What’s New About the 2016 Nationals
Many of the players are the same but there appears to be something very different about the 2016 Nationals. Bryce Harper is at the center of the lineup and like everyone on the team, he looks as if he may have an even better season in 2016 than his MVP season last year. What is driving the change?
The face of the new look Nationals is Dusty Baker more than anything. He has won the hearts and minds of the team. It is clear that the players are all responding to his management style. But there is something more interesting at work as well and watching Gio Gonzalez pitch in his third outing of the season, I was struck by a stylistic difference that may be more important than anything else being thrown about to explain the new look Nationals.
Gonzalez was part of the remake of the Nationals pitching between 2011 and 2012. John Lannan and Livan Hernandez were replaced by a bumper crop of young pitching talent and they all threw hard. Jordan Zimmermann was the first to arrive, but he was followed by Gio Gonzalez and then Stephen Strasburg and the talk in DC was about the average fastball velocity of the starting pitching staff from top to bottom. Gone was Livan Hernandez and his 65 mph lollipop curve. 100 mph opened up a tent at Nationals Park and it was converting sinners to its cause down by the banks of the Anacostia River.
Steve McCatty oversaw the transformation of Washington pitching. He came over in 2009 to replace Randy St. Claire. McCatty was a fine pitcher for the Oakland Athletics in the days when Charlie Finley was making his exit from the baseball scene and Ricky Henderson was making his debut. McCatty was young and threw hard, but it was an era dominated not by hard throwers but by two pitches that had gained ascendancy in the effort to level the playing field with sluggers like Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, and Gary Carter. The slider had made their mark on baseball starting in the 1960’s and the cutter gave pitchers one more breaking ball, thrown hard but with late bite.
There was another reason McCatty was a natural for Washington. Billy Martin road McCatty like he was Pony Express and overuse ruined McCatty in two quick seasons. McCatty cannot straighten his elbow completely to this day. Fast forward to the Strasburg shutdown at the end of the 2012 season and it is easy to see why McCatty was so important to working with a bunch of young arms many of whom were coming back from Tommy John surgery like Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg. But all of “Cat’s” young proteges threw hard. Gio Gonzalez led the National League in strikeouts per nine innings in 2012 and even in his shortened season, Strasburg was right there with him and every member of the 2012 Washington Nationals rotation could throw 94 mph at a minimum.
“We are going to throw fastballs,” McCatty was quoted as saying in the Washington Post in 2014. And for a while it worked and then it didn’t. The league caught up to the Strasburg fastball and slowly the velocity began to go south as well. Zimmerman and Gio were only throwing 92-94 and Strasburg never threw another 100 mph fastball after he came back from surgery. But McCatty continued to preach the high heat.
And that is what is different about the Washington Nationals in 2016. McCatty is gone and has been replaced by Mike Maddux, whose more famous brother was never about speed.Mike Maddux oversaw a Texas Rangers pitching staff in 2015 that managed to make the playoffs with their most effective starter being Yovani Gallardo. Despite a notable drop in velocity, the 29-year old Gallardo had his best season in the Majors pitching for Maddux.
Watching Gio Gonzalez on Friday night it was hard not to think about those statistics. Gio’s fastball clocked in at 91 mph most of the night and sometimes less. But he was keeping it down in the zone. The high riding fastball that was all sink or swim was gone. He was using the curve to more effect and the changeup was his swing-and-miss pitch as much as anything else. In a very limited sample size of three starts, Gio is getting results more in line with his 2012 season when he won 21 games and struck out 207 batters in 199 innings. The whiffs are there, but the velocity is dialed back.
And then there is Strasburg who is using a hard slider to great effect so far this season. Strasburg, like Gonzalez, is well removed from the young hard thrower that premiered in DC back in 2010. The fans don’t ooh and ahh when the radar gun postings are made. The 27-year old version of that guy is learning to pitch and it is no longer all about the fastball. He is the pitching leader on what is shaping up to be a very good rotation.
The other pitcher having considerable success so far for the Nationals is Joe Ross. Ross has a power slider that dives beneath bats, but many thought the league would adjust to him and his fine rookie season would be a pleasant memory. But the 0.54 ERA over 16 innings with two wins and no losses say that Joe Ross is listening to new coach Mike Maddux as well.
It is early yet, but the most important new look to the Washington Nationals may be its pitching staff. Mike Maddux may be just as well suited to the current skill set of his staff as McCatty was back in 2012. Maddux could end up paying the biggest dividends of any Washington off-season acquisition not named Daniel Murphy.
Mike Rizzo may have retired the old “Fastball” look to his pitching staff when Steve McCatty left town, but so far the pitching is still delivering the mail. The fans may grow to like the more mature versions of those old fireballers because at the end of the day it as all about winning, not the radar gun. So bring on those hard-throwing young Mets pitchers. This is going to be a dog fight and slow and steady seems to be getting the job done.