Mike Rizzo, the general manager who constructed the Nats team to which Scherzer returns Thursday, has a favorite saying: “With starting pitching, anything’s possible. Without starting pitching, nothing is.”
That applies right now. With Scherzer reinserted into the Nats’ rotation, Washington boasts the pitchers ranked first (Scherzer), third (Strasburg) and seventh (Patrick Corbin) in the National League in wins above replacement (WAR) for pitchers, according to FanGraphs. That’s the trio that makes a Nationals appearance in October possible. That’s the trio that makes a playoff stay that lasts longer than the division series possible.
(Note: I’m aware of the Nats’ history in October. These aren’t predictions. They’re possibilities.)
Remember who Scherzer was before he twice went on the injured list with back problems, and that’s the very best version of who Scherzer can be, which is saying something. In nine starts between May 22 and July 6, he posted a 0.84 ERA. He struck out 94 men and walked nine. He allowed hitters a .172 average and a .476 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, teeny, tiny numbers best viewed with a microscope. How dominant is that? The lowest OPS of any hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title is .635. For those nine starts, Scherzer turned all of baseball into the worst big league hitter on the planet.
With the Nats atop the wild-card race heading into a crucial weekend series with the Cubs in Chicago, that’s the Scherzer they want back. That’s the Scherzer they need back.
Yet given the way Tuesday night’s game in Pittsburgh unfolded — seven spotless innings from Strasburg, one Molotov cocktail of an eighth from Wander Suero and Daniel Hudson in what became a 4-1 loss — Scherzer’s ensuing performance seems less an issue than what happens with the bullpen. The most reliable character there, closer Sean Doolittle, is on the injured list after three multi-run meltdowns in a five-appearance stretch. Handed a 1-0 lead Tuesday, Suero faced three batters and retired none of them. Hudson, acquired in a deadline-day deal with Toronto, then coughed up the three-run bomb to Starling Marte that sealed a difficult loss.
Tomes have already been written about how shaky (read: awful) Washington’s bullpen has been this season. (Update: In the past 50 years, only this year’s Baltimore Orioles and the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays have worse reliever ERAs than the Nats’ 6.08 through Tuesday’s games.) But there’s a context here that can get overlooked if we focus only on the (sometimes maddening) unit that plays on South Capitol Street.
Look around baseball, and find a team that’s happy with its bullpen. Yeah, fine, maybe Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Houston and a few others. But it’s hard. The reason: Relievers across both leagues are getting torched at nearly historic rates.
Major league relievers are carrying a 4.55 ERA and a 4.55 fielding independent pitching (FIP) this season. Both are the highest marks since 2000, the heart of the Steroid Era. What’s more: This is the first time this century that the collective ERA of relievers is higher than the collective ERA of starters (4.52).
Think about how unlikely that is. Starters have to face hitters a second and third time in an outing, giving hitters the advantage of familiarizing themselves with a pitcher’s arsenal. Starters throw 80 and 90 and 100 pitches, making fatigue a factor. Just five years ago, reliever ERA (3.58) was at a low for this century, and nearly a quarter of a run better than starter ERA. Now, there’s not a contending team that wouldn’t take another reliable arm — or three.
Which somehow brings us back to Scherzer. Doolittle’s return to form is, quite obviously, the most important aspect of Washington’s bullpen over the final 5½ weeks of the season. It would help if Manager Dave Martinez felt comfortable with someone else — Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Suero, Tanner Rainey, anybody — to record outs 22, 23 and 24.
But we’re being optimistic here, right? And the optimistic take would be that Scherzer’s return can lessen the load on any and all of the above relievers, making them — individually and collectively — more effective.
Can one starting pitcher really reset an entire bullpen? Well, consider that from the beginning of the season through July 6 — Scherzer’s final start before going on the IL for the first time — no team averaged more innings out of its starting pitchers than the Nats: 5.92 per outing. From July 7 through Tuesday — a period in which Scherzer pitched just once — that number fell to 5.52 innings per start, down to 10th in the majors.
That’s just one or two outs per night. But I’d argue those one or two outs shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant. The point: Would you want Scherzer trying to get those outs, or fill-in-the-blank reliever? The answer is obvious.
More than that: If Scherzer — or Strasburg, or Corbin, or Aníbal Sánchez — is pushing for those final outs to get through the seventh or (imagine) the eighth, then there’s a reliever who is not getting those outs who will be that much fresher the next time out. There could be some connective tissue between the ace’s return and the bullpen’s performance.
That relationship, of course, isn’t guaranteed. Neither Suero nor Hudson, for instance, had pitched since Saturday before they imploded Tuesday.
But the Nats’ nearly three-month surge, mostly accomplished without Scherzer, has provided reason for optimism. And the optimistic stance is that Scherzer’s return could have an impact on the days when he pitches — and the days when he doesn’t.