Series Preview: Washington Nationals @ Milwaukee Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

2014:
Nationals (74 G): 300 RS / 260 RA
Brewers (77 G): 351 RS / 314 RA

While fighting through a seemingly continuous set of injuries to positional players, the Nationals derived full value from their pitching staff. Even if one wants to dismiss their replacement offense, the Washington bats have still scored an average number of runs through their first 74. However, the club can claim their winning record thanks to their arms, as their hurlers are nearly 40 runs better than the NL / Nationals Park environment.

Last Series:
Nationals: Series Split vs. Braves
Brewers: Series Sweep @ Colorado

It’s funny how baseball works. Recently, MLB Network featured the San Francisco Giants’ tough stretch by citing the Nationals’ visit to the Bay Area as a catalyst for the Giants’ slide. Yet, immediately after leaving San Francisco, Washington went to St. Louis and lost a three game series. The competitive clubs in the Senior Circuit seem evenly matched, for as one club cools off a foe, another contender will promptly return the favor. The Nationals’ rough stretch didn’t last too long, as they just split a home series against the Braves. Overall, Washington are 7-6 (44 RS / 42 R) from their trip to San Francisco onward.

Previous Performances:
2013 Nationals: 86-76 (656 RS / 626 RA)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)

2011-2013 Nationals: 264-221 (2011 RS / 1863 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)

As if a series against another division contender was not tough enough, Brewers bats faced what must be regarded as one of the toughest rotational cores in the National League. This series, Milwaukee will host Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg and Gonzalez are arguably the most hyped pitchers of this trio, thanks to Strasburg’s draft status and contract, and the Nationals’ big trade to land Gonzalez. However, in terms of his own dependable service to the Nationals and the National League, Zimmermann is undoubtedly the best of this bunch.

Nationals Innings Runs Prevented
’11-14 Zimmermann 662 IP 61
’12-14 Strasburg 442.3 IP 25
’12-14 Gonzalez 450.7 IP 31

Zimmermann is poised to work his fourth consecutive 100+ IP season in the NL, while Strasburg has just reached his third consecutive 100+ IP season. It’s unfair to judge Gonzalez in this way, of course, since he previously worked in the American League, but his 2012-2014 performance is simply meant to reflect his contributions to the Washington rotation. I recently tweeted that Mat Latos might be the right-handed Clayton Kershaw, given that his 849.7 IP, 114 ERA+ performance through his age 25 season was one of the only efforts that came anywhere close to Kershaw’s level (and really, let’s be honest, it’s not THAT close). If Latos is the best “young” righty in the National League, Zimmermann must be the overall best righty on the Senior Circuit over the last four years.

2014 RHP IP Runs Prevented 2011-2013
T. Hudson 94 11 525.3 IP / 24 runs prevented
Z. Greinke 91 10 472.3 IP / 33 runs prevented (NL)
J. Zimmermann 91.7 7 570.3 IP / 54 runs prevented
K. Lohse 107 5 598 IP / 43 runs prevented

One might argue that Kyle Lohse, Zack Greinke, and Tim Hudson have a claim to that title, too, but Zimmermann’s overall combination of age, performance, and even contract make him a steal for Washington (yes, a seven-year, $118 million contract is a downright bargain for Zimmermann).

Gio Gonzalez (5 IP, 4 R, 6 K / 3 BB / 0 HR and No Decision in first start since DL return) @ Matt Garza (2-0, 33.7 IP, 17 R (23 K / 10 BB / 2 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS)

One of the criticisms of the Washington Nationals thrown about by analysts is that they are constructed to be great on paper without coming together on the field. This, of course, is a difficult criticism to stomach, given all the variables that comprise a baseball season. Surely these analysts must be satisfied, then, that the Nationals could be poised for their best season at exactly the time that Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg are having their most difficult seasons. Gonzalez will look to take another step toward average in Milwaukee, as the southpaw will make his second start since returning from the disabled list.

Even though Marco Estrada’s home runs receive the brunt of criticisms from Brewers fans lately, Matt Garza’s unearned runs are arguably more interesting (and, perhaps, more important). Over his last five starts, Garza has allowed eight of his ten unearned runs on the season. Some of these unearned runs stem from the hurler’s own errors, which is one of my biggest pet peeves with the statistic: one can say what they like if other fielders fail to support a pitcher’s cause, but a pitcher’s own errors should arguably count fully toward a starter’s ERA. Garza’s recent stretch also provides good examples for why Earned Runs ought not to be used to determine quality starts; if you like earned runs, Garza is going for his sixth straight quality start. Of course, Brewers bats have rendered any debate moot, scoring 30 runs for Garza over his last five.

