Nats finally finding success developing pitchers from within

The streak began, interestingly enough, with Mitchell Parker on the mound. It was June 6, the opener of a four-game series against the Braves, the Nationals reeling from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Mets.

Each of those losses to New York included a ragged performance by the Nats’ starter. So it was up to Parker, a rookie making his 10th career big league start, to reverse that trend. And though his team wound up losing that night, it wasn’t Parker’s fault. He allowed only two runs over seven innings, only four Atlanta batters reaching base against him.

Fast-forward 10 days, and Parker was back on the mound facing the Marlins, this time seeking a three-game sweep for the Nationals. And with six innings of one-run ball, he led his team to victory and continued a remarkable stretch of pitching by the entire rotation.

Over those 10 games, Nats starters have given up a total of nine earned runs. Not once have they been charged with more than two in any individual game. They’ve struck out a combined 55 batters while walking only 13.

“Everyone’s throwing well,” Parker said after Sunday’s win, the team’s eighth in nine games. “It’s contagious.”

It’s more than contagious. It’s downright dominant, and it’s the kind of thing we haven’t seen in these parts in quite some time.

The Nationals used to be known for great starting pitching, but they haven’t been able to make that claim since their World Series-winning campaign of 2019. In each of their last four seasons, their rotation ERA exceeded 4.60. In three of those seasons, it exceeded 5.00.

Right now, 71 games into the 2024 season, the Nats rotation boasts an ERA of 3.77, fifth-best in the National League.

Now the truly remarkable part of that: They’ve done it without the services of their Opening Day starter or the longtime projected future ace of the staff.

Josiah Gray hasn’t pitched in a big league game since April 4, after which he landed on the 15-day injured list with a right flexor strain. Cade Cavalli has still made only one big league start, way back in August 2022, long before his elbow ligament snapped and required Tommy John surgery.

No, the Nationals are getting this kind of elite starting pitching thanks to the breakthrough performances of some highly unexpected arms. Parker is high on the list, a fifth-round pick in 2020 who was thrown to the wolves two months ago after Gray got hurt and has thrived ever since, going 5-3 with a 3.06 ERA and 1.079 WHIP in 12 starts. Jake Irvin has taken a leap forward as well, going 5-5 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.037 WHIP in 14 starts. MacKenzie Gore has lived up to his ace-billing, going 6-5 with a 3.24 ERA and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. And DJ Herz has burst onto the scene with a 3.77 ERA and 21 strikeouts in only 14 1/3 innings.

That’s four young starters, ages 23-27, each with an ERA in the 3.00s and either a WHIP under 1.100 or more strikeouts than innings pitched.

The organization has waited years for something like this to happen. Despite the overwhelming success of the franchise from 2012-19, only two regular members of the rotation (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann) were homegrown arms. Those rotations were built on the broad shoulders of veterans acquired either via free agency (Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Edwin Jackson) or trade (Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark).

Now, for the first time in forever, there is a rotation full of young pitchers who were either drafted and developed by the Nats or acquired in trades while they were still considered prospects.

It’s a massive win for a player development system that has taken its share of criticisms over the years but is now reaping the benefits of an organization-wide emphasis on throwing strikes, especially early in the count.

“We’re really trying to get these guys to understand efficiency is the key,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Hitting is hard, and it’s especially hard when you’ve got to hit with two strikes. So the whole emphasis of our organization is to get these guys in the strike zone. Look, we all know they throw hard. We all know they talk about the spin rate, and the horizontal and the vertical and everything. But it’s about throwing strikes. No matter what you do, it’s about getting ahead and throwing strikes.”

The major league coaching staff has tried to preach that mantra for some time, but too often the message still had to be delivered after a young pitcher reached D.C. This current group seems to have already had the message stamped in their minds before making it to the majors.

“It’s huge,” said Parker, who has cut his walk rate from six batters per nine innings in 2022 to 4.4 last season to 1.9 this season. “Giving up free bases, it’s hard. Especially here, you walk a guy, somebody gets a hit, it can happen quick. So if we limit the amount of guys on base, it’s huge. That’s the best chance we’ll have to win.”

“When we’re not walking, we’re going to have a good day,” said Herz, who walked nearly six batters per nine innings as a Cubs prospect but has cut that rate in half in his first three big league starts with the Nationals.

All of a sudden, the Nats face a pitching dilemma. If Gray and Cavalli are ready to return from the injured list as expected in the next few weeks, who will they bump from the rotation? Corbin is the lone remaining veteran with Trevor Williams currently on the IL. Some other young arm would have to give way to either Gray or Cavalli, unless the team wants to try a six-man rotation.

It’s a dilemma few could have foreseen coming. The overriding belief within the organization this spring was that the Nationals’ farm system was rich in position player talent but not so much in pitchers. That may not actually be the case anymore.

“These guys put the work in,” Martinez said. “They really did everything they needed to do for us to say: ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s call this guy up. I think he can help.’ … And now they’re here, and they’re continuing to do what they did down there before we brought them up.”

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