The Washington Nationals begin a new quest for their first World Series title, and an elite starting rotation is at the center of it all.
Above: Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
There are many ways to quantify pitching greatness and, by many popular measures, the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies had the best starting rotation in the wild-card era that began in 1994. Between Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley, there are 18 career all-star selections and three Cy Young Awards. Halladay, Lee and Hamels each had ERAs under 2.80 that season. The rotation posted a collective 2.86 ERA in leading the Phillies to 102 wins. But that juggernaut was felled in the first round of the playoffs.
From 1995 to 1999, the Atlanta Braves had one of the greatest stretches of starting pitching in history behind Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, all three Cy Young winners and Hall of Famers. In that span, the Braves reached the World Series three times yet won only once.
The 2013 Detroit Tigers had Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello and couldn't get past the American League Championship Series. A year later, they started three former AL Cy Young award winners in the ALDS - Scherzer, Verlander and David Price - and were swept.
The 2015 Washington Nationals will be powered by a star-studded rotation. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Fister led the majors in ERA as a rotation in 2014, and the quintet improved when the Nationals lured Scherzer to Washington with a $210 million contract in January. The signing brought higher expectations for a team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs twice in the past three years. Can this best-in-baseball rotation push the Nationals over the hump?
"I've always believed that starting pitching is the backbone of the team," Scherzer said. "But it doesn't mean it's the only thing that makes the team tick or makes the team go. There are so many other things in baseball that are in play: two-out hitting, bullpen, coming up with big pitches in situations. Baseball has so many little things that affect the outcome of the game. The entire team has to be good."
Philosophies on how to build a successful team have evolved over the decades, but the rotation is usually seen as the starting point. The Nationals' rise from perennial loser to yearly contender under General Manager Mike Rizzo was driven by this motto: "When you have a real major league rotation, anything is possible."
Nationals rotations made up of Jason Bergmann, Shawn Hill and Garrett Mock were gradually replaced by rotations with Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Fister through sharp scouting, drafting, player development and shrewd trades. Scherzer was the splashy signing, the largest in Nationals history. The reason for building a team around a rotation? It holds the ball.
Lured to Washington by a $210 million contract, Max Scherzer will get to work immediately in 2015 with an opening day start against the Mets. (Photo by Jonathan Newton Video by McKenna Ewen)
"[Starters are] the most important player on the field," Rizzo said. "They control the offense. When a pitcher gives you a chance to win each and every day by pitching well, that's the most important ingredient that you have to have to have a consistent winning team."
Over the course of a six-month, 162-game season, starting pitching talent, health and depth rise to the top. In the wild-card era, the teams with the 20 best rotations in wins above replacement - an advanced statistic that measures value compared to a league-average replacement player - averaged 96 wins.
"For [a] decade, we were probably favored to win that night's game maybe 70, 80 percent of the time," said former Braves President Stan Kasten, also a former Nationals president and current president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "We didn't win that many games, but the first thing you look at for any game is who's starting that night. Because we had that kind of rotation, three different guys winning Cy Young awards, we always seemed to be favored. That's a huge place to start from."
Strong starting pitching and depth can help patch up flaws in any team. This spring, the Nationals have undergone a scourge of injuries to important position players from Anthony Rendon (knee) to Jayson Werth (shoulder surgery) to Denard Span (core muscle surgery). Building a team around a lineup can be fickle, especially given declining run production across the sport.
"It's hard to outscore people on a regular basis because good pitching shuts down good hitting most of the time," Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. Added Phillies President Pat Gillick: "Runs are going to be harder to come by now than five, six years ago. If you have good starting pitching and can prevent runs and just score a little bit, you've put yourself in a pretty good position to win."
A talented rotation can also help boost a weak bullpen. The 2013 Tigers, with the franchise's best rotation during its current run of four straight division titles, won 93 games with a starters' ERA of 3.44, fourth best in baseball, despite a bullpen ERA of 4.01, seventh worst.
"Over the 183 days of the baseball season, everybody gets tired, everybody wears down, everybody gets aches and pain," said former Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola, who won the 2001 World Series with a dominant starting rotation that included Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. "The teams that are routinely in their bullpens from the sixth inning on, they're going to struggle at the end. It's going to wear these guys out. You need these horses that can go out there and go seven innings, eight innings, go the distance occasionally."
Even though rotations have proven to be the most important building block, they don't guarantee postseason success. Teams with the top 20 rotations in WAR since 1994 reached the playoffs 18 times, including 16 division titles. But the playoffs are a different beast: Only four starters are needed in a postseason series, the bullpen takes on a bigger role and every mistake is amplified. Both elite starting pitching and bullpens are key.
Seven of those 18 teams were bounced in the first round, five in the championship series and six reached the World Series. The 1995 Braves, 2001 Diamondbacks and 2003 Marlins are the only teams of those top 20 regular season rotations to win Word Series titles in that span.
"You can build a formula to win over 162 games because there are so many games, and probabilities are going to win out," Kasten said. "But in a short series, too many things can happen to derail you. They're still important, incredibly important, [but] a bounce can change a game. And one game can change a series."
Even great rotations can be undermined. The St. Louis Cardinals beat Lee, Oswalt and Halladay in the 2011 NLDS. The 2013 Tigers starters were solid in the playoffs, but Detroit was let down by its struggling bullpen. Last year, none of the Tigers' pitching was sharp. Talented starting pitching hasn't been enough to push the Nationals past the first round in either of their playoff appearances.
In 2012, the starters weren't strong and the bullpen was worse. In 2014, the Nationals' offense scored a meager nine runs in four NLDS games against the San Francisco Giants. Their four playoff starters gave up only two earned runs after leading the majors in ERA during the regular season, but the bullpen gave up double the runs in fewer innings.
The sky’s the limit for Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals’ rotation this year. The left-hander is coming off a disappointing season record-wise (10-10), but he still posted a 3.57 ERA.(Photo by Jonathan Newton)
Aided by good fortune and hot play at the right time, two wild-card teams - the Royals and Giants - met in the World Series last season. Both were built using an unconventional formula. Giants starters had only the 16th best ERA in the majors (3.74) during the regular season, and the Royals were slightly better (3.60).
Both teams' bullpens, however, were among the best in the game. In the playoffs, the Royals rode the dominant trifecta of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, needing their starters to go only five innings. The Giants relied heavily on their bullpen and only one starter, Madison Bumgarner.
The success of the Giants and Royals, while difficult to replicate, highlighted how the bullpen in modern baseball has become more important than ever. In 2014, major league starters averaged six innings per start. Twenty years earlier, starters averaged 6.3 innings per start. Bullpens are bigger, more specialized and carry a larger load.
"The way the game is played now, the game is six innings," Gillick said. "If you can get one of your starters to go six, seven innings and you've got strength in the bullpen, you have a chance to win a lot of games. I would think pitching and the bullpen is even more important now than it was five, 10 years ago."
History has shown that good starting rotations can pile up a lot of wins over the long regular season, but they don't ensure anything come October.
"There's a lot of different philosophies about how to go about [building a team to win]," Dombrowski said. "But I still think overall you'd take your chances most of all going in there with a real strong starting staff."