Battle Brewing for Nationals 5th Spot in Rotation

The Nationals starting rotation was already pretty good last year and they may be even better this season. The top four features one of the best young (and overall) pitchers in the game and a trio of strong veterans. It’s that last slot that will provide all the drama during spring training. And given the contenders, it’s one worth watching, even for shallow mixed leaguers.

Leading the staff once again is Stephen Strasburg, who despite owning a career 2.96 ERA, might actually be perceived as having been slightly disappointing during his short career. Maybe it’s because of the injuries, something that has prevented him from accumulating more than the career high of 183 innings he posted last year, or that his strikeout rate and fastball velocity has dipped each season (excluding 2011). But however you want to label him, there’s no denying than when he’s on the mound, he’s one of the best in the game.

Both his curve and changeup induce SwStk% marks well above the league average, while his four-seamer has surprisingly been just average. And now he’s working on a slider?! C’mon! One exciting development is the return of his strong ground ball rate. If he can maintain that jump, then he’ll continue to be the perfect pitcher.

After a rough first two years with the Athletics, Gio Gonzalez has posted as consistently good results as you could find. He has sharpened his control and his walk rate has declined nearly every season, while his excellent curve ball hasn’t just driven his strikeout rate, but has also been a serious worm killer. Gonzalez has posted an insane 70% ground ball rate with the pitch over his career. SIERA thinks he has been a bit lucky, as he has posted below league average BABIP marks and HR/FB rates, but he has been doing this for four years now. Assuming those luck metrics don’t suddenly regress toward league average, expect more of the same.

Jordan Zimmermann is another young lad on the right side of 30, who has experienced a similar career path to Gonzalez. Zimmermann’s first two years before succumbing to Tommy John surgery yielded ugly results, but hid strong peripherals. Ever since, his results have been consistently good, but perhaps aided by some good fortune. For a guy who seemingly has good stuff, he doesn’t induce a whole lot of swings and misses. In fact, all of his pitches over his career have SwStk% marks below average. He has fantastic control though, but I think the perception is that he is better than he actually is.

In one of the more head scratching trades we have seen in years, the Nationals acquired Doug Fister this offseason to bolster an already solid rotation. Fister has turned himself into a respectable strikeout guy as his curve ball has gone from just meh to a serious weapon. In fact, he was ranked 8th on Eno Sarris’ Best Curves table in the article linked to above. He induces tons of grounders and has sterling control. The move to the National League should further boost his strikeout rate and do wonders for his ratios.

The aforementioned four are etched in stone. After them, the fun begins. It appears the primary combatants to win the fifth spot in the rotation are youngsters Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan, and the veteran of the trio, southpaw Ross Detwiler. After an uninspiring minor league career, Roark surprised and impressed in 53.2 innings by posting a minuscule 1.51 ERA with a strong ground ball rate and a F-Strike% that was off the charts good. His skill set actually looked quite similar to Fister’s. But Roark’s ability to miss bats was rather poor and his strikeout rate was primarily fueled by his called strike rate, a mark that would have ranked second had he thrown enough innings.

Needless to say, that doesn’t seem sustainable, so he either has to induce more swings and misses or he’s going to be in for some dramatic regression. Obviously, his luck was going to run out, but he still showed solid skills. With a skills decline, he’s looking at an ERA near 4.00, right around where Steamer and Oliver are projecting. Certainly valuable in NL-Only leagues, but more of a streamer option in mixed. If he wins the rotation spot, he’ll probably be a bit overvalued and become a trendy sleeper.

Jordan displayed a similar breadth of skills, but traded strikeouts for ground balls. That’s okay in real baseball, but really limits his fantasy upside. Interestingly, his SwStk% was significantly higher than Roark’s. He had the opposite problem – an inability to get called strikes and get batters to foul off his pitches. His slider and changeup were fantastic and inducing swinging strikes, but typically aren’t the type of pitches that get a lot of called strikes. Still, you would expect a higher strikeout rate in the future, and Steamer is projecting that. I think that Roark and Jordan are actually fairly similar, but their perceived value differs. If either won a spot, I’m guessing Jordan would be the better buy.

Our last candidate is the lefty Detwiler, who features an interesting mix of pitches. Well, mix would probably be an inaccurate term as Detwiler doesn’t mix up his pitch selection at all. Last season, nearly 9 out of every 10 pitches was a fastball. That’s just not normal from a starting pitcher, especially one who isn’t an extreme groundballer who just pumps in sinker after sinker. After outperforming his SIERA for two straight seasons, his luck came crashing down and his ERA jumped back over the 4.00 hump. He’s easily the least attractive option of the three.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Ben Suissa
Ben Suissa

pitch fx hates detwiler. go Roark, better pitches