David Huzzard: Breaking Nats down by trips through the rotation

While it is a pleasant surprise that the Nationals have scored 126 runs and are tied with the Marlins for second in the National League in that category, it is a little alarming that they’ve allowed 108 and are tied for fourth-most with the Cubs.

The Nationals are a team built around run prevention and the season totals show a team that hasn’t done a good job of preventing many runs. The team ERA reached its zenith of 4.10 on April 17 after an 8-0 loss to the Cardinals. In those first 16 games of the season, the Nationals allowed an average of 4.6 runs per game and on eight occasions allowed five or more runs.

Half of a team’s games with that many runs allowed isn’t a recipe for winning and it had to stop if the Nationals were going to keep their record over .500. Since April 17, the Nationals have righted the ship, allowing five or more runs only once - to the Los Angeles Angels on the day Albert Pujols hit his 500th homer - and have posted a team ERA of 1.95, having allowed an average of 2.8 runs a game. This is more of the stretch that was expected from a team with a starting rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez.

It is the rotation that is the key to winning for the Nationals and after a 16-12 April with the team on pace for 92 wins, it is hard to say the Nationals have done anything wrong. Yet the starting rotation is burdened by the numbers from the first couple of weeks of April where they gave up a massive amount of runs, many of them in the first couple of innings. Eight of the Nationals’ 16 wins have been come-from-behind victories due to the starting staff’s propensity for giving up early inning runs, but that trend looks to be corrected as well.

With the key to winning for the Nationals being the starting staff, a good way to break down the season and judge how they’ve done is to look at how they’ve performed in trips through the rotation. The Nationals have skipped starters and shuffled the rotation, but it is still good to look at it in five-game segments as that is the normal trip through the rotation. More times than not during the season, the team will pitch all five starters in five consecutive games.

So far in 2014, the Nationals are 3-2, 4-1, 2-3, 2-3, 3-2, and 2-1 so far into their current set of five. The good thing about this breakdown is it shows the Nationals rotation hasn’t allowed any long losing streaks, and had one good winning stretch when the Nats won four in a row on April 6-10. Where the Nationals want to end up is winning two of every three games pitched by Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann and then splitting the games started by the bottom of the rotation. 3-2 on its own doesn’t sound like a good stretch, but the math on it works out to a 97-win pace. It is slightly better than the Nats’ current pace and leaving them with some room to make up. If the Nationals can get back on and maintain that pace, then they have a good shot at winning the division.

For the most part, the individual starters have been doing their part. The Nationals are 5-1 in games Gonzalez has pitched, and not just the games he’s won are important. Remember the 5-4 walk-off win over the Angels or the 4-3 comeback win against the Astros. Gonzalez didn’t have his best stuff in either of those games, but he still limited the damage and kept the game close into the late innings so that the Nationals offense had a chance to come back and win. Rounding out the top three, the Nationals are 4-2 in games started by Strasburg and 3-3 in games started by Zimmermann. Add it all up and the Nationals are 12-6 in games started by the big three, giving them the desired .666 winning percentage.

When it comes to the bottom of the rotation, Tanner Roark is holding up his end of the bargain with the Nationals 3-2 in games he has started, but Taylor Jordan struggled and the Nationals are 1-4 in games he started before his demotion. In total, that is a record of 4-6, or below the desired .500 mark. All this means is that Doug Fister is the key for the Nationals getting the bottom of the rotation back on a .500 pace and the Nationals back on a 97-win track. Like anything in baseball, it won’t happen quickly and in order to get to 97 wins, the Nats have to average a 3-2 record every trip through the rotation. That is about to seem a lot more doable with Fister’s imminent return.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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 regular roster of writers.

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