Can The Nats Win Pennant Without Strasburg?

CAN THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS WIN THE PENNANT WITHOUT STEVEN STRASBURG?

This week the Washington Nationals are hosting the Atlanta Braves in an NL East series matching two teams who are very likely to reach the playoffs. ESPN's standings page has them both at well over 90% to be playing in October. Washington is a virtual lock up near 100%. Atlanta is in fantastic shape to earn at least a Wildcard, and could catch the Nats from behind for first place given the number of games still left on the schedule.

Obviously, there's a HUGE difference between being a divisional winner and being a Wildcard in the new MLB postseason format. If you win your division, you're IN the playoffs...and you're guaranteed a best-of-seven series. If you're a Wildcard, you have to play a one-game coin flip against the other Wildcard (in a game that will likely match staff aces) just for the right to get into a best-of-seven series against a division-winning opponent. Clearly the Nats are going to do what they can to hold onto their NL East lead.

Both of these teams have been playing very well this year. But, nobody's really talking much about it. To the degree the media is discussing the Nationals, it's about the innings count that management has on young ace Steven Strasburg. Washington decided before the season started that they would try to limit Strasburg to between 160 and 180 innings as he continues to recover from reconstructive Tommy John surgery. Now that the team has a serious chance to win a National League or even a World Championship, many pundits are blasting them for risking history just because a pitcher's arm "might" be in danger.

We're not going to argue the point here. We understand how important pennants are. We also remember that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had potential Hall of Fame careers derailed by a RIDICULOUS level of overuse when they were young. And, let's not forget that Johan Santana of the Mets has been a shadow of his former self in recent weeks after throwing that 134-pitch no hitter. He made history. The Mets collapsed soon after partly because he couldn't get anybody out any more.

What we want to talk about today is what happens if you take Strasburg off the roster for the postseason. Let's assume Washington wins their division, then management goes through with their plan to save Strasburg for the future. Can Washington win a series? Can Washington still win the National League? Could Washington finish off a SHOCK THE NATION season and win the World Series (a question that many teams are asking this year, by the way).

Here's the rest of Washington's starting pitching rotation:
Jordan Zimmerman: 2.38 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
Gio Gonzalez: 3.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
Ross Detwiler: 3.25 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
Edwin Jackson 3.69 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

Hello! That's a fantastic pitching staff even when you take Strasburg out of the mix. Those may not be household names to many casual fans because the pitchers haven't been throwing for the Yankees or Red Sox. But, any WHIP below 1.20 is solid as a rock...and ALL FOUR remaining guys in the rotation are down that low. Jackson has some problems occasionally allowing big hits, which is why his ERA is higher than the others. But, it's not a bad ERA. Frankly, it's GREAT for a #4 guy in a rotation...and Jackson's been #5 while Strasburg is still active.

Are there any ballpark influences polluting those numbers? That's an important question. You can accumulate misleadingly good stats in a pitchers park like Seattle or Oakland. That creates the illusion of greatness where it doesn't exist. This year's stats show that Washington is close to being a neutral park. It's slightly favored the pitcher, but only fractionally. You can basically say that Washington has played its home games in a neutral park...which means those great stats are LEGIT.

Bottom line. The starting rotation has the numbers of a championship caliber staff even without Strasburg. Maybe pressure would get to guys who aren't used to performing under a global spotlight in the playoffs. But, that could happen to Strasburg just as easily.

Here's another way of looking at it...

Washington is 75-46 this season, representing stunning dominance. Losing their staff ace wouldn't go unnoticed. Washington is 17-7 in Strasburg's starts this year...which is a higher percentage than they've had overall.

All Washington Games: .619 winning percentage
Strasburg's Games: .708 winning percentage

Strasburg has helped lift them to great heights. But, you know what? The team is still very strong without him!

Without Strasburg: 58-39, for a .597 winning percentage

That looks like a meaningful drop-off. But, baseball is a sport of relative parity. A .597 winning percentage is very strong...so strong in fact that it represents a 97-65 record over a full 162-game schedule.

Or...

With Strasburg, Washington is on pace to finish 100-62 (.619)
Without Strasburg, Washington is on pace to finish 97-65 (.597)

Simple question. Is a 97-65 team capable of winning their league pennant? Is it capable of winning the world series? OF COURSE!

Losing Strasburg doesn't cripple the Nationals by any means. Their staff would be the equal to anyone they're facing in the NL playoffs. The NL isn't as strong as the AL...but NL teams have still managed to win some recent World Series in best-of-seven sprints. Washington is a legitimate threat to go the distance without Strasburg.

We haven't talked about offense yet. Pitching is critical in the postseason. But, you have to score runs to win! Is Washington's offense up to the task? Here's how the NL playoff contenders currently rate in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage)

St. Louis .768
Cincinnati .748
Washington .735
Atlanta .730
San Francisco .713
Pittsburgh .708
LA Dodgers .685

St. Louis may not even make the playoffs...and they have a stat profile that leads to big numbers in blowouts but not consistent numbers vs. quality (which is why they've done so poorly in close games). Washington grades out well amidst Cincinnati and Atlanta...and would hold an offensive edge over any other opponent.

Don't assume Washington is crippled if they go ahead and bench Strasburg when he reaches his innings limit. He matters. But, this is NOT a one-man team.

Speaking of that...NETWORK is not a one-man team either. JIM HURLEY is the man in the middle of the information hurricane. And, he is the key factor when it comes to finding the best plays on the board after checking with our scouts, our sources, our statheads, our computer programmers, and our Wise Guy connections. The good news for you is that JIM HURLEY isn't on an innings limit! He's as great now as he's ever been...and he's going to continue to pound the Vegas line every day...year round...in all sports.

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It's a HUGE week in baseball amidst these sizzling pennant races...

RIGHT NOW
Atlanta at Washington
San Francisco at LA Dodgers
NY Yankees at Chicago White Sox
Baltimore at Texas
LA Angels at Boston

THIS WEEKEND
St. Louis at Cincinnati
Atlanta at San Francisco
Oakland at Tampa Bay
LA Angels at Detroit

Great baseball daily...the NFL dress rehearsals begin Thursday...and we're now less than a week-and-a-half away from the start of college football. Don't sit on the sidelines...GET IN THE GAME WITH JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

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