Amid hot start, Harper and Strasburg show potential for Nationals
On Tuesday night against the Marlins in Miami, the Nationals' top two stars were at their best. Stephen Strasburg spun eight innings of three-hit shutout ball, striking out 10, and Bryce Harper backed him with a grand slam, his second within a five-homer barrage over his past six games. With the 7–0 win, the Nats climbed to 10–3, leaving them half a game off the Cubs' pace for the majors' best record and matching their 2012 start as their best since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005.
As in 2012, the Nationals have benefited from a soft early schedule, largely building their early record against teams that figure to wind up near the bottom of the league. That year, their first four series came against three teams who would go on to finish with sub-.500 records, namely the rebuilding Cubs (bound for 101 losses) and Astros (107 losses) and underfunded Mets (88 losses). Only the Reds (97 wins and the NL Central flag under manager Dusty Baker, who is now the skipper in Washington) constituted top-flight competition, and the Nats took three of four from Cincinnati. This year's Nationals have begun by playing a pair of rebuilding clubs, namely the Braves (against whom they've played six games) and Phillies, and they're now amid their second series against the Marlins, who lost 91 games last year and haven't finished above .500 since 2009. Those three teams—against whom the Nationals went 36–21 (.632) in their otherwise-disappointing 2015 season—are a combined 14–26 thus far, going 11–16 (.407) against teams other than Washington.
The schedule won't always be that favorable, but the Nationals' hot start is still worth a closer look. They've yielded just 2.31 runs per game, the league's second-lowest rate behind the Cubs' 2.29. Some of that owes to the team's .733 defensive efficiency, which ranks second in the league and 43 points above league average. By comparison, last year, Washington was at .685, one point below league average. A largely healthy lineup—with the likes of Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth on the field instead of on the disabled list—has also helped.
A rotation that owns the majors' lowest ERA (1.96), the league's second-highest quality-start rate (77%) and ground-ball rate (51.1%) and the third-lowest home run rate (0.5 per nine) has done the bulk of the heavy lifting. Joe Ross and Gio Gonzalez have each posted ERAs below 0.70 by allowing just one run across two starts, and Strasburg comes in at 1.25 after allowing three runs in three outings totaling 21 2/3 innings. Tuesday's start was the 27-year-old righty's first against a team other than Atlanta, and it was his best of the year.
Strasburg was economical against Miami, using 13 or fewer pitches in five of his eight innings and 105 pitches in all. Via Brooks Baseball, he generated 17 swings and misses, 10 of which came via his four-seamer, which averaged 95.2 mph and topped out at 97.1. His changeup—which averaged a hefty 88.9 mph—netted five more swings and misses. Via Brooks, that fastball velocity was actually his second-lowest in exactly a year, with only an Aug. 30, 2015 start against the Marlins in Washington (94.1) coming in lower.
Meanwhile, Strasburg threw his slider 15 times; he's gone to the pitch at least 11 times in each of his three turns. The pitch accounts for 13% of his offerings this year after maxing out at 1.4% in 2014. Within the minuscule sample size across three starts, the results in terms of whiffs per swing (16.7%) and batting average when put into play (.300) have lagged behind those of his other offerings, but they do have value as far as sequencing goes.
The return of Strasburg’s slider owes to the encouragement of new pitching coach Mike Maddux. According to MLB.com's Jamal Collier, Maddux had this to say on Monday:
"I think he's had [the slider] in his back pocket…. We kind of encouraged him to give it a whirl. Let's let the hitters tell if it's a good pitch."
Strasburg has denied the fact he is even throwing a slider, and Maddux did not put the pitch in a specific category. Whether it's a slider, a variation of Strasburg's fastball or a cutter, Maddux likes that it gives Strasburg a pitch that moves to his glove-hand side of the plate…
"It puts another thought in the hitter's mind that, 'Holy cow, he's got that too,'" Maddux said. "It really neutralizes guys sitting on one side of the plate on him. He's always being able to expand the plate one way and also another way under. Now we can use an effective strike zone going the other route."
Slider or no, Tuesday's performance was of a piece with Strasburg's late-season run in 2015. Recall that he made two trips to the disabled list last season, first missing 24 days in late May and June for a neck problem and then nearly five weeks in July and August for an oblique strain. In a total of 13 starts since then, he's delivered a 1.74 ERA across 88 innings—lower than all but the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (0.57 in 110 1/3 innings) and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (1.57 in 114 2/3 innings)—and a major league-high 11.6 strikeouts per nine against 1.5 walks in that span, during which his FIP is a stellar 2.09 as well. By comparison, in Strasburg's 13 starts in 2015 prior to beginning this stretch, he posted a 5.16 ERA in 61 innings, lasting fewer than five innings in five starts. Since then, he's departed early just once, that last Aug. 30 prior to having his turn skipped due to discomfort in his upper back. His rough early going is why he finished last season with a career-worst 3.46 ERA.
All of which is to say that the Strasburg that we're seeing right now may be the best-case version. That's thanks largely to full health, or as close to full health as a pitcher who regularly delivers 95 mph fastballs may ever be. That's a good thing both for the Nationals in 2016 and for Strasburg's own future beyond. He's in his final year before being eligible for free agency and, if his body holds up, he is a strong bet to be the top starting pitcher in a market far shallower than this past winter's. Given that Scott Boras is his agent, Strasburg is a cinch to test that market, though Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo recently told SiriusXM that the pitcher "could be a long-term fit" in Washington.
The Nats can only hope that Strasburg's combination of health and performance leads to the type of season-long dominance they got from Harper last year. Washington's star outfielder followed a pair of injury-plagued seasons in 2013 and '14 with a monster, MVP-winning '15. He has continued that outstanding play this year, with the latest evidence coming on Tuesday. Here's his slam off Marlins reliever Chris Narveson, a blast estimated at 408 feet according to StatCast:
The homer was Harper's seventh of the season and the 104th of his career; it seems like just the other day that he was a young man passing 100 (and keeping it 100). Thus far, he's hitting .333/.429/.867, with his slugging percentage and 235 OPS+ both leading the league. As ESPN's Mark Simon pointed out, a good chunk of Harper's damage since the start of last year has come against the NL East's lesser teams, while he's been kept more in check by the Mets. Fleshing out Simon's data to include plate appearances and home runs:
Since the start of the 2015 season, Harper has gone yard in 9.5% of his plate appearances against the Braves, Marlins and Phillies, the equivalent of a 62-homer showing in 650 PA; for 2016 alone, his home-runs-to-plate-appearances rate is 12.5%.
Given the sample sizes and caliber of competition, it's premature to suggest that Harper has gotten even better than last year, though as a 23-year-old (even one who's fresh off one of the greatest age-22 seasons in baseball history), it's hardly unthinkable that he could continue to improve. What this April outburst does suggest is that last year was no fluke, and that Harper has closed the gap with Mike Trout when it comes to debating which former Rookie of the Year is the best player in the game.
That debate will continue to rage. For the moment, the Nationals and their fans can just enjoy the strong start to the season and hope that it will continue.