Improved lineup or not, Nats need to pitch better in 2021

The Nationals’ stated No. 1 priority this winter was to acquire a big bat, and the recent acquisitions of both Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber each meet that criteria.

But let’s be honest here: The Nats’ best path to contending in 2021 isn’t via a more productive lineup, it’s via a more effective pitching staff.

As glaring as the hole in the heart of the batting order last season was, the Nationals still were an average to above-average offensive club. They ranked 10th in the majors in runs, sixth in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging percentage and 10th in OPS.

Sure, a lot of that production came from Trea Turner and Juan Soto. But at the end of the day, this team didn’t lose a ton of games because of a lack of offense. It lost a ton of games because the pitching staff couldn’t hold the opposition down.

Consider this stat: In 2020, the Nationals went 1-26 when scoring three runs or fewer. That’s right, they won only one low-scoring ballgame, a 2-1 victory over the Mets when Max Scherzer outdueled Rick Porcello.

Scherzer-Dealing-Blue-Fenway-Sidebar.jpgNow, teams obviously don’t usually win a lot of games by such low scores. But the Nats were much more successful in those types of games in the past. To wit: In 2019, they were 12-46 when scoring three or fewer runs.

The real problem last season was a pitching staff that finished with a 5.09 ERA, ranking 25th out of 30 major league clubs. That’s the highest single-season ERA in club history, worse than the awful 2006-09 pitching staffs. They also matched the 2009 team with a club-worst 1.517 WHIP, which last season ranked ahead of only the Red Sox.

As a result, even though they scored five or more runs in nearly half their games (29 of 60), the Nationals won only three-quarters of them (22 of 29).

“Pitching, pitching, pitching,” a wise baseball man once said. That’s what it almost always comes down to. So how do the Nationals pitch better in 2021?

Well, it starts with their top three starters, who all need to be better this year than they were last year.

Scherzer never posted an ERA higher than 2.96 or a WHIP higher than 1.027 in his first five seasons in D.C. Last year, those numbers skyrocketed to 3.74 and 1.381. The future Hall of Famer did get better down the stretch, and the club feels like he’ll benefit more than anyone from a normal spring training and a full regular season. They desperately need that to prove true.

They also desperately need a healthy Stephen Strasburg in 2021. It’s awfully tough to boast an elite rotation when your second ace pitches a total of five innings before needing carpal tunnel surgery. By all accounts, Strasburg is healthy and will be at full speed when spring training begins. The Nationals can’t afford for him not to be.

And then there’s Patrick Corbin, the key addition to the 2019 rotation but perhaps its biggest disappointment in 2020. If you forgot, the left-hander went 2-7 with a 4.66 ERA in 11 starts and a 1.569 WHIP that ranked 40th out of 40 qualifying big league starters. Yes, last. And that happened even as Corbin lowered his walk rate from the previous season. Why did his struggle? Because he gave up the most hits in the majors (85 in 65 2/3 innings).

So that’s where it starts. Of course the Nationals also need to acquire a quality No. 4 starter. They need Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth to pitch effectively when called upon. They need fewer late-inning blowups from Daniel Hudson and Will Harris. And, yes, they need to play better defense and help the staff limit the damage.

Point is, the Nats need to pitch better in 2021. They can bolster the lineup all they want. It won’t matter if they don’t give up fewer runs this season than last.

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