Let’s try this again.
Assume the Washington Nationals will stick to the script and implement, some time in September, the exclamation point of the Strasburg Plan. Period dot period. Assume, too, that there’ll be enough blue murder screaming over the Nats torpedoing their own postseason chances. Maybe even some conspiracy theorists demanding a formal investigation, perhaps into whether someone isn’t buying the Nats off bigtime to tank. (Would the conspiracy theorists surprise you, really?)
Now, shove all that to one side and look at the Nats’ rotation without Stephen Strasburg.
Jordan Zimmermann—At this writing, Jordan Zimmermann leads the team with a 2.63 earned run average. If wins and losses are still your thing exclusively, dismiss him if you must as barely above a .500 pitcher, since he’s 9-8 through right now. Want to know how many no-decisions Zimmermann has on his jacket through today? Nine. If you define pitching well enough to win as surrendering three runs or fewer, he pitched seven of those nine games well enough to win, and in five of those seven the Nats did go on to win. So if you still look at wins and losses first and last, Zimmermann should have a 15-8 won-lost record through today.
What do you know. That would give him as many wins as Strasburg has and a mere two losses more. But Zimmermann’s quality stats include a 1.13 walks/hits per inning pitched rate (team lead), a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio (second only to Strasburg’s 4.23), a 1.8 walks per nine rate, and a 0.8 home run rate. He also has 2.9 wins above a replacement level pitcher. I’m not exactly convinced the Nats would be in terrible postseason shape with Zimmermann at the top of the rotation.
Gio Gonzalez—He’d probably win the Cy Young Award if it were going to the most congenially quotable pitcher in the league. He has the second best winning percentage (.696) to Strasburg (.714) as of today. He’s also third among the rotation in ERA—with a nifty 3.28. He only has three no-decisions, and in only one did he pitch well enough to win, according to the above definition. So, instead of his current 16-7 won-lost record, he’d be 17-7, since the Nats went on to win that one game. If you want to cut him a break and say four earned runs or less is good enough to win, Gonzalez could—since the Nats went on to win all three of his no-decisions thus far—have a 19-7 record.
He’s got a 1.16 WHIP through today; he has a 2.80 K/BB rate, he has a 9.5 K/9 rate, and he has a 0.5 home run rate, if that matters to you. He also has 1.6 WAR. In a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, I don’t think you’d be in grave danger with Gonzalez as your number two man.
Edwin Jackson—Start and end with wins and losses and you’d start worrying here. After all, Jackson only has an 8-9 record despite his 3.53 ERA. He also has eight no-decisions, one fewer than Zimmermann. And, by the aforesaid measurement of pitching well enough to win, in six of those games Jackson did pitch well enough to win. The Nats only went on to win one of those games, alas, which would make Jackson a 9-9, but since four of them ended up as one-run games, and you’d like to think a pitcher working well enough to win or better than well enough should have come away with a pitching win. By that, Jackson should be 12-9.
His quality stats are solid for a number three man. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.85 K/BB rate; he has a 1.1 home run per nine rate and a 2.8 BB/9 rate. Look at a Strasburg-less Nats rotation and, so far, you can’t really think of one good reason why this rotation can’t succeed come postseason time. Among Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Jackson, they average to a 1.15 WHIP rate. Folks, that’s 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1969 New York Mets, or 1971 Baltimore Orioles territory.
Ross Detwiler—The sleeper of the bunch. He’s 8-6 with a better than respectable 3.52 ERA. He has a pile of no-decisions in his own right as a starter (he’s also seen some very effective bullpen duty)—seven, to be exact. Of those seven, he pitched well enough to win six of them, and the Nats went on to win four of those. By that, Detwiler should have a 12-6 won-lost record.
Detwiler’s quality stats are just about even with Jackson’s. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.31 K/BB rate; he has a 2.4 BB/9 rate and a 0.6 HR/9 rate. As a number four man in a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, it doesn’t exactly look as though Detwiler’s the weak link. It doesn’t even look as though the Nat rotation without Strasburg is a weak link.
The entire Nats pitching staff through this writing is worth 17.4 WAR. With Strasburg, the rotation is good for 13.5; without him, they lose a mere 2.6. Believe it or not, Zimmerman leads the rotation with his 4.0. Are you trying to tell me a rotation configured to equal 10.9 WAR would go into a postseason with a gaping handicap?
Of course there’s no way the Nats are where they are without Strasburg. Assuming they hold those levels the rest of the stretch, nobody else going to the postseason in the National League should assume the Nats rotation minus Strasburg would be pushovers. Whoops! you say—whaddabout postseason experience? Gotcha! There’s Edwin Jackson, and there’s all the rest, and shouldn’t the Nats bring every damn last weapon to bear they can bring including Strasburg?
Well, now. Let’s take a look at a few rotations that went into a postseason with little to no such experience to carry into it and see what they did:
1966 Baltimore Orioles—The only pitcher on the entire staff with postseason experience was reliever Stu Miller (1962 San Francisco Giants). Who also led the team in ERA. Except for oft-injured lefthander Steve Barber, the Oriole starters were kids: Jim Palmer was all of 20, Wally Bunker 21, Dave McNally 23, and John Miller 25. You’d have given a staff like that three chances in a World Series against the last of the great Dodger teams of the middle 1960s. Those Dodgers still brandished Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, plus Claude Osteen as the number three rotation man and Phil (The Vulture) Regan having his career year out of the bullpen. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight, though they did get a little help from Willie Davis’s fatal inning in a Game Two in which Koufax otherwise looked like his usual self until then. Maybe they had some incentive not to get another turn against Koufax, but whatever works, works.
