This season has started in much the same way 2010 did for the Washington Nationals. Through 21 games, the Nats are 10-11, nearly the same record they had at this point last year (11-10). While some things, like the record are the similar, 2011 is vastly different for one player.

Last spring, pitcher Jason Marquis didn’t even record an out in his third start of the season. Bone spurs in his pitching elbow made him ineffective, and that’s putting it nicely. A guy the Nationals had signed to eat innings, wouldn’t record a major league out again until August.

What a difference a year makes. Marquis is coming off his fourth straight appearance pitching six or more innings to start the season. More importantly, the team is 3-1 when Marquis takes the mound. Last year, he didn’t even give the Nats a chance to win, taking the loss in each of his first three starts and failing to get into the fifth inning each time out.

Obviously, the bone spurs had a huge part in Marquis’ dreadful 2010, but so far (and it’s only four starts so I’ll pump my own brakes) he’s come back a much more effective pitcher. Yes, the strikeouts are up. Not astronomically high, but six per nine innings which Marquis hasn’t come close to touching since his first year with the Cardinals in 2004. The big difference, however, is that Marquis is not walking nearly has many batters as he usually has over his career. He’s averaging 1.8 walks per nine innings. He’s never been below three per nine in his entire career.

It’s been all about small gains in a variety of areas that have Jason off to a nice start. The higher strikeouts and lower walks start with the number of first-pitch strikes Marquis is throwing. Right now, about 61 percent of first pitches batters see from Marquis are strikes. It’s not a league leading number by any stretch, but it is the highest percentage of Marquis’ career.

Another important part of Marquis’ game is his sinker. The key to his game is getting batters to hit the ball on the ground. And so far this spring, batters are doing just that, as over half of the balls put in play against Marquis are grounders and 29 percent are fly balls — both numbers are above his career averages.

It’s not like he’s been lucky, either. His fielding independent pitching stats show that he’s actually pitching better than his 3.55 ERA indicates. He’s probably gotten a little lucky with the number of fly balls hit against him that turn into home runs. That should normalize as the weather gets warmer and the Nats travel to some of the National League bandboxes. It is promising to see that opposing players’ batting average on balls in play against Marquis is even a little bit above average right now at .330. Luckily for Marquis, that should normalize, too. It’s nice to see a player that could incite only groans from the fan base a year ago is now giving them something to cheer about.