Nationals Arm Race

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

Nats playoff rotation: who will be in and who should be in?


Roark may be odd-man out in the playoffs.  Photo Alex Brandon/AP via

Roark may be odd-man out in the playoffs. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via

The NL East champion Nationals have a problem that lots of teams would like to have: they have 5 great starter options for 4 post-season rotation spots.  Who should we pick, and in what order should they pitch?

(all stats are as of 9/23/14 courtesy of

Option 1: stick with the season-long rotation.  Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Fister with Roark heading to the bullpen.

SP Stephen Strasburg 13 11 0.542 3.23 116 2.98 1.139 33 33 209 42 235 1.8 10.1 5.6
SP Gio Gonzalez* 9 10 0.474 3.74 100 3.13 1.233 26 26 151.2 54 150 3.2 8.9 2.78
SP Jordan Zimmermann 13 5 0.722 2.78 135 2.75 1.117 31 31 190.2 28 172 1.3 8.1 6.14
SP Doug Fister 15 6 0.714 2.55 147 4.07 1.123 24 24 155 24 89 1.4 5.2 3.71
SP Tanner Roark 14 10 0.583 2.85 131 3.49 1.102 30 30 192.1 39 137 1.8 6.4 3.51

This is likely what happens regardless, since manager Matt Williams is old school and likely sticks with his veterans over the “new guy” in Roark.  Thanks to four off-days between their last regular season game (Sunday 9/28) and the first game of the playoffs (Friday 10/3) it doesn’t even matter what order these guys have been pitching in; even the guy who goes Sunday (scheduled to be Gio) would have four full days of rest prior to the NLDS opener.

Option 2: Go with the four best starters in terms of season-long performance: Zimmermann-Fister-Strasburg-Roark with Gonzalez the odd-man out.

Looking at the above stats, this would be your top four going strictly by a subjective opinion looking at the “old school” stats of W/L record and ERA.  But a closer look at the FIPs show this to be faulty logic; despite his excellent numbers Fister has the highest FIP of the starters despite having the best ERA+ figure.  Plus, you really don’t want to leave out your sole lefty starter in a playoff series.

Option 3: Go with the hottest hands. Strasburg-Zimmermann-Gonzalez-Roark with Fister in the pen.

Here’s the stats for the last 5 starts for each guy:

Pos Name Team W Team L W-L% ERA babip BAA WHIP G GS IP BB SO BB9 SO9 SO/W
SP Stephen Strasburg 3 2 0.6 1.34 0.28 0.21 0.802 5 5 33.66 2 33 0.535 8.82 16.5
SP Gio Gonzalez* 3 2 0.6 3.41 0.25 0.22 0.958 5 5 31.33 4 23 1.149 6.61 5.75
SP Jordan Zimmermann 5 0 1 2.03 0.3 0.23 1.032 5 5 31 4 32 1.161 9.29 8
SP Doug Fister 3 2 0.6 3.26 0.27 0.27 1.352 5 5 30.33 9 12 2.671 3.56 1.333
SP Tanner Roark 2 3 0.4 3.13 0.3 0.28 1.169 5 5 31.66 3 19 0.853 5.4 6.333

Taking a look at each starter’s last 5 starts, a couple things become clear: Strasburg, as we have all seen, is on fire; just two walks in 33+ innings and a 1.34 ERA.  Its ridiculous that the team hasn’t won all five of his games.  Washington has won all five of Zimmermann’s starts.  Meanwhile, Fister looks like the weakest link here, with the highest whip and the fewest Ks in the closing run.  Roark’s finish hasn’t been too bad, but his peripherals put him behind Gio.

Option 4: Look at the home-road splits to pick starters.  Strasburg-Roark-Zimmerman-Fister

Here’s the season long home/away splits for our starters.

