Nationals winning because opponents aren’t walking

The Nationals are 8-7 with an offense that might have had its best day of the season on Sunday, pounding out two 11-hit games to raise its average for the year all the way to .226.

Their new-and-improved defense has showed increased range and athleticism across the diamond, but they entered Sunday with 11 errors for the season, the ninth-most in baseball.

They’ve tried three hitters in the leadoff spot already. Jayson Werth is slugging .382. Adam LaRoche is playing through two injuries, and Ryan Zimmerman isn’t playing at all.

But here the Nationals are, scratching out early wins for the second year in a row while waiting for things to click. And the reason they’re 8-7, after a doubleheader sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, is a simple, if unlikely one: They’ve begun the season with one of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues.

Jim Riggleman recaps the doubleheader after the Nats’ 5-1 victory over the Brewers in Game 2

It’s true, at least for the moment. This group of unspectacular veterans, mostly lacking the “stuff” that makes scouts drool and writers swoon, is the biggest reason the Nationals are winning early this year. At the moment, the staff has four pitchers who can touch 95 mph with a fastball - Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Collin Balester and Jordan Zimmermann. Balester came up from the minors on Sunday, and Zimmermann is the only one in the rotation. Stephen Strasburg won’t be back until September, at least, and the two pitchers who have worked the most are typically described with one of baseball’s most profane compliments: Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis are innings-eaters.

And yet, the staff has a 3.44 ERA through 15 games. That’s within a tenth of a run of the Phillies, who have six pitchers making more this season than Marquis, the highest-paid pitcher on the Nationals’ staff.

“It’s not about who’s got the more good-looking names,” Hernandez said. “We’re working hard, and trying to be the best.”

The great equalizer in the way the Nationals have pitched is how rarely they’ve beat themselves. They entered Sunday with the sixth-fewest walks per nine innings in baseball, and issued just three in 18 innings on Sunday. In Fielding Independent Percentage, a statistic that measures only the things pitchers directly control (homers, walks and strikeouts), the Nationals’ staff was the seventh-best in baseball before Sunday.

And the efficiency has had a direct effect on the group’s effectiveness; the Nationals are the last team in baseball to have a starter pitch at least five innings in every game this season. After the team’s bullpen worked the most innings in baseball last season, it’s pitched just 47 2/3 this season - an average of just over three per game.

“Especially when you’ve got a few-run lead, pretty much the only way you’re going to lose that game is walks or errors,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “We’re not walking people. We’ve played two good games on defense, and those are the results you get.”

Ever since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager in early 2009, the Nationals have been moving toward having a pitch-to-contact staff. Steve McCatty replaced Randy St. Claire as pitching coach in June 2009, and has made that a staple of his philosophy his entire time in the job. The Nationals issued the most walks per nine innings in baseball in 2009, and dropped to ninth last year. Early this season, they’ve been even better, largely because that pitch-to-contact approach is working the way it’s supposed to.

The commonly-held belief in baseball is that sinkerballers - and the Nationals have plenty of them - rely on quick contact and weak groundouts because they don’t have the stuff to strike people out. But even Zimmermann, the one Nationals starter with wipeout stuff, has been in on the act. Under strict pitch limits in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, he’s thrown just 268 pitches in 18 1/3 innings this season, striking out fewer batters, but also spending less time racking up his pitch counts. He even got more grounders than fly balls in his last start, where he took a perfect game into the sixth inning.

Hernandez, Marquis and John Lannan have to pitch that way because they’re not going to overwhelm many hitters. But they’ve all got ERAs under 3.5 so far this year. The team has allowed just three innings of three runs or more this year, and that’s largely because when hitters have made contact, they haven’t teed off on may pitches. The Brewers tagged Marquis for eight hits in the first four innings on Sunday, but only came away with two runs. After that, he only allowed one more hit, and because he was working efficiently, he left with 100 pitches in seven innings.

“It’s tough to string five, six, seven hits in a row and score three or four runs,” Marquis said. “My mentality has changed a lot. I’m a lot more relaxed on the mound. I try to limit the big inning, and just make pitches.”

More and more, the group is adopting the approach of McCatty, himself a former innings-eater with the Athletics in the early 1980s. Whereas St. Claire’s approach relied more on the biomechanics of each pitcher, McCatty - who coached Lannan, Balester and Clippard when he was the Nationals’ Triple-A pitching coach - talks about working to contact as an organizational mantra, before backing off of that word because “I’m too simple for that,” he said.

“Throw the ball over the plate. Throw strikes, meat,” McCatty said when asked what he teaches pitchers. “It’s not something I just made up. It’s that simple. You’ve just got to figure it out. This game is a game of failure, right? A .500 pitcher gets paid well. A .300 hitter gets paid great. The odds are in your favor that they’re going to make an out. You don’t hurt yourself by walking guys, putting them on base and making it easier. Billy Martin always used to say, ‘The only play we can’t defense is a walk.’ ... If you give your guys a chance to make plays, good things will happen.”

That hasn’t always been true for the Nationals; they played .385 ball after a 20-15 start last year largely because their starting pitching was ravaged by injuries and ineffectiveness, as Lannan went to the minors in June, Marquis had surgery and Hernandez slumped in the summer. And while Rizzo, Riggleman and McCatty have pursued their fair share of efficient sinkerballers, they also covet the big arms; after picking Strasburg first overall in 2009, the Nationals took four pitchers with 95-mph fastballs in 2010, those arms denoted by red cards on their draft board.

But even Strasburg, who might have had the best strikeout stuff in baseball last year, kept himself to 15.77 pitches per inning because he knew when to pursue a quick inning. And for now, while the Nationals await his return, they’ve found a way to get by.

They don’t have a pitching staff that’s going to win them many games, but there also haven’t been many that the group has lost for the Nationals. In a game of failure, playing those percentages is the best chance the Nationals have.

“We know what we want to do,” McCatty said. “The velocity thing is great - you can get away with a few more mistakes. But if you make your pitches, chances are in your favor you’re going to get people out. It’s pretty simple to me.”