The Nationals Went All In On Just A Few Great Pitchers. Will Others Do The Same?

The Nationals ended a 95-year World Series drought in Washington, D.C., by employing a different type of road map than that of most MLB champions this century. The blueprint? Consolidate dollars and postseason innings into the best pitchers you can sign.

As free agency gets underway, there are elite arms available, including two main cogs of the World Series rotations: Gerrit Cole, most recently of the Houston Astros, and postseason star Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract with the Nationals. Rival clubs could easily copy Washington’s plan this winter — it would just be expensive.

While most World Series winners this century committed between 10 and 16 percent of total payroll to their top-paid player, the Nationals spent 19.4 percent of their $197 million payroll (the league’s fifth largest) on Strasburg ($38.33 million).2 This is the highest share of dollars spent on one player by a World Series-winning club since the 2003 Miami Marlins gave 22.2 percent of its payroll to Iván Rodríguez, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.

The Nats’ second highest-paid player, another ace in Max Scherzer, was signed to a then-record free agent deal in 2015. He isn’t far behind Strasburg, earning $37.4 million this year. In total, the $75.7 million the Nats spent on their two aces represents 38.4 percent of the team’s payroll. Add in Game 7-winning pitcher Patrick Corbin ($12.9 million), whom the team turned to last winter after being spurned by Bryce Harper, and the Nationals spent 44.9 percent of their payroll on three pitchers.

The lucrative deals paid off in October. Strasburg had a postseason for the ages, winning two World Series games and accumulating a 5-0 record in the playoffs. Scherzer won Game 1 of the World Series and allowed just two runs in Game 7 against the vaunted Astros offense. Corbin contributed three scoreless innings in the series clincher.

The nature of play changes in baseball’s postseason. With more off days and more urgency, teams can spread work around by going to the bullpen or electing to concentrate more innings in fewer arms. The five Nationals pitchers with the heaviest workloads, in terms of innings pitched this season, accounted for 57.5 percent of regular-season innings and 70.3 percent of Washington’s postseason innings — the greatest share among teams in the postseason, and way beyond the MLB average in recent years. That group included rotation stalwarts in Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.

Many teams have moved away from concentrating significant portions of payroll in one player, perhaps because of injury risks or the decline in performance often witnessed in 30-something free agents. But the Nationals bet on consolidating their resources in established, experienced players — the pitching staff is tied as the second-oldest in baseball — and it paid off. (Though it obviously helped to have a young star like Juan Soto delivering 4.8 wins above replacement on a salary of just $578,300.)

So will other teams follow Washington’s lead and pay more for top players? Those that are serious about winning may be ready to reconsider spending more. The correlation between payroll and winning this season was the seventh strongest since 1984, according to salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.

Notable pitchers who will hit the market this offseason include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler. But the biggest by far is Cole, who seems ready to test the open market. Instead of wearing a Houston Astros cap after the Game 7 loss, Cole spoke to reporters while sporting a hat from the Boras Corporation, which represents him.

There could actually be a bidding war for Cole’s services, something that has been lacking in recent offseasons. Cole, 29, developed into an ace in Houston, coming off a season of 326 strikeouts and 7.4 WAR. He figures to have a chance to set the record for a free agent pitching contract, potentially besting the $217 million contract David Price received from the Boston Red Sox after the 2015 season. Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Houston’s Game 7 starter, are the only other pitchers to have exceeded $200 million deals in free agency.3

Strasburg could be close behind Cole in terms of top-dollar contracts. The San Diego Padres are reportedly considering making an offer to the Southern California native, who has been the eighth most valuable pitcher in baseball since his debut in 2010.

It remains to be seen if clubs like the pitching-needy Padres will try to follow the Nats’ consolidation plan. It can work — but it could cost them.

Neil Paine contributed research.

How Gerrit Cole Went From So-So To Unhittable

Gerrit Cole was always supposed to make hitters swing and miss. But there was a time when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, with a 100 mph fastball in his arsenal, failed to meet expectations.