SP Gio Gonzalez* Home 4 3 0.571 3.88 12 12 65 23 63 1.3 8.7 2.7
SP Gio Gonzalez* Away 5 7 0.417 3.63 14 14 86 31 87 1.2 9 2.8
SP Stephen Strasburg Home 8 3 0.727 2.7 17 17 110 17 133 1.1 10.9 7.8
SP Stephen Strasburg Away 5 8 0.385 3.82 16 16 99 25 102 1.2 9.3 4.1
SP Tanner Roark Home 6 6 0.5 2.5 14 14 90 23 61 1.2 6.1 2.7
SP Tanner Roark Away 8 4 0.667 3.17 16 16 102 16 76 1.1 6.7 4.8
SP Doug Fister Home 7 2 0.778 1.95 10 10 69 10 47 0.9 6.1 4.7
SP Doug Fister Away 8 4 0.667 3.05 14 14 85 14 42 1.3 4.4 3
SP Jordan Zimmermann Home 6 2 0.75 2.81 16 16 96 16 78 1.2 7.3 4.9
SP Jordan Zimmermann Away 7 3 0.7 2.76 15 15 94 12 94 1 8.9 7.8

This isn’t so much about picking who is better at home; its going with those who have the best away records.  Zimmermann and Fister both give a better chance of winning on the road and make sense as game #3 and #4 starters.  Meanwhile both Strasburg is less effective on the road versus at home.   This scenario leaves us without Gio though, our sole lefty, so it probably isn’t viable.

Option #5: play match-ups with the opponent.  Unfortunately, I’m hoping the team clinches the top seed, which means they go against the wild card winner … and while we’re pretty sure we know who the WC teams are (San Francisco and Pittsburgh) at this point … we don’t know who will host the play-in game, nor who they’ll be throwing.   Washington took the season series against both squads (4-3 over Pittsburgh, 5-2 over San Francisco), and the timing of those series are also interesting:

  • Nats dropped 3 out of 4 in Pittsburgh in May when playing poorly.
  • Nats swept Pittsburgh 3 straight in August at home as they began to solidify their lead in the division.
  • Nats won 3 out of 4 in San Francisco in June when they were still a .500 team.
  • Nats won 2 out of 3 at home in August in a slug-fest of a series.

Fister beat Liriano in Pittsburgh in May; Strasburg, Zimmermann and Treinen all lost.   Then, Roark and Fister pitched effectively in August while Gio was run-of-the-mill.

Against San Francisco; Strasburg, Fister and Roark all pitched great in ATT Park (only Treinen got beat).  Then at home, Strasburg was awful, Fister mediocre and Zimmerman effective in the August series.

Does that tell us much?  Not really.

In the end, I think it’s going to be the same rotation that we lined up on opening day, in the same order. Luckily for us, that means our hottest pitcher (Strasburg) getting the ball in game #1 and #5, it means our two starters who are best away from home will get the ball in games #3 and #4 at the opponent’s park, and it gives us a decent balance of lefty/righty in the first two games at home.  No room for Roark though, which is a shame considering his performance on the year.

So much for cutting edge analysis 🙂


Written by Todd Boss

September 23rd, 2014 at 3:08 pm

18 Responses to 'Nats playoff rotation: who will be in and who should be in?'

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  1. I’d leave off Gio, even though he’s the only lefty starter. He’s inconsistant, walks too many, and has by far the worst stats. Stras, Zim is Fis are the top guys, in any order in my opinion. I actually prefer Zim as No 1, even though Stras has looked good lately. In any case, we have 5 good starters, giving the Nats the best full season rotation. Playoff time, however, it’s a game of the top 3 guys, and Nats are still strong.


    24 Sep 14 at 10:56 am

  2. Another point I didn’t cover: Gonzalez was god-awful in 2012’s playoffs and indeed (as accused by StL players) “looked scared.” Now, will he be better now that he’s been there one time? How about Strasburg? He missed 2012’s playoffs so he’ll be making his post-season debut; should we be worried about how he handles the pressure? The most pressure-filled start he has had prior to his first NLDS appearance was, what? His MLB debut? 7ip 14ks; no pressure there 🙂

    Todd Boss

    24 Sep 14 at 11:57 am

  3. Honestly, I’d strongly consider flipping Gio and Fister:

    1. Stras – Ace at the start, on fire right now
    2. Fister – outstanding numbers at home, including an ERA 1.10 lower and a WHIP 0.4 lower (along with a better K/W Ratio).
    3. Z’nn – only one who appears completely unfazed by pitching home or away.
    4. Gio – slightly better peripherals away, despite the W-L record. K-rate almost identical regardless of home / away.


