If you’ve been keeping up with the mini-series so far, you’ve seen a lot of the players — both pitchers and position players — who had some level of importance without being guys the fanbase necessarily rallied behind like the true superstars.
Now it’s time to dive into the superstars. The Nationals had a lot of great pitchers over the course of the decade, so ranking them isn’t necessarily easy to do. As my high school Statistics teacher from South Africa used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a zebra.” In this case, we’ll look at the most dominant players in specific roles for the longest periods of time, with productivity in their best seasons serving as a tiebreaker.
No. 1: Max Scherzer
The Stats (2015–19): 79–39 record in 158 starts (1,050.2 innings), 2.72 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 1,371 strikeouts
Frankly, the top four starting spots are all pretty easy, but splitting hairs between those four is a bit tougher. With that said, Max Scherzer has to be the pick for the top spot. His entire tenure in Washington has been spectacular, but during his first two or three years with the Nationals, he was arguably the best pitcher in the MLB.
Those stats aren’t normal, folks, and neither are his overall accolades. He made seven consecutive All-Star games (starting in 2013), finishing in the top five for the Cy Young award in all of those seasons and winning the award three times — two of which came in Washington (the other was while he was still in Detroit). Check out the rest of the Twitter thread above if you want your jaw to drop even more.
No. 2: Stephen Strasburg
The Stats (2010–19): 112–58 record in 239 starts (1,438.2 innings), 3.17 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 1,695 strikeouts
Strasburg spent a large chunk of this decade as one of the best non-staff aces in the league. There’s actually a perception that he’s overrated — likely due to the hype surrounding him prior to becoming a No. 1 overall draft pick. In reality, he’s probably been a top 10 starting pitcher during his era, and some of his performances rival the best of Scherzer.
His production looks somewhat pedestrian compared to Scherzer, but don’t get it twisted; that’s still really good. There are only five current pitchers who have made at least 170 starts and have a lower ERA than Strasburg, and no pitcher in the history of the sport has as many strikeouts in as few games as he does. And who cares that he was shut down late in the 2012 season? He’s the reigning World Series MVP.
No. 3: Jordan Zimmermann
The Stats (2010–15): 67–45 record in 178 starts (1,002.2 inning), 3.20 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 811 strikeouts
Zimmermann arrived earlier (2009) than the rest of these guys and is a bit easier to forget since he left midway through the team’s elite run during the decade, but he’s still historic — and not just because of the no-hitter he threw. He was an All-Star and top 10 Cy Young finisher twice (2013–14) and tossed four complete-game shutouts.
For a No. 3 starter, Zimmermann’s stats during the decade are pretty remarkable. His name would still be popping up with other elites if his production hadn’t plateaued in Detroit after leaving Washington.
No. 4: Gio Gonzalez
The Stats (2012–18): 86–65 record in 213 starts (1,253.1 innings), 3.62 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 1,215 strikeouts
Gonzalez was by far the most erratic of the top quartet, but his high points were also very high. Case in point, he was an All-Star and third-place Cy Young finisher in his 21-win season in 2012. And as much as he is the weak arm of the top four starters, he had more full seasons with an ERA below 3.00 — two (2012 and 2017) — than above 4.00 — one (2016).
The biggest issue for the southpaw was command — primarily in terms of walks, although occasionally also hanging a 90 mile-per-hour fastball over the middle of the plate and watching the ball fly over the fence. My dad also used to frequently point out when Gio was talking to himself on the mound — a telltale sign that he was confused and frustrated. Still, his overall production is undeniably strong.
No. 5: Tanner Roark
The Stats (2013–18): 64–54 record in 182 games (141 starts, 935 innings), 3.59 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 732 strikeouts
The last rotation spot takes a good bit more thought. Doug Fister — who once cracked the rotation instead of Roark — and Ross Detwiler had compelling cases, but it’s also fair to say that neither of them screamed “front-line starter” like Roark did at times, nor were they as consistently healthy. Patrick Corbin has the production, but not the longevity.
In 2014 and 2016 — the years surrounding the season when he dropped out of the primary rotation due to Scherzer’s insertion — Roark won at least 15 games with a sub-3.00 ERA each year. Had he stuck in the rotation instead of spending a year in the bullpen, he may have been able to perform at a higher level and move up this list, but that would be revisionist history. Either way, when he was at his best, he was a huge part of Washington’s success.
At the end of the day, he’s the fifth starter. The Nationals would be best off reaching for the upside he provides and dropping him out of the rotation in the postseason — presuming they’d get there — if it doesn’t work out.
Closer: Sean Doolittle
The Stats (2017–19): 10–8 record in 136 games (135 innings), 75 saves, 2.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 157 strikeouts
Part of me wants to cheat and make an exception for Mark Melancon, who was phenomenal in a two-month stint after his Trade Deadline acquisition in 2016. However, Doolittle is a more-than-worthy candidate in his own right. He was nearly as good as Melancon in his first two seasons in Washington — including an All-Star bid in 2018 — and a deeper analysis of 2019 makes that season also look much more favorable.
