The Nationals Might’ve Made Their Situation Worse

I’m not going to defend the Nationals for their miscommunication. Stephen Strasburg wasn’t going to start Game 4 against the Cubs, because he wasn’t available, and it was silly that he wasn’t available, and no one was really quite clear on why he wasn’t available, and now he is available, and he is starting Game 4 against the Cubs, and the game’ll start pretty soon. All’s well that ends well, right? The Nationals mistakenly created their own off-day drama. It’ll all be forgotten provided they play a good ballgame. We just needed something to carry us through the night.

It’s just — okay, Strasburg is going to start Game 4, now. He’s sucking it up, and he’s going to take the mound with the Nationals’ collective back against the wall. There are few pitchers to whom you’d rather hand the ball for a game with such high stakes. But even if the Nationals win Game 4, tomorrow they’ll have to play a Game 5. Strasburg won’t pitch. Max Scherzer would be available only out of the bullpen. The Nationals need to win two games, not one, and Strasburg was already going to get one of the starts. In part, maybe this is about Gio Gonzalez vs. Tanner Roark. Yet I still can’t shake the feeling like the Nationals might’ve just made things a little worse for themselves.

There are two angles to take here. Let’s take Gonzalez and Roark first. As is, Strasburg starts today, and Gonzalez will start tomorrow. As was, Roark would’ve started today, and Strasburg would’ve started tomorrow. From an ERA perspective, this could be a huge win for the Nats. Gonzalez finished with a sub-3 ERA, even in the era of the home run. Roark finished with an ERA uncomfortably close to 5. Great! Except.

Roark hasn’t pitched since October 1, and he hasn’t started since September 27. Gonzalez already pitched in this series! He allowed three runs in five innings. Can’t really know what to make of that. Roark might be rusty, or, alternatively, he might be more fresh. Gonzalez might be more fresh, or he might be more exposed. Impossible to say, so, let’s just look at some simple tables. In the following, you see both pitchers, and their adjusted ERAs, FIPs, and xFIPs. Let’s start with recent baseball. Which pitcher might be “hottest”? Here are performances over the season’s final month.

Gonzalez vs. Roark, Final Month
Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Gio Gonzalez 125 94 95
Tanner Roark 134 89 87

Gonzalez looks slightly better by ERA. Roark looks slightly better elsewhere. For both pitchers, final-month fastball velocity was slightly down from the full-season average. Nothing dramatic. If one month isn’t your thing, here’s the second half.

Gonzalez vs. Roark, Second Half
Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Gio Gonzalez 70 84 97
Tanner Roark 89 88 86

Gonzalez wins in ERA. There’s effectively a tie by FIP, with Gonzalez getting a very small edge. Roark wins the last column. Now, here’s the full season.

Gonzalez vs. Roark, 2017
Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Gio Gonzalez 68 92 98
Tanner Roark 107 97 96

This is why a perception exists that Gonzalez is far superior. The ERA gap is enormous. Too enormous, perhaps, to dismiss. But we’re supposed to be smarter than that, right? For Gonzalez, it’s pretty much all based on an artificially low BABIP, especially with runners in scoring position. Gonzalez’s peripherals haven’t been any better than Roark’s. And over Gonzalez’s most recent seven starts, his ERA is almost 6. Who cares about ERA? Especially when, just last season, everything was flipped. So here’s one last table, including both 2016 and 2017.

Gonzalez vs. Roark, 2016 – 2017
Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Gio Gonzalez 87 92 95
Tanner Roark 86 95 99

No real meaningful separation. Gaps of a few points here and there. Gonzalez just posted a lower ERA by more than a run and a half. Last season, when these were basically the same pitchers, it was Roark who posted the lower ERA by more than a run and a half. It was Roark who had unsustainable success with runners on base. That’s a timing thing, not a skill thing. Roark didn’t forget how to pitch with men on, and Gonzalez didn’t suddenly learn at the age of 32. There’s a reason that Gonzalez projects for a 4.10 ERA, while Roark projects at 4.12. That reason: Neither is better than the other. Each gives the Nationals about the same chance of winning.