    24 Sep 14 at 12:21 pm

  4. Good points. I had Fister as a good “away” guy because (like Zimmermann) he has good away success. 8-4, 3.05ERA. Gio less so; 5-7, 3.63 ERA. I know w/l records are not “good” stats to base analysis on … but if the team supports you, and the team wins as a result, that’s the end goal.

    I think it may very well depend on how well a team hits lefties versus righties too. More and more it looks like we’ll face the WC winner:
    – Pirates vs Lefties: .257/.321/.370 with a wRC+ of 97. Vs righties? .260/.332/.412 for a wRC+ of 111.
    – Giants vs lefties: .259/.319/.393 with wRC+ of 105. Vs righties: .252/.307/.386 for a wRC+ of 99.

    So, the Pirates hit righties much better than lefties, while the Giants are slightly the reverse. This tends to think that the Nats starters will matchup better against San Francisco.

    Todd Boss

    24 Sep 14 at 1:09 pm

  5. Wow–that was a long way to go to say Williams is going to keep the rotation unchanged! But I completely agree with your assessment. Gio’s 2012 NLDS performance does make me worry that he is not a big game pitcher. So, assuming the Nats take round 1, and Gio craps the postseason bed yet again, does Williams make the move to Roark for the NLCS? It’s an interesting thought.

    The best part is that we can sit here and debate who should be in the PS rotation not because the team will be crossing its fingers at No. 4 (like the Nats had to do with Jackson in 2012) but because there are such great arguments for any of the five.


    24 Sep 14 at 1:54 pm

  6. Yeah it was a long way to go to say we’re going to do nothing.. I didn’t think i was going to arrive there until I started writing 🙂

    What if the NLCS opponent was great against lefties and Gio stunk in the NLDS? I could see that. Quick look:
    – Dodgers have a .246 BA and a 105 wRC+ against lefties, but hit .270 with 111 wRC+ as a team against Righties.
    – Cardinals: hit .252 with 104 wRC+ against lefties and .255 with just a 95 wRC+ against righties.

    Interesting: Cards are a much better matchup for the Nats righthanded-heavy rotation.

    Coincidentally the nats are 97 wRC+ against righties, 102 against lefties. They hit slightly better against lefties.

    Todd Boss

    24 Sep 14 at 2:58 pm

  7. I’m as big a Gio skeptic as anyone. As I’ve stated before, I blame the Game 5 collapse in 2012 more on him than on Storen. That said, he’ll be the 4th starter, not the 1st, which is a different level of pressure. Gio has pitched better lately than he did early in the season, and I’m open to a shot at redemption for him just as I am with Drew.

    Wasn’t Det our 4th starter in ’12? I think Jackson was 3rd, which is even worse! Man, what a long way our rotation has come.


    24 Sep 14 at 4:06 pm

  8. NLDS2012 Rotation: Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, Detwiler
    NLDS2012 Bullpen: Storen, Clippard, Mattheus, Stammen, C.Garcia, M.Gonzalez, Burnett, Gorzelanny

    NLDS2014 Rotation: Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, Gonzalez. If not in that order.
    NLDS2014 Bullpen: Storen, Clippard, Soriano, Stammen, Barrett, Roark, Thornton, Detwiler? Treinen? Cedeno?

    Yeah, that’s a bit of an improvement.

    Todd Boss

    24 Sep 14 at 4:48 pm

  9. Does Soriano really make the playoff roster? I wouldn’t feel that any lead was safe with him on the mound right now.


    24 Sep 14 at 4:57 pm

  10. @clark – I doubt they’ll pitch Soriano with a small lead. He’ll strictly be there for mop up duty in a blowout one way or another. Which is far preferable to, say, pitching Storen when you are behind 8-0.


    24 Sep 14 at 10:18 pm

  11. I do think Soriano makes the playoff roster. Williams plays vets, and Soriano is a vet. plain and simple.

    On merit … if it were me making an 8-man bullpen? Yeah i’d put him in there. If not him, then you’re going with who? Treinen? Do you trust a guy with 46 career innings versus a guy with 207 career saves?

