It’s a good thing I’m not into jinxes, because the first thing I thought when I saw this Nationals vs. Brewers series was, “How would these pitching match-ups work in a playoffs series?” While this series is a test between two of the National League’s top clubs, it’s also a testament to the Brewers’ roster-building strategies entering 2014. Namely, by signing Matt Garza to a long-term deal, the Brewers front office ensured that they would have the type of middle rotation that could cover just about any type of pitching match-up. While Garza is certainly better than the typical starter that works between three-or-four spots deep in a rotation, such judgments are not necessarily salient in the playoffs, when rotations are shortened to the best arms. So it is, as the Brewers and Nationals face off against one another in a potential playoff preview (yes, that’s what it is, enjoy it, don’t be so cautious about saying it!): as Runnin’ Ron Roenicke elected to stick with his current rotational order, the potential judgments become clearer for the Brewers’ rotation against the Senior Circuit’s best foes.
(2011-2013 runs prevented stats; followed by 2014 effort thus far)
Kyle Lohse (598 IP, 43 runs prevented [NL]; 127 IP, 5 runs prevented in 2014) @ Stephen Strasburg (366.3 IP, 37 runs prevented [NL]; 125 IP, -2 runs prevented in 2014)
Matt Garza (372.7 IP, 6 runs prevented [AL & NL]; 124.3 IP, -5 runs prevented in 2014) @ Gio Gonzalez (597 IP, 53 runs prevented [AL & NL]; 83.3 IP, 3 runs prevented in 2014)
Yovani Gallardo (592 IP, 15 runs prevented [NL]; 115 IP, 2 runs prevented in 2014) @ Doug Fister (586.7 IP, 48 runs prevented [AL]; 77.7 IP, 8 runs prevented in 2014)
Four things immediately stand out about these match-ups:
(1) There is no true “#1 vs. #1” match-up in this series. However, both rotations feature pitchers primed for the top of their respective leagues. Lohse, Strasburg, Gallardo, Gonzalez, and Fister each can claim one excellent/solidly-above-average/#1-type campaign within the last three years. Their performances in the other three years outline just how fickle pitching at the MLB level can be; Strasburg was injured in 2011, Gonzalez, Fister, and Lohse were a cut above, and Gallardo swung between below-average-to-above-average campaigns in any given season.
(2) Every pitcher except for Strasburg is a “dependable” starter, although Strasburg is entering that realm with a “guts” performance in 2014 (I remarked in my preview of the Nationals series at Miller Park that it’s ironic the Nationals are having their best season as a team while a couple of their pitchers have been injured or (relatively) ineffective). Gallardo ought to let Strasburg know that this type of season will put hair on one’s chest; I gather Strasburg should recover from this tough first half.
(3) Every pitcher except Fister is arguably fluctuating from their “Three Year Performance.” This is quite interesting, because, once again, it shows how much pitchers fluctuate. While Lohse, Gallardo, and Gonzalez are better than average in 2014, it’s not necessarily to the level of their previous “bests” (or even “middles”); Garza and Strasburg are both below average, although I’m sure both could swap horror stories about Underplaying Fielding Independent Pitching and “lack of defensive support” woes.
(4) Finally, the lack of “stuff” & “performance” correlations is neat. By every stretch of the imagination, one would probably say Stephen Strasburg has better stuff than Lohse. Yet, here’s Lohse, the wily moving fastball/slider artist outperforming Strasburg over the last three years and besting the young ace-in-waiting thus far in 2014. Even Fister and Gallardo have quite the “stuff discrepancy.” Specifically, while neither is a superstar with stuff, Gallardo’s fastball is several ticks harder than Fister’s sinker; Gallardo also reaches for a slider while Fister uses a change up. However, Fister roundly outperformed Gallardo from 2011-2013, and again in 2014 thus far.
On a side note, I noticed that some comments still have Brewers fans pumping the “Velocity Vulture” reflex about Gallardo. However, it is arguably time to stop citing Gallardo’s declining fastball velocity. His 2014 secondary fastball is harder than his career secondary fastball according to Brooks Baseball, and his primary fastball is hardly any slower. Furthermore, both of Gallardo’s 2014 fastballs are significantly faster than they were in 2013. One might still question Gallardo’s general velocity arc, given the levels he topped out at in 2010 and 2011. However, those “top” levels are not necessarily as important now that Gallardo is showing the ability to throw hard (and, throw fastballs that “move” more. Specifically, Gallardo’s primary fastball both “sinks” and “rides” in on righties more than his average career fastball, according to Brooks Baseball).
Side note #2: A fifth element would be to note that Jordan Zimmermann (570.3 IP, 54 runs prevented; 113 IP, 8 runs prevented in 2014), arguably the best pitcher on either of these teams, is not appearing in this series. Another advantage of a short series format. As an aside, here is how the Nationals and Brewers stack-up by rotation spot (for a short series):
Anyhow, one can certainly look at the three-year track records of these starters and note how the Brewers are on the short end for this type of series. However, it is also worth noting just how close these pitchers are in 2014 thus far; no one except Fister is truly having a “breakout worthy” season yet. This must give Brewers fans reassurance that the past records of these arms may not decide this series or a potential playoffs series; even if Strasburg aims for a #1 year most seasons, well, he might rank as a #3 or #4 this year. Even if Gallardo was a middle rotation starter last year, he’s breaking the #2 starter threshold in 2014. The Brewers are not necessarily outmatched in that regard, and in stuff, one might also note that the best stuff on these staffs does not necessarily translate to the best performances. In a short series, all of these variables jump into play.
Brewers (96 G): 423 RS / 406 RA
Nationals (93 G): 387 RS / 326 RA
Finally, I realize I spend way too much time upholding the pitching match-ups, and not enough time upholding the Brewers’ offensive advantages. The Nationals are riding a phenomenal bullpen, along with their solid rotation, to achieve the vast majority of their success. On the other hand, the Brewers’ offense, even after accounting for park differences, is still approximately two wins better than the Washington bats. This cannot be overstated. The Brewers have the type of deep, powerful batting order that can score runs in a hurry and compensate for pitching short comings. While baseball fans obsess and obsess over “Who’s #1? Who’s #2?” for their favorite pitching staffs, they ought to stress offensive performance, too. Brewers can keep the recent success of the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants in mind when detractors slight their pitchers: the 2011 Cardinals and 2012 Giants hardly needed pitching to accomplish their feats; as I like to say, “pitching wins championships, except for when hitting does.”
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.