Still too early to worry about faltering aces

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The ERA leaderboard, organized greatest to least, is a bit of a shocker. At the top you’ll find both of the defending Cy Young award winners (David Price and R.A. Dickey), as well as Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, and Stephen Strasburg, among others. You’ll hear this a lot but it bears repeating: it’s still very early, so you can’t really trust the stats yet.

I went back to starters’ first  three starts in 2012 and found some surprising ERA outliers as well, then I researched how they fared over the rest of the season. A small selection of elite hurlers:

(ERA-3 = ERA through three starts; ERA-RoS = rest-of-season ERA)

Player ERA-3 ERA-RoS
Adam Wainwright 9.88 3.50
Max Scherzer 7.98 3.38
Josh Johnson 5.94 3.61
R.A. Dickey 5.71 2.50
CC Sabathia 5.59 3.14
Zack Greinke 5.09 3.33
David Price 4.20 2.43

This exercise can be repeated for any group of players. Just to name a few on the hitting side: Matt Holliday had a .602 OPS after the first two weeks last year, but bounced back and posted a .908 OPS the rest of the way. Jay Bruce went from .679 in the first two weeks to .859 the rest of the way. Giancarlo Stanton went from .642 in the first two weeks to 1.010 through the end of the season.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.