    Tougher calls may end up being with the lefties. Blevins has pitched his way off the roster, you have to think, so even though he has a scant 10 innings with the team Thornton has been untouchable. Do you then put Treinen on in lieu of Detwiler? Better numbers, better performance … but Detwiler’s a lefty and there’s only one other lefty.

    Todd Boss

    25 Sep 14 at 8:30 am

  12. Todd, if you’re going to call out Gio for being “God awful” in the 2012 playoffs, you’re going to have also bring up that Jordan Zimmermann was worse. Everyone got so excited by his one dominant relief inning that they completely forget that his one start was a complete disaster. 3 innings, seven hits (1 HR), five runs. That bomb makes both of Gio’s postseason starts look good by comparison.

    I don’t buy the “looked scared” garbage. Gio shows his emotions on the mound and JZim doesn’t (with the exception of the famous Game Four fist pump). Players we don’t like get criticized for not showing emotion on the mound (see, e.g., Rafael Soriano) and for showing emotion on the mound (see, e.g., Gio). I’d have no problem with the Nats starting Gio in Game 4 (if necessary) with Roark in reserve in case of emergency. Of course, if one of the other starters lays an egg before that the team may well have already broken the glass on the “in case of emergency” Roark.

    John C.

    25 Sep 14 at 9:56 am

  13. John C. – your point about Roark is what I was thinking about the postseason roster. You put Gio in as the starter with Roark as the emergency reliever. If Gio is over is postseason jitters and pitches well, then all the better. If he again cant seem to get past the big lights, then you bring Roark in quickly and basically have him pitch a start minus the first few batters.


    25 Sep 14 at 10:06 am

  14. Good point on Zimmermann’s debacle of a start in 2012 NLDS. Can’t argue with that. I guess i’d point out that in the time since Zimmermann has only gotten better, while Gonzalez has regressed.

    Todd Boss

    25 Sep 14 at 10:44 am

  15. As far as whether or not you think Gio looked scared or not; i guess its just an opinion. A burning image sticks in my mind from that series, and it was Gonzalez on the mound …. looking scared. It is what it is. In 10 post season innings the dude walked 11 guys.

    Todd Boss

    25 Sep 14 at 10:47 am

  16. True about Z’mann’s 2012 LDS start, but there’s an important distinction: Jordan only had one start; Gio had two, and was bad in both. But for a RBI bloop to right field by Tyler Moore in Game 1, there might never have been a Game 5. And while I support Gio as the Game 3 or 4 starter this postseason, I absolutely buy that he looked scared on the mound in Game 5 of the ’12 LDS. I remember thinking it while watching the game. What “ace” argues balls and strikes with the umpire with a 6-run lead? With a cushion like that, you attack the hitters and make them beat you; you don’t finesse the edges of the zone and then bitch because the ump doesn’t call close pitches strikes. He walked 4 batters, threw 99 pitches, and gave up half the lead before he got pulled after only 5 innings. With a lead like the one he had, an ace should go 7 or 8 innings. Sure, Jackson and Clip gave up runs, then Storen blew the save, but it never should have come down to the bullpen. For me, that loss is mostly on Gio.


    25 Sep 14 at 11:03 am

  17. Here’s a novel thought, based more on perception than anything that can be quantified. Gio is seen as more of a front-runner, while Roark is seen as more of a bulldog. So . . . if the Nats are up 2-1 in the series, start Gio in game 4; if they’re down 2-1, start Roark.

    Will it happen that way? Nah. I would be shocked if it’s not Gio. The upside is that Roark may be the 7th inning guy we now need with Storen closing. Roark also gives a great backup if an early hook is needed, as was the case several times in 2012.

    Actually, if I were going to start Gio, I’d start him in game 2 at home and save Fister and Zmnn for the road.


    25 Sep 14 at 12:44 pm

  18. KW: agree; i think Zimmermann and Fister are your road-specialists. Stras and Gio clearly prefer home starts.

    I like Roark’s flexibility; instead of throwing an off-day starter in the middle innings now you have a guy who pounds the zone, rarely walks anybody, gets ground balls.

    Todd Boss

    25 Sep 14 at 12:51 pm

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