Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Nats Playoff Rotation & Bullpen Decisions


20-game Winner Gonzalez is our likely #1 starter in the playoffs. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via

The Nats rotation has been incredibly stable this year; only a mid-season experiment with Chien-Ming Wang interrupted a near season-long quintet of starters unmarred by injury or poor performance.  The shutdown and playoff unavailability of Stephen Strasburg is well, well documented, so we won’t talk about him here.  But two important decisions await Davey Johnson in terms of his playoff roster construction: playoff rotation and bullpen construction.  Lets take these questions one-by-one:

1. What is your playoff rotation?  Here’s the evolution of our rotation this year:

  • The year started off with your starters in this order: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and then Detwiler. The starters went R-L-R-R-L.
  • After the All Star Break, Johnson shuffled the starters and re-ordered them to go Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Strasburg, Jackson, Detwiler (still R-L-R-R-L), ostensibly to give Strasburg a bit more rest and extend his season a few days.
  • On August 3rd (around a double-header) Zimmermann and Gonzalez switched places.  Now you’ve got Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Jackson and Detwiler (L-R-R-R-L).  All three RHSPs are in order, as are the two LHSPs.
  • On August 15th around an off day, Detwiler and Jackson switched places, probably to keep Detwiler on regular rest and probably to fix the aforementioned issue of 3 RHSPs in a row (starters now Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Detwiler, Jackson for L-R-R-L-R).
  • On September 12th, John Lannan replaces the shut-down Strasburg in the rotation.  Now we’re Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Lannan, Detwiler and Jackson for L-R-L-L-R.

If we play out the rotation the rest of the season, barring any more rain-outs or injuries, the starters will be (Starting 9/21):

9/21: Jackson
9/22: Gonzalez
9/23: spot starter Wang, to give the rotation its regular rest.
9/24: Zimmermann
9/25: Lannan
9/26: Detwiler
9/27: Jackson
9/28: Gonzalez
9/29: Zimmermann
9/30: Lannan
10/1: Detwiler
10/2: Jackson
10/3: Gonzalez

At this point I’m going to assume that the Nats will win the division and go straight to the divisional series, which (per MLB’s playoff schedule) starts either Saturday 10/6 or Sunday 10/7.  Which day the Nats start will be critical; if the Nats are the #1 seed they’ll start Sunday; if they’re the #2 seed they’ll start Saturday.

But in either case I think we’re going to see some manipulation of the above schedule, because I think the team wants Gonzalez to start the opener.   And he cannot start an opener on 10/6 or 10/3 if he throws 10/3.   We may see him skipped on 9/28 and then throwing a start 10/1 (which I’d be happy for; that’s the last game I have tix for this year), which would put him on regular rest for either a 10/6 or 10/7 start.

After that though, there’s some decisions to be made.  The NLDS ridiculously gives the lower-seed the first two home games, so I think Johnson may want to have some options available to him for his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th starter (I think its a pretty basic assumption that Lannan is being left completely off the playoff roster; more on this later down when talking about the bullpen options).  Here’s the home/away splits of our 4 likely playoff starters (numbers as of 9/21/12).

Interesting; Zimmermann is far more effective away, Detwiler is far more effective at home, and Jackson is just about the same either way.  This seems to imply that Zimmermann is your best bet to take the 2nd start, away from home, then line up Detwiler-Jackson-Gonzalez (or some combination thereof) at home.

Here’s another take; Johnson likes to play match-ups with certain teams.  Will the Nats opponent factor into the equation?  Assuming the Nats are the #1 seed, your likely wild-card winners right now are Atlanta and St. Louis (its hard to see a scenario where St. Louis loses its current 3 game WC lead in the next 12 days, but it could happen, but for the purposes of this article we’ll assume these two teams hold on).  How do these teams fare against lefty versus righty starters?

  • Atlanta is hitting .247 as a team versus Lefties with an 86 wRC+.  That’s bad.
  • Atlanta is hitting .251 as a team versus Righties with a 97 wRC+.  That’s certainly better than they do versus lefties.
  • St. Louis is hitting .275 as a team versus Lefties with an 113 wRC+.  That’s basically 2nd in the majors behind the uber-hitting Rangers.
  • St. Louis is hitting .270 as a team versus Righties with a 104 wRC+.  That’s roughly a 10% difference in Run Creation.