And perhaps the Cubs are better equipped to face a lefty like Gonzalez, instead of a righty like Roark. The Cubs this season had slightly better numbers against lefties, and the only lefty position player Gonzalez faced in his earlier start was Anthony Rizzo. Just another factor that blurs the line. I’m not saying it’s impossible that Gonzalez is better than Roark is. The evidence just isn’t very convincing. If there’s a difference, the gap is small.

I said before that there were two angles. See, there’s also the Strasburg angle. Now that we have some manner of clarity on what’s been going on, it seems like established fact that Strasburg has been feeling ill. Yesterday, he didn’t seem well enough to pitch today. Now I guess he’s sufficiently recovered. Or, alternatively, he’s been sufficiently shamed. When Strasburg went to sleep, I doubt he thought he’d be starting this game. Now it’s happening, even though I can’t imagine that Strasburg is all the way back to 100%.

Should be okay, right? I mean, this time of year, who really is playing at 100%? But there’s a difference between normal full-season fatigue and a person being sick. Travis just wrote about Strasburg being sick. Let’s say he’s getting better. What’s the best solution for illness recovery? Time. Time brings a person closer to ordinary health. Strasburg, already, was going to start either today or tomorrow. But tomorrow would give him another full day of potential improvement. Instead of starting at 4pm ET Wednesday, Strasburg would’ve been scheduled to start at 8pm ET Thursday. Stands to reason Strasburg would feel even better tomorrow. Stands to reason a healthier pitcher would be a more effective pitcher.

So this isn’t even just about Gonzalez vs. Roark. It’s also about Strasburg today vs. Strasburg tomorrow, and while that difference isn’t knowable, it sure seems like there would be one. Maybe Strasburg today is at, what, 75 – 80%? Maybe tomorrow he’d be at 85-90%. I’m just making numbers up, but, we’ve all gotten better after having been sick. Strasburg tomorrow could have more energy. Strasburg tomorrow could have more stamina. Maybe it makes Strasburg look more tough and team-oriented to take the ball for Game 4, but toughing it out isn’t always a good thing. This isn’t the Nationals’ only option.

I get it — there’s no Game 5 if the Nationals don’t win Game 4, so, therefore, Game 4 is a must-win game. But the whole point of this thing isn’t to make it to five games. It’s to make it to the next round, and if the Nationals lose tomorrow instead of today, this season will have been just another disappointment. You can’t be of the mindset that the Nationals just need to play for today and then worry about tomorrow later, because elements of today’s game could invariably borrow from tomorrow’s chances. Strasburg, even when depleted, is probably still better than Gonzalez or Roark. The Nationals now have a better chance of forcing a Game 5. But their chance of winning Game 5 is now lower, because Strasburg won’t be there. The only important odds are the odds of winning both Game 4 and Game 5, together.

Now that I’m this many words in, I should say I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of a game’s starting pitcher. A game is about so many more players, and, especially in this day and age, you never know who might be available out of the bullpen. This series will come down to a lot more than Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. But all the Nationals can do is try to maximize their own chances of moving forward to meet the Dodgers. Starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4 might seem like a pleasing turn of events, what with the game being pushed back a day, yet given the alternative plan, the plan the Nationals aren’t pursuing, I’m not convinced this is the right thing at all.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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matt
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matt

Can anyone give us a logical reason for Ross not to start game 4? He has it

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Because he had Tommy John surgery a couple months ago?

jlewyckyj
Member
Member
jlewyckyj

Maybe Joe Ross should suck it up and be a good teammate.

HappyFunBall
Member
HappyFunBall

Maybe Tyson Ross should suck it up and be a good brother, and go pitch for a team that isn’t even paying him!

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

He has two arms.

sphenreckson
Member
sphenreckson

David Ross?