So the discussion over potential pitching matchups for a playoff series in October may yet be hypothetical. But Washington is playing decently this season, is facing a weakened NL East, and enjoys a favorable schedule for the remainder of the season. The odds are likely that we will see this team in the playoffs. All of which raises the question of to whom should Matt Williams hand the ball for Games 1, 2, and 3 in a divisional round.
At the start of the season, the rotation was established. Stras, Gio, Zimmermann, Fister, and Roark/Jordan. There were some who thought that maybe Zimmermann should receive the Opening Day honors, but Matt Williams shot down that idea emphatically and made clear Strasburg is the team's ace. Preferring a righty/lefty alternating pattern, Gio was given the second slot, with Zimmerman the #3 starter. As that followed the 2012 and 2013 rotations, everyone seemed fine with it. Fister's injury at the beginning of the season scrambled things a bit, but since his rocky debut in Oakland, he has reminded all of us why Mike Rizzo was so high on him during the offseason.
But are Stras, Gio, and Zimmerman the three starters the Nationals would want to put out there for a playoff series, and in that order? If one were to simply look at statistics measuring performance so far this regular season, it is clear that those are not the three best starting pitchers for the Nationals. Looking at wins alone, Roark and Fister lead the way with 11 and 10 wins respectively, followed by Strasburg at 8, Zimmermann at 7 and Gonzalez at 6. If you base it off ERA, then it's Roark, Fister, and Zimmerman with sub 3.00 ERAs, followed by Strasburg at 3.39 and Gio at 3.88. One final statistic to throw at you -- on OBP, again it's Roark, Fister, and Zimmermann below .300 in that order, with Stras at .301 and Gonzalez at .313.
By any fair measure, Tanner Roark has been the best starting pitcher for the Nationals this season, closely followed by Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzales are distinctly #4 and #5 on that list. So it is fairly cut and dried -- Williams should give Roark the ball for Game 1, followed by Fister and Zimmerman for Games 2 and 3.
Of course that will never happen. Even if Strasburg drives all of us to want to drink with his inconsistency, accompanied by a somewhat erratic mood and presence on the mound, he is a once in a generation talent. It is telling that Matt Williams ensured Strasburg would pitch the first game following the All Star Break. For better or worse, Strasburg is the ace of this team and will pitch Game 1.
But then things get interesting. Gio does not have the same expectations or role with the team, and he has clearly not been his best this season. You add to that the fact that Zimmermann was the sole All Star pick for the team and that we traded for Fister in large part due to his postseason experience and it becomes increasingly clear that Zimmermann and Fister should get Games 2 and 3 in a playoff series. Were Williams to still go with Gio in either game, given his other options available, he arguably would be doing his team a disservice.
A Game 4 pitcher is even tougher. The schedule may lend itself to Strasburg coming back on short rest, but probably not. So do you go with Roark or Gio? Roark has CLEARLY had the better season, but Gio is the more experienced vet and has postseason experience (OK, OK, we'll try to forget the 2012 Game 5 performance!). I would say Roark, but that means effectively benching Gio for the playoffs. Does Matt Williams have the guts to do that?
I welcome other thoughts.
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