Deep Nats staff boasts wide variety of weapons
From rotation to 'pen, Washington has many dominant pitches
Brad Lidge can't pick just one. He looks around the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, thinks about all of the ways his teammates have to make hitters look silly, and tries gamely to answer the question. But he just can't.
Lidge can't pick one pitch that's the best on the Nationals' staff, and it's really not fair to ask. Stephen Strasburg's high-90s fastball, or Henry Rodriguez's triple-digit heater? Edwin Jackson's slider or Craig Stammen's? Finally he settles on a No. 1 and a No. 1a -- and it's none of the above.
"It might be too hard to answer," said Lidge, who throws a slider that, at its best, matched any breaking ball in the game. "I will say this: probably the most underrated pitch is Strasburg's changeup. That thing is absolutely filthy. Everyone's so enamored with his fastball and curveball, but his changeup is nasty. And Gio [Gonzalez] has got the hammer."
That's right. On the hardest-throwing pitching staff in the Major Leagues, the best pitch may be a curveball. Or perhaps a changeup. Ask a different team member, you'd probably get a different answer.
There's no staff in baseball with as many dominant pitches, thrown by as many different pitchers, as the Nationals. They have the hardest-throwing starter and hardest-throwing reliever in the big leagues in Strasburg and Rodriguez. By any objective measure, Gonzalez's curveball is one of the five best in baseball, and subjectively it may be the best thrown by a left-hander.
Strasburg's changeup has the highest swing-and-miss percentage of any starter's changeup this year, per STATS Inc. Jackson has the most missed slider of any starter in the bigs. Rodriguez's curveball has the third-highest swing-and-miss rate of anyone who's thrown at least 50 curves. Rodriguez and Tyler Clippard both rank among the most missed fastballs.
They throw hard, they get swings and misses, and it's not just the top of the staff. Jackson, the No. 4 starter, averages 94 mph on his fastball and has one of the game's most effective sliders. No. 5 starter Ross Detwiler is a lefty who averages 92. The long man, Craig Stammen, has the fourth-most effective slider in baseball this year (on a per-pitch basis), according to Fangraphs.com.
This is not an accident. Not even a little bit. Some teams embrace the notion of "pitching to contact" and letting the defense do the work. Not Washington.
"You always strive to get stuff -- guys that have swing-and-miss stuff that can dominate a game at any point in time," said general manager Mike Rizzo. "It certainly was by design. ... We weren't very good early on when I took over. We were a pitch-to-contact staff, because you had to be, had to rely on sinker-slider guys. Ninety percent of balls were going to be put in play, and you had to live with those results."
Now they have pitchers who take things out of the defense's hands. Washington leads the Major Leagues in ERA, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings and batting average against. The Nats have the highest percentage of swings-and-misses by opposing hitters, and the smallest percentage of swings that lead to balls in play.
It's an effective staff, but it's more than that. It's dominating, and it's nasty. There's scarcely a comfortable at-bat to be had at any point in a three- or four-game series against the Nats.
"That's what makes good pitchers, good pitchers," Jackson said. "They have something that they can go to and make hitters look foolish. You look around this room, and there's numerous guys that have that pitch.
"Some [have] two."
One, Strasburg, even has three. His fastball is what first made him famous when he was at San Diego State, but his curveball and changeup are both superb pitches. Gonzalez, the newest addition, has two. Rizzo said the lefty was the club's first choice among the various starters available this winter. In an offseason where plenty of highly regarded hurlers changed addresses, Rizzo explained that he identified Gonzalez and his swing-and-miss stuff as priority No. 1.
"There's no question," Rizzo said. "He was our No. 1 trade target when we looked to trade. He filled a lot of the prerequisites that we wanted when we acquire a player. First, he was a stuff guy. We thought he had really four above-average-to-plus pitches."
Gonzalez throws hard, with some of the best velocity of any left-handed starter in the game, but it's his curveball that's a wow pitch. It is one of the most effective in the Majors.
According to STATS Inc., only Edinson Volquez has thrown as many curves as Gonzalez this year while getting a higher percentage of swings-and-misses on the pitch. According to Fangraphs.com, five starters have saved more runs with their hammers in 2012. It's both a swing-and-miss offering, and a pitch that batters don't do much with when they make contact.
STATS also ranks pitchers by their overall swing-and-miss rate, and what do you know? Jackson comes out No. 1 among all starting pitchers, and Gonzalez is second. Strasburg is fifth among starters when the question is the percentage of swings that result in balls in play.
It's a great way to build a staff for the regular season, but especially so for the postseason. Washington has its best chance at October since the franchise moved, and if the Nationals make the playoffs, they'll be a handful. Missing bats becomes magnified in October, and no one does it better than they do.
"From where we were 2 1/2 years ago, we've come leaps and bounds," said Rizzo. "We've done it with a philosophy and we've stuck to it. At times we have been questioned about our development of players, innings limits and shutting people down, but we're not doing this on the fly. We've got a plan ... and we're trying to win in 2012 and beyond."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Paul Casella and Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.