With the announcement that Major League Baseball will schedule 60 games in a shortened 2020 campaign, the Nationals now must decide how they can best implement one big advantage they have had over other teams: their top four starting pitchers.
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez were so good last season that they ranked in the top 25 in ERA in the major leagues, top 24 in WAR, top 48 in K/9 and top 35 in WHIP. The Nats’ top four starters combined for 65 wins in 2019 despite Scherzer and Sánchez missing a good bit of time due to injury. These four pitchers were a major factor in the Nats winning it all in 2019.
Manager Davey Martinez employed all four in several different ways over 17 postseason games in October, making it the most memorable month in franchise history. Strasburg and Scherzer combined to throw 66 1/3 innings over 12 appearances, each appearing in six games. They tallied seven quality starts and the pair each made one relief appearance. The duo combined to register eight of the 12 Nats playoff wins.
Looking back, this statistic is even more remarkable considering Scherzer was scratched from his Game 5 World Series start with neck spasms, only to triumphantly return to start Game 7. The Nats won that game, 6-2. Scherzer allowed two runs over five innings and Corbin came in to pitch three scoreless frames before Daniel Hudson shut the door for the franchise’s first world title.
Corbin was also extremely valuable in the playoffs. He made eight postseason appearances. Three of those were starts. In the postseason, the left-hander finished ranked third in the postseason with 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Sánchez flirted with a no-hitter in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. He settled for 7 2/3 hitless innings and a huge 2-0 victory to begin the series. He finished with a 1-1 record and a 2.50 ERA in three postseason starts.
Now with the prospect of a season that offers only 60 total games, Martinez can use the same strategy he did in the postseason last year: Go with your strength. If he starts his big four - Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez - 13 times each, that is 52 games. Then, for those extra games or back ends of doubleheaders, he can call upon a pool of Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde to fill out the final eight games.
From July 23 to Sept 30 last season there were 63 games played. Major League Baseball has some room to operate here with the reworked schedule (expected next week) because there are 67 days between July 23 and Sept. 27.
There was some concern the big four would have to recover from overuse as they prepared for 2020 after all of them pitched so much to finish the October run last season. That concern was alleviated by the coronavirus shutdown, as all four hurlers got an unscheduled three extra months to get ready for the abbreviated season expected to begin in late July.
To end the 2019 campaign, Strasburg and Corbin each started 13 games, Sánchez 12 games, and Scherzer made eight starts as he dealt with a back issue. Ross started seven games, while Voth and Fedde each made four starts to round out the season.
The Nationals went 5-5 to end July, then 19-7 in August and 17-11 in September. Overall, that’s 41-23 (.641). In that span, the Nats gained only 2 1/2 games on the Braves, but they overtook every NL wild card contender to host the Brewers for the one-game playoff, and the rest was history.
Added to the back end of the bullpen this season is Will Harris, a consistent workhorse who made 12 appearances in the playoffs last year with the Astros. The eighth and ninth frames will be covered well with Harris, Hudson and Sean Doolittle. Then the club needs Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Roenis Elías and others to pick up the other outs.
Obviously, the offense must figure out a way to succeed without the tremendously clutch bat of Anthony Rendon, but the pitching will be better. A refurbished and resilient bullpen should prevent the 19-31 start that almost derailed 2019.
One of the surest ways for the Nats to repeat last year’s success is to lean heavily again on those four top-of-the-rotation starters with only 60 games available to make an impact. They really only need to make room for a fifth starter eight times.
* Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman wrote in his online diary that he is still mulling over the prospect of playing in 2020’s shortened season, due to health concerns for him and his family because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going to be the ones out there, if we decide to play,” Zimmerman said. “We’re the ones taking all the risk.”
That story brought a ton of reaction on Twitter, and justifiably so. If stars like Zimmerman decide not to play, it will send a clear message to Major League Baseball that players are not taking this return lightly, and that health and safety protocols have to be in place and followed strictly to prevent COVID-19 from continuing to be a major factor.