The Nationals pitching staff as a whole has the sixth-best FIP in baseball (3.12), starters the seventh-best (3.21) — though for reference, the Marlins and Phillies have better. They likely will not finish that way. Fourteen games is not much to go on. The bullpen also ranks seventh-best, with a 2.92 FIP.
Normally a higher ERA than FIP — and the Nationals have the second-largest gap in the majors — indicates good luck and good defense. As for the first, luck is most easily measured in BABIP, batting average on balls put in play, and hitters have a .280 BABIP against Nationals pitchers this season. The league average over the last three seasons has been above .290, so the Nationals are slightly luckier than most, but not so much so that one would necessarily expect a major regression.
So how have the Nationals established themselves as early pitching leaders? First of all, with contact. Eighteen teams are striking out more batters per nine innings than the Nationals have, 7.74 so far — 8.69 by their relievers, 7.34 by their starters. Only seven teams are walking fewer per nine innings (2.7). Their bullpen is second in the majors in that category, their starters in the middle of the pack.
According to Fangraphs, the Nationals bullpen is throwing first-pitch strikes with greater frequency than anyone in the majors — to 68 percent of batters. Nationals’ starters are throwing 51.1 percent of pitches in the strike zone, and only four teams have a greater frequency.
Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux, like many pitching coaches, preaches strike-throwing. He also encouraged experimentation. And his starters have made adjustments that, generally speaking, make them more prone to contact — like Stephen Strasburg with his cutter, Gio Gonzalez to throw more strikes, particularly with his two-seamer, and Joe Ross with his change-up.
When hitters do make contact, they are not making good contact. FanGraphs measures that 26 percent of contact made against Nationals’ pitchers is “soft,” the highest percentage of soft contact in the majors. On the flip side, 20.8 percent is hard contact, the lowest percentage in the majors. No pitching staff as a whole is stranding more base runners than these Nationals, 84 percent, and they have induced 15 double-play balls, near the top of the league in that category.
But 14 games into a season, those numbers come beget another question — can they keep it up? Will Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross rank among the National League leaders in ERA all season? Will the bullpen continue to throw strikes at its current pace? Will tougher teams pick apart the pitching staff more than the Braves, Marlins and Phillies have so far?
Maybe. But as of Thursday morning, with 9 percent of the season complete, the numbers look good.