Doolittle was clearly overused early in the season — for multiple reasons — but simply removing the month of August (leading up to his stint on the injured list, when he was very noticeably fatigued) from his stat line, his 2019 ERA drops from 4.05 to 2.89. Once he returned from the IL, he returned to his old form, ultimately becoming an integral part of the Nationals’ World Series run.
Eighth-Inning Setup: Tyler Clippard
The Stats (2010–14): 29–21 record in 371 games, 34 saves, 2.63 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 455 strikeouts in 393.1 innings
There are certainly various approaches to take with this role. Do you just put the second-best closer here, or do you pick the player who had the most success in this role? I opted for the latter, although he also had a 32-save season in 2012.
For what it’s worth, 2012 was actually Clippard’s roughest season in terms of every other statistic. In every other season of the decade — which would be more indicative of this role — he went 27–15 with a 2.39 ERA. He was the goofy-looking late-inning reliever for the Nationals before Doolittle made it cool, and he was just as dominant on the mound.
Seventh-Inning Setup: Drew Storen
The Stats (2010-15): 21–13 record in 355 games (334 innings), 95 saves, 3.02 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 321 strikeouts
The main reason why I’ve included this category is because the Nationals typically used Clippard and Storen as co-setup men, making the last nine outs virtually automatic. Storen was generally viewed as the backup closer — and even the primary closer for a couple seasons — but he usually slotted “behind” Clippard when he wasn’t the ninth-inning man.
The 2013 season was a bit of a blip (4.52 ERA), but that fell between a dominant stretch — and preceded a pristine 2014 (1.12 ERA). All told, he typically fell somewhere between productive and dominant. If that’s what you get out of your No. 3 reliever, you should be feeling pretty good about your bullpen.
Left-Handed Specialist: Matt Thornton
The Stats (2014–15): 3–1 record in 78 games (52.2 innings), 1.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 31 strikeouts
This was a tough call, because Sean Burnett definitely deserved consideration. But Thornton was often close to unhittable — at least in terms of base hits. Nothing about him was overwhelming, as his fastball — which he relied upon heavily — rarely exceeded 95 miles per hour, and he wasn’t a strikeout pitcher, but he was a master at run prevention.
Oddly enough, the southpaw arrived in Washington in August 2014 after being designated for assignment and waived by the Yankees. From that point until the end of the following season, Thornton was consistently one of Matt Williams’ go-to bullpen arms.
Jack of All Trades: Craig Stammen
The Stats (2011-15, excluding 2010 as starter): 36–26 record in 384 games (257 innings), 1 save, 2.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 237 strikeouts
Stammen originally came through the minor league system as a starter, but like most starters in the pre-Strasburg era, he struggled pretty mightily in that role — to the tune of a 5.12 ERA in his first two seasons. Then manager Jim Riggleman converted him into a full-time reliever, and that changed everything.
Stammen never had a precise role, but it never mattered; he could enter the game in the third inning of a blowout or the eighth inning of a one-run game and he would not be phased. He could give Washington three innings of work or come in for one key out, but there was never a reason to be worried. It’s pretty remarkable that he was able to be such a Swiss Army knife.
The Extra Men
The Stats (2016): 1–1 in 30 games (29.2 innings), 17 saves, 1.82 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 27 strikeouts
The Stats (2019): 3–0 in 24 games (25 innings), 6 saves, 1.44 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 23 strikeouts
The production is similar for both players, but their paths to it were very different. Melancon was traded for to be the much-needed closer with a Mariano Rivera-like cutter that would hopefully help the Nationals make a postseason run, while Hudson was meant to be an arm that would come out of the bullpen earlier in games or mid-inning with runners on base.
Melancon ultimately failed in his mission, whereas Hudson ascended into the closer’s role and did what Melancon was supposed to do — retire the last batter of the World Series. Nonetheless, both had stellar partial seasons, and having the ability to use them as early as the fifth or sixth inning is nothing short of a luxury.
Hopefully now you understand why the All-Decade second team includes some impressive arms. This is an incredibly loaded unit. The strength of the starting rotation may not be a shock — it’s almost always had two or three dominant arms — but it’s easy to forget how many quality relievers the Nationals have employed.
Washington always had somewhere between two and four really good relief arms at the same time; it’s simply come down to getting the ball from the starters to the anchors of the bullpen while also monitoring how often they had to pitch, as well as who the team ran into in the postseason.
With such a strong starting rotation and so many great relievers to choose from, you’d be hard-pressed to create a better single-decade pitching staff for any other franchise. The only question left is this: How strong of a lineup can be developed to compliment the pitchers?