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April 21, 2012

Overthinking It

Washington's Gas Policy

by Ben Lindbergh

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The Washington Nationals haven’t hit very well this season: their .252 TAv ranks ninth in the National League. They haven’t run very well, either: they rank third from last in the big leagues in Baserunning Runs (-2.2). Nonetheless, the Nats have an 11-4 record, good for first place in the National League East and the third-best record in baseball, behind only the 11-2 Rangers and the 11-3 Dodgers. In a tight division like the NL East, a quick start can improve a team’s playoff odds significantly. The Nats’ chances of making the playoffs have risen from 7.9 percent before their first game to 19.2 percent today.

How have the Nats succeeded, if not by outslugging their opponents or regularly taking the extra base? The source of the team’s success has been defense and pitching—starting pitching, in particular. Before Edwin Jackson allowed five runs in five innings against the Astros on Thursday night, no Nats starter had allowed more than four runs in an outing. Through the team’s first 13 games, the starting rotation produced nine quality starts with a 1.65 ERA and a 2.20 RA, by far the best marks in baseball.

That string of strong starts is impressive, but it’s not quite as superlative as it sounds. It seems especially significant because it came at the start of the season—in the middle of the year, it might not have attracted much notice. Last year, there were no fewer than 90 13-start stretches in which a team outpitched the Nats’ 2.20 RA. Even poor-pitching teams got into the act: the Astros finished with a 4.99 RA, the worst in the National League, but beginning on April 27, they reeled off 13 games in which their starters averaged only 2.07 runs allowed per nine innings. After that, they went back to being the Astros. Obviously, a team with good pitching is more likely to have a hot streak than a team that isn’t as talented, but a two-week period of elite run prevention isn’t necessarily a sign of several strong months to come.

Of course, we know the Nationals aren’t the Astros, given the pedigree and past performance of their arms. All five starters—Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler—once ranked 51st or higher on Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects. But even if we didn’t know that, we could tell from one number that their starters possess some serious stuff.

The Nationals’ pitching staff hasn’t relied on smoke and mirrors this season—only smoke. According to data provided by Harry Pavlidis of Brooks Baseball, the Nats’ average combined four-seam and two-seam fastball velocity through their first 13 games was 93.8 mph. That’s not only more than half a mile faster than the next-hardest-throwing team in 2012 (the Tigers), but higher than any team average recorded from 2008-11, the years for which we have nearly complete PITCHf/x data.

The difference becomes even more dramatic when we isolate Washington’s starters. From 2008-2012, relievers, who benefit from pitching in short bursts, have thrown roughly 1.3 mph harder as a group than starters. However, through their first 13 games, the Nats’ starters averaged 94.3 mph. That’s 1.3 mph harder than their relievers, 0.9 mph harder than the next-fastest rotation this season (the Rays’), and 0.8 mph harder than the next fastest since 2008 (the Rays’ again, this time in 2010).

Differences in camera calibration between parks sometimes skew PITCHf/x velocity readings. To minimize the impact of park effects, we can look only at velocities recorded on the road, which don’t place a heavy weight on the readings at any particular park. At this point in the season, we don’t have a large enough sample to split our 2012 data, but we can compare combined values for 2012 starter velocities to “away” values from previous seasons.

Team

Year

Home/Away

Avg FB MPH

Nationals

2012

Both

94.3

Rays

2010

Away

93.8

Tigers

2009

Away

93.5

Rays

2008

Away

93.4

Rays

2012

Both

93.4

Yankees

2009

Away

93.3

Rangers

2011

Away

93.2

Tigers

2012

Both

93.2

Tigers

2011

Away

93.1

Rays

2009

Away

93.1


Using this method, the Nats’ rotation comes out 0.5 mph faster than the second-place starters, easily outpacing the hard-throwing Rays and Tigers of recent seasons. The other nine teams on this list hail from the American League, where pitchers face more difficult, DH-equipped lineups and are forced to throw harder to compensate. The Nationals’ presence at the top is even more remarkable in light of the fact that that fastball velocity across the league is at its lowest in April, whether because of low temperatures, rusty pitchers, or a combination of both. When the weather warms up, batters might be in for even more heat from the DC staff.

Each of the Nats’ five starters employs a different mix of secondary offerings, but all five have above-average velocity. That’s not an accident, according to comments by GM Mike Rizzo:

It does go along with my philosophy. The radar readings, per se, there’s no philosophy there. But power arms with swing-and-miss stuff, that’s how you build strong rotations. Big, physical pitchers with stuff and command. That was always part of our plan.

The scoreboard velocity readings produced by Strasburg & Co. produce plenty of oohs and ahs from fans, but their fastballs aren’t just for show. While many pitchers can survive and even thrive without plus velocity—see Jamie Moyer and Barry Zito, two of the three slowest throwers in baseball and (temporarily) the owners of enviable ERAs—throwing hard helps. This table shows the correlation between team “away” velocities and several popular indicators of pitcher performance from 2008-11:

Stat

Correlation

BABIP

-.25

ERA

-.19

HR/9

-.12

BB%

.00

K%

.29

The higher the velocity, the higher the strikeout rate, and the lower the home-run rate, ERA, and BABIP. That’s good news for the Nationals’ starters, who rank in the top two in the NL in all five of the statistics in that table. They’re not only pitching in front of fine fielders but also making things easier on their defense by yielding fewer and more easily corralled balls in play.

Walk rate is the only one of the stats above with no correlation to fastball velocity, which would come as no surprise to Detwiler, Jackson, and especially Gonzalez, who led the AL in walk rate over the past four seasons (min. 500 IP). The most encouraging news for the Nats might be that those formerly walk-prone pitchers have found the strike zone so far, issuing only 11 free passes in 52 2/3 innings (1.9 per nine). The team’s velocity advantage doesn’t guarantee it a trip to the postseason (playoff teams threw only 0.3 mph harder than also-rans from 2008-11), but if that trio can stay consistent behind the team’s top two starters, the Nats will be set up for sustained success. The NL East is a division stocked with strong staffs, but no other team’s arms can dial it up like they do in DC.

Harry Pavlidis and Dan Turkenkopf provided research assistance for this article.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

3 comments have been left for this article.

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