Wilson Ramos cannot feel his left index finger. The Washington Nationals have unleashed the hardest-throwing starting pitching rotation in recorded history, hell on hitters and abusive to the catcher. Ramos has called, for the starters, about 400 fastballs. They smack his mitt against the index finger first. Eleven games in, it has gone numb. “Right here,” he said, laughing and pinching his finger.
Every time Ramos goes into his crouch with a Nationals starting pitcher on the mound and puts down one finger on his right hand — the universal symbol for fastball — the baseball rockets to him at a dizzying rate of speed. Through Monday’s games, the average fastball from a Nationals starter this season has zipped at 93.4 mph, according to FanGraphs.com, faster than any rotation since statistical services began tracking and recording pitch velocity in 2002.
When the Nationals chose Ross Detwiler over sinkerballer John Lannan to complete their starting five, they assembled the rare rotation with nothing but flamethrowers. Stephen Strasburg’s fastball this year averages 95.1 mph, according to FanGraphs. Detwiler averages 91.4. Edwin Jackson (93.8), Jordan Zimmermann (93.5) and Gio Gonzalez (93.3) land somewhere in between. Together, while posting an MLB-best ERA that dropped to 1.69 with Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Houston Astros, they have formed the hardest-throwing rotation in recent memory, maybe ever.
“Against these guys, it’s like you don’t get a chance to catch your breath,” Cincinnati Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs said. “You get done with one, it’s just on to the next one. We were here for four days. All four guys, and we missed Strasburg, can hit the mid-90s. That’s tough. It’s very rare. Usually, you only have one guy in the rotation who throws like that.”
By stacking their rotation with power arms, the Nationals have formed the first starting five in at least 11 seasons to surpass 93 mph with its collective fastball. The 2010 Tampa Bay Rays rotation, which averaged 92.8 mph, had been the previous standard.
This year, the Nationals have separated themselves from the rest of the league by nearly a full mile per hour — the Rays rank second at 92.7. The Nationals have assembled the kind of lightning-armed rotation typically used in the American League to fend off lineups that include a designated hitter. Seven AL teams separate the Nationals from the next-hardest throwing National League rotation, the San Diego Padres, whose starters have thrown fastballs an average of 91.5 mph.
“It does go along with my philosophy,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The radar readings, per se, there’s no philosophy there. But power arms with swing-and-miss stuff, that’s how you build strong rotations. Big, physical pitchers with stuff and command. That was always part of our plan.”
The Nationals’ rotation can grind down opposing hitters, leaving them begging for a soft-tossing pitcher by the end of a series. But facing hard thrower after hard thrower also allows hitters a chance to adjust to them. Essentially, 95 mph starts to become normal.
“Is it good for a hitter to see fastball after fastball at 95? No. You can time it,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “But they have different stuff to go along with it.”
The Nationals have aligned the rotation so left-hander follows right-hander, except when Jackson pitches after Zimmermann. “It’s not an accident that we have two lefties in the rotation,” Rizzo said. More important, the five Nationals starters use varying off-speed pitches to complement their fastballs.
“We all have a unique character on the mound,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone has their own style of pitching.”
Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said he had no problem facing a mid-90s fastball every night, but facing the Nationals, “it’s a little less comfortable across the board, because they do throw so hard,” he said. “Honestly, velocity is not the important thing to me. What makes a pitcher effective is the things they can throw other than their fastball.”
The Nationals, even if they all throw hard, provide five different looks. Strasburg throws a 90-mph change-up and a wipeout slurve that are alien to most any hitter. Jackson throws a slider that darts straight down, while Zimmermann mixes in a slider that jets across the plate with a wicked curve. Gonzalez throws a sweeping curve with late break from a low angle. Detwiler throws a tight, biting curveball from a high release point that looks, out of his hand, like his fastball.
“I don’t think [velocity] is any sort of fear factor,” McCatty said. “I don’t think [hitters] are worried about 95. They know they throw hard. But it’s the other pitches that are in the back of their mind after they locate their fastball. That’s the key thing.”
Sunday morning, the day after Jackson threw a 92-pitch complete game against the Reds, Gonzalez sat at his locker as Jackson walked past him. “Edwin had to go one-up everybody,” Gonzalez said, laughing, loud enough for Jackson to hear.
“Hey,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying not to be the weakest link.”
Their success has bred a friendly internal competition among the starters. Through Tuesday, Nationals starters have allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven consecutive games. When the next day’s pitcher walks to the mound, the challenge is to match his teammate.
“They don’t talk about it between each other, but they all feel it,” McCatty said. “Nobody wants to be the guy that [stinks]. They all raise the standard for each other.”
Said Gonzalez: “When you get a roll like this with starting pitchers just constantly going out there and attacking the zone, it just sets the tone for another pitcher and the next pitcher and the next pitcher.”
The Nationals’ rotation will change ifChien-Ming Wang, expected to come off the disabled list in late April or early May, replaces Detwiler as expected. But it shouldn’t lose much velocity. Wang averaged 90.6 mph with his fastball, a power sinker, last season, and he threw harder this spring before he tore his right hamstring and landed on the disabled list. The Nationals’ rotation will keep churning along, throwing collective heat not seen in more than a decade.
“It’s definitely not the easiest staff to face,” Bruce said. “I’ll tell you that.”
Or, as Ramos could tell you, to catch.