1969 New York Mets—Not a damn one of them, not even veteran Don Cardwell, had postseason experience to speak of entering that postseason. The Mets had one bona-fide Hall of Famer in the rotation (Tom Seaver) and one bona-fide Hall of Famer (Nolan Ryan) as a spot starter and relief option, and about the only postseason experience either had was watching on the tube or in the stands. The Mets steamrolled the Atlanta Braves to win the first National League Championship Series, then won four straight—with Jerry Koosman, not Seaver, winning twice—after losing Game One of the World Series to a Baltimore Orioles team that, on paper, was supposed to make three squares a day out of those Mets.
1970 Cincinnati Reds—The first of the teams to be known as the Big Red Machine had one pitcher (Jim Merritt, a 20-game winner) who’d been to a World Series in 1965 (with the Minnesota Twins) but pitched only 3.1 innings in two relief appearances. Not exactly a well-seasoned veteran of the wars. After burying the Pittsburgh Pirates in three straight in the NLCS, they went down in five to the Orioles in the Serious.
1971 Oakland Athletics—These A’s featured a rotation topped by Vida Blue (having his career year) and Catfish Hunter (future Hall of Famer) and nobody with postseason experience. They got overwhelmed by the Orioles and their four 20-game winners in the League Championship Series, alas. Call it a dress rehearsal for what was to come—namely, three straight World Series rings.
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates—The Fam-I-Lee had one starter, Bert Blyleven, with any postseason experience, and that was a mere two-inning relief gig with the 1970 Twins whom the Orioles blew away in three straight. It may have been one of the classic full-team efforts—no Pirate pitcher was all that dominant in the World Series, other than Blyleven and closer Kent Tekulve—but the Pirates did win it in a seven-game thriller.
1982 St. Louis Cardinals—None of this rotation had postseason experience going in, and they didn’t exactly go in looking like a particularly threatening rotation. (Their best starter: Joaquin Andujar, whose 1.09 WHIP was the only one on the staff below 1.25.) The only pitcher on the whole staff with postseason experience was Jim Kaat, by then working as a relief pitcher who only started two on the season. The Cardinals ground out a seven-game Series win over the Brewers, but you couldn’t really say that either team threw a deadly rotation up there. (The Brewers, in fairness, had a rotation slightly worse than the Cardinals’ and two pitchers—Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton—on staff, but Sutton was a mid-to-late season pickup and Fingers, of course, was the closer.)
1986 New York Mets—They had no 20-game winners, three starters with ERAs under 3, and nobody with postseason experience. After they steamrolled the National League in the regular season, they had to win the pennant the hard way against a feisty collection of Houston Astros, then win the World Series the hard way against a star-crossed collection of Boston Red Sox. If you looked at the rotation’s WHIP overall, it compares pretty favourably to that of this year’s Nats thus far.
1990 Cincinnati Reds—The stars of this show, arguably, were the Nasty Boys bullpen, among whom only Randy Myers (1988 Mets) had any postseason experience. In the rotation, only Danny Jackson (1985 Kansas City Royals) had been there, done that; in the non-Nasty bullpen contingent, only veteran Rick Mahler (who had sixteen spot starts during the season) had gone to any postseason, and there he’d pitched less than two innings for the 1982 Atlanta Braves. These Reds ended up stunning the A’s with a Series sweep after needing six to beat the Pirates for the pennant.
2003 Florida Marlins—No postseason experience ever among the rotation, including young, loud, and snotty (You lost! Go home!) Josh Beckett. Beat the Yankees in six in the World Series, after shoving the Giants out of the way in the division series but winning an arduous League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.
2007 Colorado Rockies—Had six starters on the year, none of whom took postseason experience into these rounds. These Rockies swept the Philadelphia Phillies out of the division series and the Arizona Diamondbacks out of the League Championship Series—only to be swept out of the World Series, in turn, by the Red Sox.
2008 Tampa Bay Rays—No rotation postseason experience. Not quite as good as this year’s Nats with or without Strasburg. And they got rolled in five by the Phillies in the World Series, after taking the Chicago White Sox in four in the division series and wrestling to a seven-game LCS win over the Red Sox.
2010 San Francisco Giants—They made themselves into a no-experience-whatsoever postseason rotation. The only member of the 2010 Giants with any postseason experience of which to speak was Barry Zito (when he was with the early-2000s A’s)—and he’d pitched so horrifically in 2010 the Giants didn’t dare include him on the postseason roster. This took the Giants to a World Series against a Texas Rangers staff that had two postseason-experienced starters. (Cliff Lee and Rich Harden.) The “inexperienced” Giants rode that pitching and some very timely and half unexpected hitting to a five-game Series conquest.
Covering twelve teams since 1966 who took little-to-no postseason-tested pitching into any postseason, it shakes out like this: eight of those rotations proved World Series winners. One of those rotations, moreover, beat a rotation loaded with two much-experienced Hall of Famers including maybe the greatest peak-value lefthanded pitcher of the post-World War II era at least and possibly all-time at most.
An 8-4 World Series-winning record among the inexperienced over a 46-year span isn’t exactly a great reason to be alarmed that the “inexperienced” Washington Nationals rotation—with or without Stephen Strasburg—is going to be guaranteed dead meat going into this year’s postseason. If the Nats stick to the Strasburg Plan on behalf of keeping their man’s arm from breaking off long-range, it is not going to kill them going in if they go without him.
That doesn’t guarantee the Nats’ survival, of course. But it does suggest that the alarmists bleating about whether they’re shooting themselves in the feet or “cheating” their fans out of the best possible chances to win are bleating through their derrieres.