Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, and Tom Gorzelanny were the pitchers who took the mound for the first five games of the 2011 season for the Washington Nationals. One season later, and the opening day rotation lined up Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler.
Four out of five starters is a significant change and two of them had never thrown a pitch in the Nationals organization before 2012. The man responsible for this vast turnover and vast improvement, Mike Rizzo, deserves to be considered the National League’s Executive of the Year.
In 2011, the Nationals’ pitching staff was in the top half of the NL, allowing 3.99 runs a game. But their starters as a unit ranked 20th in baseball in wins above replacement. There was no denying that starting pitching was something that had to be improved if the Nationals hoped to be a contending team. Improving the starting pitching became the primary goal of Rizzo during the winter of 2011.
On Dec. 23, 2011, Rizzo gave Nationals fans an early Christmas present when he completed a trade that sent Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris, and A.J. Cole to Oakland for Gonzalez. At first, it looked like the Nationals had given up a lot to get a high strikeout pitcher with control issues who had pitched his entire career in a pitcher’s park.
As Nationals fans have seen more and more of Gonzalez in 2012 and as he has worked with Steve McCatty to lower his walks per nine innings from 4.4 with Oakland to 3.4 with Washington, the trade is looking like a real winner for the Nationals. It is made even better by the fact that Rizzo locked Gonzalez up almost as soon as the trade was completed to a more-than-reasonable contract that never pays him more than $12 million a year. To understand how much of a bargain this contract has a chance to be, consider that Cole Hamels at 3.3 WAR is almost a win worse than Gonzalez for the 2012 season and just signed a $144 million, six-year extension with the Philles.
As rumors swirled around the Nationals and Prince Fielder, another Scott Boras client was being ignored by most of baseball. As the season approached, the four-year $60 million contract sought by Jackson was never in sight. Jackson, left with two choices, could either accept a three-year deal not close to the dollar figure he wanted and pitch in Pittsburgh or Baltimore, or he could take a one-year, $11 million deal to pitch in Washington for a season, prove his value, and hit the free-agent market in a better position a year later.
Jackson doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, partly because he has been the fifth-best starter for the Nationals in 2012. But a lot of the team’s 9-14 record in games he starts has to do with low run support (3.78 runs per game), and blown saves (three). Averaging 6.26 innings a start, Jackson pitches deeper into ballgames than any other Nationals starter. His ability to eat innings has helped to keep the bullpen fresh so that Davey Johnson can limit the innings of the young members of the rotation; Strasburg, Zimmermann and Detwiler.
Before the season started, there was a big debate about who the Nationals’ fifth starter would be. Some believed it wasn’t a debate at all because the Nationals had re-signed Chien-Ming Wang, and why would they do that if they didn’t intend for him to pitch. Then when Wang was lost to a hamstring injury, Johnson told the media that Lannan was his guy. There was only one small problem. Detwiler was outpitching Lannan in spring training.
Ever since Detwiler realized that the key to his success was to pound the strikezone with his 94-mph sinking fastball, he has had success. At 52.8 percent, Detwiler’s ground ball rate is higher than it has ever been in his career, and his swinging strike percentage of 6.8 is also the highest it has ever been. The key to success for Detwiler has been trusting his stuff and letting it go in the strike zone, and it is Rizzo who has given him the chance to do so in 2012.
Not many teams see this type of turnover in their starting rotations, but not many teams go from 59 wins to 69 wins to 80 wins to on pace for 100 wins. The job Rizzo has done with the Washington Nationals deserves recognition, and Rizzo deserves to be considered Executive of the Year.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.