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The Nats want their starters ‘to get 21 outs consistently.’ Good luck.

MacKenzie Gore (left) and Patrick Corbin will start the season as Nationals starters. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

In the middle of spring training, Dave Martinez said the following about his starting pitchers, and it’s completely understandable why.

“We need these guys to get 21 outs consistently,” the Washington Nationals manager said. “That’s been the theme.”

And a lovely dream it is.

Wait. Not dream? Theme? Oh. Good luck with that.

“We cannot go through another year with what we did to our bullpen last year,” Martinez said.

Fair enough. Those guys had to get through nearly four innings of work every night. But be clear about this: Having this group of Nationals starters consistently complete seven innings is a wish that won’t be granted. Not in 2023. It goes against both the personnel that’s on hand and the direction of the sport.

“That’s who we are,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

Actually, it’s who you were.

“That’s where we outpitched a lot of teams, when we had those strong rotations, we were averaging six-plus innings per guy, not five,” Rizzo said. “It’s important to do that.”

The small-town kid in the middle of the Nats’ big rebuild

By way of updates: Max Scherzer no longer pitches for the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg is hurt. Patrick Corbin — your Opening Day starter Thursday against Atlanta — has the highest ERA and highest walks and hits per inning pitched of any starter in baseball over the past three years. MacKenzie Gore has made 13 starts in his major league career, Josiah Gray 41. Combined, they have recorded 21 outs in a start twice.

Rizzo and Martinez’s vision is who the Nationals once were and who they want to be again. But it can’t be wished into existence. Last year, only Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh got fewer innings out of their starting rotations. The Nationals’ starters recorded 21 outs on eight occasions. The list of teams that had fewer such outings:

That’s right. No one.

What we have here is an organizational philosophy that built a team into a contender but won’t hold up with the current personnel — nor the environment in the sport. Only one pitcher in all of baseball averaged more than 6.5 innings last year: Sandy Alcántara of Miami, the National League Cy Young winner, who was at 7.1 per start. In 2012, an average major league starter got just more than 18 outs — six complete innings. A decade later, that number fell to just more than 15 outs, or a hair over five complete innings.

It has been said before, but it’s worth restating: The starting pitcher has never been asked to do less than he is right now. The Nationals want theirs to do more.

“I think that as we go forward, you have to be efficient with your pitches,” Rizzo said. “To me, everyone likes strikeouts, including me. We can’t chase strikeouts. A seven-, eight-pitch strikeout to me is not as good as a two-pitch grounder to the shortstop.”

So put aside getting 21 outs for a second. The 2019 rotation that reached the playoffs and won a title — they did it 42 times that summer and then five more times in the playoffs. This rotation — Corbin, Gray, Gore, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl to open the season — won’t approach that. Corbin completed seven innings four times last summer. Kuhl, then with Colorado, did it twice. Gray, Gore and Williams did it once apiece.

“As a starting pitcher,” Williams said after his final spring outing Tuesday, “we want to go a complete game all the time.”

Cool. How many times have you done that in your career, Trevor?

“One time,” he said. “But the goal is to fill as many innings as possible and hand over the ball to the bullpen with a lead.”

That’s reasonable. Pitching efficiently will help that happen. After rising every year since 2005, the major league strikeout rate has actually fallen in each of the past two seasons — a development at least partially the result of banning the sticky substances that helped pitchers better grip — and therefore spin — the baseball. The pitch clock, which may force pitchers to throw before they have fully recouped their energy, could further reduce whiffs.

Chasing strikeouts? That’s so 2019.

“It’s really important for us to get early, soft contact to keep hitters off balance and keep us in the game,” said Gray, whose 28 starts last year were more than twice as many as he had made in his career. “I think you sort of talk about it, but you don’t really see the fruits of it until you’re in the game and you’re like: ‘Man, I’m in the sixth inning, and I’ve got like 90 pitches. Where could I have gotten earlier outs, earlier contact?’ We’re stressing that.”

The cost of building a new MLB team? Sometimes, it’s the fans who loved the old one.

This is a process. In 2021, the summer he was traded from the Dodgers to the Nationals, Gray threw only 86⅓ innings between the majors and minors. Last year, he jumped to 148⅔ closely monitored innings, all in the big leagues. In 2022, when he was traded from San Diego to Washington, Gore threw 87 total innings. Ideally, his bump in workload would mimic Gray’s from a year ago — and that doesn’t mean he will be spinning seven frames against the Braves on Sunday, his first start. There is a base to be built.

“Obviously being brought up where you have a nice progression is also tremendously helpful and I think necessary,” said New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who has recorded at least 21 outs in 94 of his 267 career starts. “Mentally … you need to be aware of the opposition and how they’re trying to adjust. You’re trying to get through the lineup three times. On your best, best days, you might be able to get through the third time the same way you got through them on the first time. But more times than not you’re going to have to get shifty.”

And getting shifty — knowing how and when to mix up pitch sequences, for example — comes with time.

From 2012 to 2019 — a period that included four NL East titles, a wild-card berth and a World Series championship — no team got more innings from its starters than Washington. The pitchers are almost all gone. The philosophy remains.

“We want them to go 21 outs,” Martinez said. “But it’s early.”

Early in the season, which starts with Corbin on Thursday. But early in this process of building back up to what they once had, too.