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.

Starting Pitchers Are Getting More Work This Postseason. They Deserve It.

Bullpens have eroded the workload of starting pitchers for years. By keeping a close watch on pitch counts and increasingly specializing their pitching staffs, teams have consistently reduced how long starting pitchers work into games. This regular season, bullpens accounted for the greatest share of workload in MLB history: 42.1 percent of innings pitched, up from last year’s record of 40.1 percent.

The leash has tightened even more in the playoffs, as October became bullpen season. Only three outings last postseason exceeded 100 pitches. But perhaps the game is on the cusp of a pushback against this trend: Through Oct. 13, there have already been 12 outings of at least 101 pitches in this year’s playoffs. The starting pitcher appears to be making a comeback, as Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs wrote.

While pitchers typically fare worse the deeper they pitch into regular season games, in some recent postseasons — 2014, 2016, 2017 and early this October — pitchers were actually better the third time through the lineup than the first, according to weighted on-base average data from Baseball Savant. (Last October, pitchers were better the second time through the order than the first.) Whether in the regular season or in October, could it be that starting pitchers are getting better deeper into the game?

This season, pitchers permitted to go deeper into games, by some measures, have never performed better.1 According to data from Baseball-Reference.com, starting pitchers have been more effective as the game goes during outings of at least 101 pitches — based on opposing on-base plus slugging.

The number of pitchers allowed to go that deep into games has certainly shrunk over the years — there were only 1,028 starts in the regular season this year that went at least 101 pitches, compared with 1,082 in 2018, 1,390 in 2017 and 2,023 a decade earlier in 2009. So it may be that teams are only giving the chance to go deeper into games to the pitchers best equipped to pitch later into games — or at least the pitchers already having strong outings.

But those select pitchers and their performances raise another question: Can starting pitchers begin to take back some of the total share of pitches thrown? More teams are focusing on player development, and many of the pitchers at the center of those development efforts are having success throwing more pitches. Could this lead to a rebalancing of the pitching workload?

In the majors as a whole, pitchers have added velocity and are throwing breaking pitches with more movement. Within games this season, pitchers with a minimum of 1,500 pitches thrown averaged 93.1 mph in the first inning with their four-seam fastball but 93.8 mph in the seventh inning. And while relievers have long performed better than starting pitchers on a per-inning basis, starting pitchers shrunk the performance gap this season.

“I think where we are headed next is, ‘How do you figure out how to lengthen use of your starter?’” said Derek Falvey, chief of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins. “The more teams think about development at the major league level, I think the more you’ll see these conversations popping up like, ‘How do you get pitchers to go deeper into games?’”

While Astros manager A.J. Hinch said this spring that he planned to be more like the Tampa Bay Rays in limiting starting pitchers’ workloads, there was no dramatic change, as Astros starters threw the fourth-most pitches in baseball. Astros co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander have continued to dominate late into starts so far this postseason. They have now combined for three of the 12 postseason starts that have matched or exceeded 101 pitches this postseason, accounting for 22 1/3 innings in those outings while striking out 32 batters and allowing just 11 hits, three runs and five walks.

Caleb Cotham, an assistant pitching coach and director of pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, said that pitchers who are “intentional in how they train and diligent in putting in the work on the right things” can use technology to work toward dramatic improvement in their skills. Cotham, who joined the Reds before this season, trained at Driveline Baseball beginning in 2014 and will be working again with Driveline’s Kyle Boddy, who was hired this month to lead the Reds’ pitching development efforts. Cotham believes that pitching stamina is another attribute that can be trained.

“Baseball is getting better at measuring more things,” Cotham said. “Having more information to then apply to individual, such as, ‘This guy’s [elbow and shoulder] internal rotation goes down significantly after 85 pitches. This other guy has lower arm speed but he maintains it. He can sustain this.’ It will be very interesting moving forward.”

“The game will probably get pretty weird, pretty soon.”

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