So, it seems like if we play Atlanta, we want to load up on Lefties while if we play St. Louis we want to load up on Righties.  This would seem to indicate that, if Atlanta is our opponent we’ll want to go Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Detwiler-Jackson-Gonzalez again, meaning Atlanta has to face 2 lefties in the first 3 games plus 3 out of 5.  If we play St. Louis, you’d think that we’ll want to switch up Detwiler and Jackson so that St. Louis gets L-R-R-L-L.  The idea being that once we get home, even though we’re lefty-heavy we’ll have the advantage.

However, with the #1, #2 and #3 seeds far from settled with a week and a half to go, lets also look at the same logic for both Cincinnati and San Francisco, since its conceivable at this point we could be playing either of these teams (use the same links in the Atlanta links above to see these statistics):

  • Cincinnati is hitting .268 as a team versus Lefties with an 107 wRC+.   Both Tied for 6th in the majors.
  • Cincinnati is hitting .248 as a team versus Righties with a 89 wRC+.
  • San Francisco is hitting .268 as a team versus Lefties with an 96 wRC+.
  • San Francisco is hitting .270 as a team versus Righties with a 98 wRC+.

Conclusions?  Cincinnati matches up very well against lefties and struggles against righties, while San Francisco is a pretty well balanced team with no real weakness against either side.

One last factor is post-season experience, of which this group has very little.  Jackson is the sole guy with any post season experience, it being last year with potential opponent St. Louis.  I cannot see Johnson bumping any of the guys who are pitching better than him though, at least in a short series, based on this veteran experience (we’ll revisit this though in a 7-game series, where the identity of the 4th starter is incredibly important, as he only goes once in that series).

In any scenario, I think your first two starters away are going to be Gonzalez and Zimmermann.  After that will depend on the opponent.

2. What is your playoff bullpen?  By virtue of the fact that we don’t need a 5th starter, the team can carry an extra player.  Here’s the bullpen as it sits now, divided into “regulars” and 9/1 call-ups:

  • Regulars: Burnett, Clippard, MGonzalez, Gorzelanny, Mattheus, Stammen, Storen
  • Sept 1 callups: Duke, Garcia, Wang (and technically Lannan).

I think this decision is pretty simple; you keep the 7 “regulars” and add in power arm Christian Garcia, who has been lights out since arriving, as an extra middle-relief guy.  There’s no reason to have minor league starters Duke, Wang or Lannan on the post-season roster; the only function they’d have is as long-men, but the regulars include two such arms already in Stammen and Gorzelanny.

The possibility exists that Johnson will opt for an extra bench guy instead of an 8th bullpen arm, but I doubt he’d choose that route.  Your “extra” bench guys right now are Leon (3rd catcher), Brown and Perez (ofs), and one of either DeRosa or Tracy (technically it was DeRosa who got added off the DL after roster expansion; he likely would have been delayed in the minors had this happened earlier in the season).  I can’t see any reason to keep any of these guys on a post-season roster at the expense of an 8th reliever.  Tracy gets a few ABs a week and can only play 1B, while DeRosa can provide cover at multiple positions and seems to have more value.  I could be wrong though; Tracy continues to deliver timely pinch hits in the clutch (as he did this past weekend).

Man, it feels good to talk about playoff baseball!

4 Responses to 'Nats Playoff Rotation & Bullpen Decisions'

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  1. Are playoff rosters reset after NLDS and NLCS? Also, things get interesting if a playoff game is needed to determine wild card winner.


    24 Sep 12 at 11:02 am

  2. From what I’ve read, yeah. Teams can specify one 25-man roster for the wild-card game, then a completely different 25-man roster for the next round if they win it. And, from there onwards you can keep setting different 25-man rosters for each of the NLDS, NLCS and World Series.

    Joe Sheehan talked about it here: and Buster Olney talked about it here (insider only I think). Sheehan actually makes the reverse case than I will be soon making about pitcher use in a wild card game; he thinks you should load up on extra position players in a one-game shoot-out so that you can have multiple pinch hitters and pinch runners available.

    Todd Boss

    24 Sep 12 at 11:41 am

  3. The most amazing thing about shuffling rosters for the postseason, although not relevant to the Nats, is the clubs in the wild card set their rosters for 1 game — and then get to reset again before the next round!

    Mark L

    24 Sep 12 at 6:45 pm

  4. Yeah, that’s a serious loophole that i’m sure will be changed after this year. I don’t think it is in anyone’s best interest to see a playoff game played like a spring training game.

    Todd Boss

    25 Sep 12 at 10:00 am

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