Better, worse or the same in 2021: Pitchers

With spring training less than a week away and the roster mostly set, it’s a good time to look at the 2021 Nationals in comparison to the 2020 Nationals. Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse? Have they essentially stayed the same?

We looked at position players yesterday, and in most cases the conclusion was that the Nats should be better at most positions. What about the pitching staff? Glad you asked. Let’s break it down by role ...

NO. 1 STARTER: Probably better
Max Scherzer regressed last season. He finished with his highest ERA (3.74) since 2012, his highest WHIP (1.381) ever and his highest walk rate (3.1 per nine innings) since 2010. The burning question: Is this just who he is now, or does he still have the ability to pitch at an elite level? The bet here is that he can (and probably will) be better. The bizarre schedule and nature of the 2020 season really hurt Scherzer. He finally started looking like himself down the stretch, only to have the season end. Now he’s got a chance to prepare in normal fashion and gear himself up for 30-plus starts. Maybe he’s not going to compete for a fourth Cy Young Award, but there’s every reason to believe he’ll look more like his 2019 self than his 2020 self in the final year of his contract.

NO. 2 STARTER: Much better
If Stephen Strasburg’s 2021 season is worse than his 2020 season, he and the Nationals are in serious trouble. The guy made only two starts and threw only five innings before wrist pain brought an immediate halt to the proceedings and resulted in carpal tunnel surgery. So provided he’s healthy - and that’s certainly not a given - Strasburg will be much better this season merely by taking the mound every five days. By all accounts, he has had a normal offseason and will be 100 percent ready to go next week. As always, until we actually see him pitch effectively, and then return to pitch effectively five days later, we can’t say for sure he’s fine. But it’s fair to be more optimistic than pessimistic here.

Thumbnail image for Corbin-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgNO. 3 STARTER: Better
Did you know Patrick Corbin had the highest WHIP among all qualified major league starters last season? Yep, it was a ghastly 1.569. And it was that high in spite of the fact the left-hander reduced his walk rate from the previous season. Corbin was hit in 2020, and hit hard. Nobody in the majors gave up more hits (85 in 65 2/3 innings). The hope, like Scherzer, was that the start-stop-restart nature of the spring and summer hurt him. And that a normal winter and spring will get him back on track this year. Maybe it’s not a slam dunk. But Corbin had never been hit that hard in his career, even when he was still establishing himself with the Diamondbacks. You’ve got to believe he’ll bear more resemblance to his 2019 form than his 2020 form.

NO. 4 STARTER: Slightly better
The Nationals don’t need Jon Lester to be the Jon Lester everyone knew and loved in Boston and Chicago. They just need him to be Aníbal Sánchez. Can he be that? Well, Sanchez had a 6.62 ERA and a 1.660 WHIP last season. So Lester had better be better than that. And he should. If the veteran lefty can post a 4.50 ERA over 30-plus starts, he’ll have served his purpose. Anything beyond that is a nice bonus.

NO. 5 STARTER: Better
Combine Austin Voth and Erick Fedde’s 2020 stats and you get a 5.72 ERA and a 1.450 WHIP in 19 starts. Can Joe Ross (with Voth and Fedde also likely to contribute along the way) outperform that? Yeah, you’d certainly like to think so. The Nationals have been waiting a long time for one of those guys to step up and establish himself as a legit big league starter. Ross, after sitting out the season, seems to have the best chance of doing it. Fedde showed improvement last season, but Voth really labored. It’s so hard to predict what the Nats are going to get out of this spot, but it seems reasonable to expect better than they got last year.

CLOSER: Better
If you combine Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle’s stats in save situations last season, you get an 8.10 ERA, 3.8 homers surrendered per nine innings and a 66.7 percent save percentage (10 of 15). Yeah, they weren’t good. Enter Brad Hand, the best available free agent reliever this winter, who figures to share the closer’s job with Hudson based on ninth-inning matchups. Obviously, Hudson will need to improve if he wants to keep getting opportunities to close. But there’s also a decent chance Tanner Rainey works his way into some save situations at some point. However it shakes out, there’s good reason to believe the Nationals will pitch better in the ninth inning in 2021 than they did in 2020.

If everything goes according to plan, Rainey and Will Harris will be setting up, along with whichever of Hand or Hudson isn’t closing on a particular night. So that gives Davey Martinez several options and hopefully keeps anybody from getting burned up along the way. Chances are, at least one member of the group will either struggle or get hurt, though. So it’s too optimistic to predict huge success here. Even so, this group should be competent, just as was the case last year.

Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan return, and that’s a good thing. Suero was more consistent last season; he may never be an elite late-inning reliever, but he’s perfectly solid as the fifth or sixth member of a bullpen. Finnegan was a revelation, with a live fastball and an ability to keep the ball in the park. They’ll be joined by some combination of Voth, Fedde, Javy Guerra, Kyle McGowin, Dakota Bacus and others. As a group, they should be serviceable.

The Nationals only got 12 total relief appearances from lefties not named Doolittle last season. And they may not get that many this year as things currently stand. Hand will be pitching late in games, but there’s a chance no other lefties make the opening day roster. The club signed 27-year-old former Twins minor leaguer Sam Clay to a major league contract early in the offseason. Veteran Luis Avilán will be in camp as a non-roster invitee. And prospects Seth Romero and Ben Braymer could find their way back into the mix at some point. But this clearly wasn’t a priority for general manager Mike Rizzo over the winter. And truth be told, with the three-batter minimum rule still in place, it probably didn’t need to be.

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