In his five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cole hovered around average in strikeout performance. By FanGraphs’ strikeout rate “plus” (K%+) metric, which sets the strikeout ability baseline at 100 and adjusts for yearly strikeout environment, Cole’s first five years in the majors ranged from slightly below to slightly above average. Between 2013 and 2017, his K%+ rate fell between 91 and 118 percent.

But after the Houston Astros acquired Cole, his adjusted strikeout performance jumped to 156 in 2018, meaning he was 56 percent above the major league average. This year? His 176 mark is the best adjusted performance since Erik Bedard’s 2007 season. By raw totals, Cole’s 326 total strikeouts this season are the 14th most in a single season and the most since Randy Johnson’s 334 in 2002. He has continued to dominate into October, and will pitch in an elimination Game 5 on Thursday versus Tampa Bay.

So how did Cole go from being an unexceptional strikeout pitcher to the game’s best K artist, and perhaps a favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award? It’s a story about his fastball, a pitch that has transformed from a middling offering to the game’s best, according to FanGraphs run values.

“He’s essentially throwing laser beams, or as close to it as I’ve ever seen from a human,” said one MLB front office official.

The game has changed since Cole debuted in 2013. Back then, the Pirates were teaching pitchers to pitch to contact and were producing record ground-ball rates. But strikeouts have the benefit of keeping the ball out of play and out of the air, and those qualities have become more and more important as home run levels have risen and risen.

When the Astros sat Cole down for a meeting in February 2018, they outlined how they believed Cole could be a more dominant pitcher. Aided by heat maps, data and video, team officials explained that much of their plan was dependent upon Cole’s fastball.

The Astros showed Cole that his upper-90s, four-seam fastball was harder to hit up in the zone. They recommended that he scrap his two-seam fastball, typically thrown lower in the zone to try to create ground balls, and a pitch type that has been crushed recently.

He listened. Cole reduced the share of two-seam fastballs he threw — from 18.1 percent of offerings in 2017 to 0.4 percent this year — and targeted the upper portions of the strike zone, a move designed to stay above hitters’ swing planes.

Cole has generated 220 swings and misses on his fastball in the top third or above the strike zone this year, which is the most of the Statcast era. (Justin Verlander’s 185 last season is second.) In 2017, Cole produced 66.

Another enhancement to his fastball was more curious: his dramatic spike in spin rate, which created controversy last season. Spin is important because more spin (transverse spin specifically) increases the Magnus effect, thus creating more movement — a larger rise on a fastball or break on a curveball. Spin and velocity lead to more swing and misses. While spin rate generally increases with velocity, Cole’s velocity has increased only slightly in Houston. It’s thought to be difficult to change spin-to-velocity ratio without using foreign substance, and some people believe that the use of sticky substances is widespread in baseball.

When I asked Cole last summer about his change in spin rate, he explained that Verlander had taught him how to get more “true rotation and hop” on his fastball. He has raised his vertical release point, and the spin axis of his fastball has changed slightly from 222 degrees in 2017 to 216 degrees with the Astros.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball averaged 8.79 inches of vertical movement, ranking 191st out of 295 starting pitchers, according to BaseballProspectus.com PITCHf/x leaderboards. This year, Cole’s fastball had 9.95 inches of vertical movement, ranking 32nd among 395 starting pitchers. He’s gained an inch of “rise” and 1 mph on his fastball. That might not sound like a lot, but even small gains can have large effects.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball ranked 41st among qualifying pitchers1 in whiff-per-swing rate at 21.6 percent, and he finished with a 4.26 ERA on the season. In his first year in Houston, Cole’s four-seam, whiff-per-swing rate jumped to 12th, at 29.3 percent, and his ERA dropped to 2.88. And this season, he led the majors in four-seam fastball whiff rate (36.9 percent) and finished with a 2.50 ERA. Batters have hit .171 against his four-seam fastball. He can now dominate batters in the strike zone with his fastball, not just with his swing-and-miss slider below it.

Cole, a free-agent-to-be, could lead the Astros to a second title in three years thanks in part to arguably the best pitch in the majors: a fastball that has become a laser beam.

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