Jordan Zimmermann (2-2, 37 IP, 7 R (30 K / 4 BB / 1 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Yovani Gallardo (3-1, 32.7 IP, 11 R (31 K / 9 BB / 4 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Sometimes I wonder if the shadows suit pitchers like Zimmermann. Even if Zimmermann can claim the title of “Best RHP in the National League,” perhaps it is beneficial for the hype machine to ignore him. That’s not to say that Zimmermann cannot naturally handle the hype or something, but that some people are simply predestined for greatness outside of the limelight.

Yovani Gallardo is a perfect foil for Jordan Zimmermann. If Zimmermann is the underappreciated ace of a contender, Gallardo is the steady, dependable arm whose value is undermined by his steadiness. Nothing Gallardo does on the mound overwhelms opponents, and yet at this point in the season, Gallardo has matched Zimmermann punch-for-punch. If both pitchers were ranked by runs prevented, Yovani Gallardo would be Zimmerman’s equal. In Miller Park’s moderately-inflated environment, a 91.7 IP / 34 R campaign is worth eight runs prevented. That’s every bit as good as Zimmermann’s season, which is another vote in favor of Gallardo’s campaign for rotational redemption.

If anything, Gallardo has provided a fine argument for his 2015 contract, as his performance makes the Brewers’ $13 million club option a no-brainer. However, if the Brewers continue their exceptional season, and Gallardo stays on pace with his great year, chances are our beloved Franchise Starter will receive votes for the Cy Young award. Why does this matter? According to Cot’s Contracts, Gallardo can void the club’s 2015 option if he receives six points in 2010-2014 Cy Young voting. Thanks to the righty’s role on the 2011 Brewers, Gallardo already has five points in his back pocket. One is inclined to ask whether the Brewers should address a Gallardo contract extension before this Cy Young vote becomes an issue, or whether the Brewers should simply hope that voters fail to notice Gallardo’s 2014 season.

Stephen Strasburg (3-1, 31.7 IP, 14 R (40 K / 2 BB / 3 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Marco Estrada (2-2, 28.7 IP, 25 R (24 K / 12 BB / 8 HR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS)

Stephen Strasburg is having a definitive season for his career. First and foremost, the ace-by-decree is proving to be a dependable starter in 2014, his third consecutive season reaching 100+ innings in the Nationals rotation. This is a key career development after his early injury history, and as pitchers from Matt Garza to Tim Lincecum to Edwin Jackson have shown, biding time in a National League rotation can be quite valuable (especially in terms of contractual dollars). Secondly, Strasburg is showing that as his velocity declines somewhat (from “elite” levels to “really, really fast,” anyhow), he can continually employ his change and curve to retire batters. In fact, according to Brooks Baseball, Strasburg is not only using his change more this year than in 2013, he is also adding a slider to his arsenal.

Finally, Strasburg is also fighting through some hits and unearned runs to keep his team in ballgames. If this sounds like “grit nonsense” baseball talk, it isn’t: that the Nationals are 3-1 when Strasburg allowes unearned runs shows, in part, Strasburg’s ability to limit the damage. Even with 10 unearned runs and a technically “below average”/”average” runs prevented performance, the Nationals are 9-7 in Strasburg’s starts. This is praiseworthy simply because it moves beyond the ridiculous hype over Strasburg’s draft, contract, and stuff, and into the territory of a dependable pitcher that is finding an ability to change his approach as he matures. That’s better than any hype, even if Strasburg isn’t producing the “video game” stats that some might have expected (for this reason, I also feel bad for Strasburg, for he seems like the type of player who will never be good enough to match his hype for some people, which is entirely not his fault).

Team support is a funny thing. Marco Estrada is nearly 20 park-adjusted runs worse than Jordan Zimmermann, and yet, both righties share the same team record entering this series. You read that correctly: despite preventing seven runs against average in his starts, Zimmermann’s Nationals are 8-7 in his starts. On the other hand, Brewers bats have duly supported Estrada, producing an 8-7 record in his starts. One can use this type of phenomenon as an argument in favor of abstract pitching value stats that judge players outside of the context of the team, but it is precisely this type of phenomenon that can help to define a contending club. Even though fans and analysts (including myself) have argued in favor of replacing Estrada’s spot in the rotation, the Brewers’ ability to stay afloat during his starts helps to give Estrada the chance to correct his approach and mechanics. The benefit here is that the Brewers have a solid foundational record from their fourth rotation spot if they enter a replacement pitching phase, but they also have a solid start to the season should Estrada correct his performance and enter one of his second-half surges.

Resources
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.

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