could lead to a lot of, well, bad.

Fortunately, the needed adjustment could be simple: fewer sinkers and more curveballs.

Fister went from throwing around 45 percent sinkers and 20 percent curveballs before 2014 to throwing 57 percent of the former and only 9 percent of the latter. He thus gave hitters every excuse to sit on his sinker and shunned the one pitch he had that was good for getting whiffs.

If Lady Luck isn't on Fister's side again in 2014, don't be surprised if we see him go back to his old pitch mix. If that were to mean more grounders and whiffs, he wouldn't be needing as much good fortune.

As for Strasburg, you probably already know that there's some kind of next step he needs to take.

To an extent, Strasburg already is a dominant pitcher. His power stuff makes him a sure bet for lots of strikeouts, and the 1.80 BB/9 he posted in 2014 speaks volumes about his superb command. It's no wonder he had a 3.14 ERA in 215.0 innings.

Then again, you do wonder why Strasburg seems incapable of pushing his ERA well below 3.00. And more than anything else, the answer is this:

He just plain stinks at managing contact.

Blengino broke down Strasburg's contact problems in full in an ESPN Insider article, with the main takeaway being that he has trouble specializing in ground balls or pop-ups, and that he has even more trouble minimizing hard contact on all batted ball types in between.

The suggested fixes for this include better command within the strike zone, especially with his four-seam fastball. In particular, more heaters up in the zone than, well, hardly any at all would be a good idea.

This is to say Strasburg would do well to take after Zimmermann. If he were to start throwing more high fastballs, he could start generating some weak contact to go with all his punchouts, resulting in a level of dominance everyone has been waiting for him to achieve.

So, let's say Fister and Strasburg make some adjustments while Scherzer, Zimmermann and Gonzalez continue to do their thing. How good could this rotation be then?

The 2015 Nationals vs. the Benchmarks for a Historic Rotation

Sep 28, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27) salutes the crowd after recording his final out of a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

How do you want to narrow down the best-ever starting rotations?

Well, you could use Wins Above Replacement. But since WAR is a counting stat, the all-time rankings are going to be skewed by old-timey rotations that ate Kobayashi-sized platters of innings.

You could use good ol' ERA...But nah. ERAs are tied to the run-scoring environments in which they're generated, and those have fluctuated wildly throughout baseball history.

But we do have ERA-, a FanGraphs specialty that measures ERA in relation to league average (starting at 100, and lower is better). We also have FIP-, which does the same thing for FIP. Thus, these are two stats that can tell us what it takes to be a historic rotation on strictly a rate basis.

Since 1901, there have been 19 teams whose starters have posted an ERA- of 75 or lower and 20 teams whose starters have posted a FIP- of 81 or lower. So if the Nationals rotation can beat either or both of those marks in 2015, it will have a strong claim to being one of the 20 greatest rotations ever.

Doable? Based on what Washington's five projected starters did last year...

Projected Nationals Starters in 2014
PlayerERA-FIP-
Jordan Zimmermann7372
Max Scherzer8174
Stephen Strasburg8679
Gio Gonzalez9782
Doug Fister66106
Average8183
FanGraphs

...I'd say yes.

If Washington's five starters even so much as do exactly what they did in 2014 all over again, they'll come reasonably close to throwing their hat in with the best of the best all time.

But if Scherzer, Zimmermann and Gonzalez keep doing their thing while Strasburg and Fister make some simple adjustments, there would be some corresponding improvements. And as a unit, they could push their ERA- and FIP- toward the magic numbers.

So keep that "historic" label at the ready. This Nationals rotation looks like it could be worthy of it, and we'll know in just seven short months whether or not it was.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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