With less than two weeks from the start of the Washington Nationals regular season, the age-old question will actually be about the aging rotation on a team built around its starting pitching.
The starting staff posted a 3.53 ERA in 2019 (second best in the majors behind the Dodgers) and then delivered big time in the postseason: Stephen Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, tossed three scoreless innings in the Wild Card Game, and captured World Series MVP honors while Max Scherzer went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA and threw three scoreless frames in Game Two of the NLDS.
Anibal Sanchez pitched 7.2 scoreless innings in Game One of the NLCS (after the bullpen was gassed in winning Games 4 and 5 in the NLDS) while Patrick Corbin merely won Game Seven of the World Series in relief.
Last year the rotation had issues from the start, from Joe Ross’ opting out to Stephen Strasburg’s wrist injury. And even with Sanchez departing and Jon Lester arriving, the rotation gets older in 2021.
The four main starting pitchers (we’re going to categorize Joe Ross/Erick Fedde/Austin Voth in the ‘co-starring’ category in the credits) will be a big part in determining whether the Nationals return to its previously contending ways or finishing under .500 for the second consecutive year.
Max Scherzer, 36 years old
- All Star Game appearances: Seven, most recently in 2019.
- Best season: 2017 when he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts while winning his most recent Cy Young Award.
- What happened in 2020: His 3.74 ERA was his highest since 2012.
He’s more than just a bulldog who puts up numbers on the mound (and occasionally at the plate and on the base paths — witness his hits and stolen bases), the veteran has been a dynamic leader in the Nats’ clubhouse since his arrival in 2015.
“I’ve often said that people get to see him every five days. I get to see him every day and he competes every day: with him(self), his teammates — he pushes everybody to be better,” Manager Davey Martinez said on the day of Max’s first spring training start.
“He’s a winner — he loves to compete,” Martinez added. Scherzer also enters the final season of that seven-year contract.
Stephen Strasburg, 32 years old
- All Star Game appearances: Three, most recently in 2017.
- Best season: 2019 when he led the NL with 18 wins and 209 innings pitched.
- What happened in 2020: Carpal-tunnel syndrome shut down his season with wrist surgery after a career-low five innings pitched.
His March hasn’t been without mishaps, as his second start of spring training was shortened by a strained calf. “I didn’t really it at all except for like the last pitch. I just kind of like felt it simultaneously as I was finishing the pitch,” Strasburg said.
“And then it was just kind of precautionary reasons at this point in camp. Just go in (leave the game) and make sure that it’s not going to alter mechanics or affect me long term.”
In his 11 seasons since arriving in Washington, Strasburg has posted 30-plus starts three times.
Patrick Corbin, 31 years old — even though it feels as though he should be 3 to 5 years younger than Strasburg
- All Star Game appearances: Two, most recently in 2018.
- Best season: 2019 when he went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts.
- What happened in 2020: His first losing record (2-7) since 2016 and his highest ERA (4.66) since that year.
The lefthander may be experimenting with his change-up pitch this spring.
“Everyone knows I’m throwing a slider (in big spots), so to have something else available to maybe keep them off of that pitch is kind of what we’re thinking there,” Corbin said after his first spring training start.
“It’ll be something I’ll continue to work with and hopefully it’s a pitch I do throw a lot over the season.”
Another pitch would pay dividends: 40.3% of the lefthander’s pitches were sliders in 2020, while only 5.6% of his pitches were change-ups, according to baseballsavant.mlb.com.
Jon Lester, 37 years old — even though he feels as though he should be 5 to 7 years older than Scherzer
- All Star Game appearances: Five, most recently in 2018 (he lead the league with 18 wins that year).
- Best season: 2016 when he went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and 197 strikeouts.
- What happened in 2020: 3-3 with an ERA of 5.16 (highest of his career, but the third time in four years it was 4.33 or higher).
He had his thyroid gland removed March 5, but made his spring training debut March 18, striking out a pair over two innings while tossing 31 pitches.
“The biggest thing for me was that each day was kind of a test. I think just getting further away from the surgery as far as energy level and how my body’s responding to each individual day. So a workout, maybe a bullpen, then throwing, and then we had the sim game,” said Lester. A sim game is a simulated game.
If there’s one thing we do know about Lester, it’s that he posts. As in the veteran started 12 games last year (every fifth game) and notched 30 or more starts in the previous 12 years.