Whenever a player or team perform exceptionally well, a common question we get in our chats is, “is this the real player/team?” Usually, the answer is no — a hot streak is a hot streak, a fluke level of performance above the norm. Every so often, though, the outlook’s a little fuzzier, especially when it comes to individual players who might be having a breakout. Yet in the case of the Nationals’ rotation, we can declare unequivocally that no, this is not the real them. The Nationals’ starting rotation is good. Over 51.2 innings, between June 3 and June 10, Nationals starters didn’t walk a single batter.
And they struck out 51 batters. According to Adam Kilgore, that hadn’t happened in at least a century. We can say with certainty that the Nationals’ starters aren’t this good because, over that span, they posted a 1.66 FIP, putting them somewhere between Craig Kimbrel and peak Pedro Martinez. They achieved a strikeout-to-walk ratio of #UNDEFINED, and a K% – BB% of their K%. The Nationals’ rotation, without question, overachieved, but everyone who’s ever thrown a perfect game has overachieved, and those perfect games have drawn an awful lot of words. So the Nationals deserve some words of their own, before this streak is forgotten.
The next pitch was a ball to Chase Utley. The next pitch was a ball to Chase Utley. The pitch after that was also a ball to Chase Utley. The Nationals’ streak began with a 3-and-0 count to a disciplined hitter, but Zimmermann got a strike and a following line-out, and so the streak started without anyone noticing, the streak having just been conceived. Marlon Byrd flied out. Ryan Howard was then the streak’s first strikeout. And higher and higher it grew, by the individual pitch, by the individual plate appearance.
A day later, Stephen Strasburg was dominant. The day after that, it was Doug Fister‘s turn, and the Nationals wrapped up a sweep of the Phillies. After the Nationals flew to San Diego, Tanner Roark turned in eight frames of brilliance. Blake Treinen followed with his customary contact approach, and then Zimmermann had the start of a lifetime. A trip up north preceded Strasburg owning the Giants. Finally, Tuesday night, Fister went six innings before he lost Brandon Hicks.
Of note: the full-count pitch wasn’t terrible. Of note: the plate appearance passed through a 1-and-2 count. Of note: Fister shook off a couple pitches before settling on the curveball.
What might have happened? A non-walk is what might’ve happened, but a walk is what did happen, and the Nationals will have to work on a new streak, if that’s their thing. Currently, it stands at 1.0 walkless innings, which isn’t impressive, but which is the kind of thing Ubaldo Jimenez might kill for.
The whole thing lasted 691 pitches, spanning 192 batters. It’s true that a lot of those batters were Phillies and Padres, and those aren’t particularly good batters, but no one else has ripped off a streak like this, so it’s not like that’s the whole explanation. Of those pitches, 70.8% were strikes. Between 2010-2013, Cliff Lee threw 70.5% of his pitches for strikes, as a starting pitcher. He struck out a quarter of his opponents. The Nationals struck out right around a quarter of their opponents. Over the course of the streak, the Nationals’ starters all pitched like the awesome version of Cliff Lee, only with a slightly better strike distribution, so as to avoid any walks at all. It has to be noted for the record that one batter was hit, and a hit batter is like a walk, but it happened in a 1-and-2 count and it happened against Chase Utley, who gets hit by pitches when he’s making a sandwich. Of course a streak like this is going to have a few asterisks. But the streak itself, as defined, took place, for real.
A full 71% of the batters saw first-pitch strikes. Peak Lee threw 69% of his first pitches for strikes. Because the Nationals’ starters were so good at getting ahead, they threw barely 1 out of 25 pitches in three-ball counts, where the league average is about twice as high. Here’s a somewhat unhelpful chart of all the pitches thrown over the course of the streak, with an approximated strike zone:
Plenty of pitches in the zone. Plenty of pitches near the zone. When the pitchers are ahead, the batters have to expand, so the strike zone effectively gets bigger. If you look at this image, you don’t automatically think 51 strikeouts and zero walks, but this is what that can look like. This is 51 strikeouts, zero walks, and one beaned Utley.
How close did the Nationals come to a walk, that ultimately wasn’t issued? It turns out, very close, but only once, and only Tuesday in San Francisco. Pretty much all of their three-ball pitches were good pitches, but here’s a pitch Fister threw to Hunter Pence in a 3-and-0 count:
The pitch was way inside, but Pence went after it anyway, looking to drill something to left. The count advanced to 3-and-1, and then Pence put a ball in play, keeping the streak alive. Had he walked, the streak would’ve been shorter, but it wouldn’t have been much shorter, and it still would’ve qualified as historic. And Fister deserves some credit anyway, for throwing a pitch in that situation that Pence wanted to swing at.
There’s a good chance that, come the end of the year, this will end up the worst 3-and-0 swing, as determined by pitch distance from the center of the strike zone.
So what is there to be made of all this? Two things, I feel like:
- Nationals starters did something crazy, which is crazy
- The Nationals have a really good starting rotation
If you had to bet on someone doing what the Nationals did, you’d bet the field over the Nationals specifically. But if you had to bet on one particular team, you’d choose the Nationals, at least as long as you consider both the walks and the strikeouts. Though the Yankees’ rotation has a slightly lower walk rate, the Nationals are the leaders, by a good margin, in K% – BB%. As historical rotations are concerned, the 2014 Nationals rank fourth all-time in K% – BB%, less than a percentage point behind the leading 2002 Diamondbacks. Nationals starters have baseball’s lowest adjusted FIP and baseball’s lowest adjusted xFIP, and though the main reason is Stephen Strasburg, the rotation’s also deeper than that, and it’s good even without Gio Gonzalez, who’s back in a matter of days. The Nationals are pitching like the team that was projected to win the division by a handful of games.
What the Nationals did was historic, and over their level of true talent. But it was less over their true talent than it would’ve been over any other rotation’s true talent. Over a week’s worth of games, all the Nationals starters combined to pitch like the best version of Cliff Lee. It’s not quite as sexy as a perfect game, but it might be more meaningful.
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