Player Profiles 2020: Washington Nationals Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the Washington Nationals rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Nationals At A Glance

The top of this staff is rich with talent. Arguably three Top 15 SP entering 2020 lead the staff in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburgand Patrick Corbinfresh off a long and rewarding postseason, crowned as World Champions by their efforts.

After the supreme three…it gets a bit rough. Anibal Sanchez has strung together a pair of respectable seasons, but there are indications of worse days ahead. And who is the fifth starter? Is it the journey-man Joe RossThe young Austin VothOr the man with one of the lowest strikeout rates in the minors, Erick FeddeThe lack of depth may bite the Nationals across the 162 game season, and we’ll see if there are some surprises along the way.

 

Max ScherzerLocked Starter

Nickname: Mad Max

 

2019 In Review

Despite missing a chunk of time, Scherzer still put up a 170+ inning season with a sub 3.00 ERA, stellar 1.03 WHIP and casually fan 243 batters. It was more of the same, with another 16%+ SwStr campaign and 35% strikeout rate, if not better as heater held a career-best 94.9 mph velocity. As long as his .321 BABIP and 11.6% HR/FB rates fall closer to career norms, things should be just fine in 2020.

 

Fastball (48% usage)

Scherzer has a ton of confidence with his four-seamer. Despite hitting zone comfortably over 60% of the time, he still earns whiffs on 13% of his heaters, and held batters to a shockingly low .216 BAA. We’ll see if the peak velocity sticks around for another season, but it’s rare

His secondary stuff is excellent as well, but it’s this foundation of heat that keeps batters on their toes as they step into the box.

 

Slider (21% usage)

We don’t talk about Scherzer’s slider enough. It’s an elite of a pitch as you’ll find in the majors, making it surprising to see a sub-25% usage rate. It does everything – 48% O-Swing, 47% Zone rate, boasts an incredible 27% SwStr, and limited batters to a 4 wRC+. Yes, four. It’s phenomenal and can be used in any count, emitting fear into every batter as they fall behind quickly.

 

Changeup (15% usage)

Scherzer was a bit unlucky with his changeup in 2019, returning a career-high .361 BABIP with the pitch, leading to a middling .238 BAA. Nevertheless, it was still a vicious weapon against hitters. Batters chased it out of the zone 45% of the time, and missed 21% of all changeups thrown.

It’s a groundball generator, a putaway pitch, and a filthy #3 in a stacked arsenal.

 

Curveball (9% usage)

Here is my least favorite pitch of Scherzer’s arsenal. This curveball is rarely featured and used as a surprise early hook to steal a strike with its 53% zone rate and low 31% swing rate. Nevertheless, when batters do swing, it’s often not for the better – its 133 wRC+ and high 78% contact rate are not ideal for a curveball and may push Scherzer closer to being a four-pitch arm.

 

Cutter (8% usage)

Despite being far-and-away a money pitch (51% O-Swing included!), Scherzer’s cutter returned a horrid -5.7 pVal last season, a product of the 11 extra-base hits allowed on the pitch in just 223 thrown.

It was prone to too many mistakes, but when on, was incredibly effective at busting left-handers inside and generating early outs as well as dealing the final blow.

I’d expect a slight uptick next season as the pitch’s skills are well intact.

 

2020 Outlook

The skills are still there. Scherzer’s slider is downright magical, his fastball velocity is peaking, and he even had a fair share of bad luck with his cutter and changeup last season that should regress in 2020.

The only question is health. Scherzer missed a month with a back injury and for a pitcher turning 36 in July, there is more haze surrounding 200 innings than you’d like.

Regardless of the volume, the innings you’ll get are of quality. Lots and lots of quality.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.50 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 35% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Max Scherzer 2020 projection:

2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 33% K rate in 180 IP

 

Stephen Strasburg – Locked Starter

Nickname: Anne

 

2019 In Review

In his contract year, Strasburg returned arguably the second-best season on his career, posting a 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 30% strikeout rate. His 13.4% SwStr was the best we’ve seen and it was just the second time his groundball rate climbed above 50%.

There was a small shift in approach along the way. Unlike Scherzer, Strasburg’s velocity declined a touch, resulting in a heavy focus on sinkers and curveballs. It certainly worked, and we may see the trend continue in 2020.

 

Fastball (48% usage)

With a declining fastball, Strasburg still focused on four-seamers, but worked in a fair amount of sinkers as well. It worked out well for Strasburg, jamming batters and finding a new look to feature pitches in the zone.

It may have overperformed, though. It held a sub-30% O-Swing with a 52% Zone rate, and its .769 OPS could be worse moving forward.

His four-seamer was better than his sinker in pretty much every facet, holding better O-Swing, Zone, and SwStr rates. The one exception? The longball. 11 home runs were surrendered off four-seamers and it doesn’t seem like its susceptibility will go away soon.

 

Curveball (31% usage)

Mmmm I love this curveball. It demolishes batters with ease as it cruised to a 27 wRC+ last season, it can be used in any count to get whiffs, strikes, and outs, and it’s simply gorgeous to watch.

It’s about time Strasburg upped its usage and to see its performance stay consistent despite increasing its usage 50% is a clear indication of its talent. Here’s to another season of 30%+ curveballs.

 

Changeup (21% usage)

What’s an elite starter without another secondary pitch to get whiffs? While Strasburg doesn’t use this pitch for strikes like his curveball, his changeup works wonders at getting whiffs. Batters indulge him by chasing it over 47% of the time out of the zone, and the results are astounding.

Last year’s .140 BAA was right in line with its .139 mark, while a 65% groundball rate helps keep the ball in the yard.

It’s the perfect complement to his curveball.

 

2020 Outlook

While his fastball velocity declined, the change to focus more on curveballs is sure to keep Strasburg pitching at the highest level of his career. Innings are a concern, though, as last year’s 209 frames were the first season above 180 frames since 2014.

If he can stay healthy once again, another ace season is in the waiting.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 28% K rate in 130 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.90 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Stephen Strasburg 2020 projection:

3.20 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 30% K rate in 175 IP

 

Patrick CorbinLocked Starter

Nickname: Windows

 

2019 In Review

After a breakout 2018 campaign, we were wondering if Corbin could keep it up after his massive contract.

In short, he did. A 3.25 ERA with a 29% strikeout rate across another 200+ frames is exactly what we wanted, though it came with a near .15 point jump in WHIP to 1.18, on the back of a rising walk rate.

Even with the concerning 8.4% walk rate, 2019 was a success. Will it continue in 2020?

 

Fastball (54% usage)

Corbin doesn’t throw particularly hard, but he did raise his velocity a full tick from its sub 91 mph levels, spread out across four-seamers and sinkers.

There was a time during the year that Corbin lost his fastball command and it was everything, allowing 16 ER across a trio of games. But he stabilized quickly, began going in-and-out effectively would each pitch and returned a 2.62 ERA the rest of the way. Not bad.

The importance of this pitch cannot be understated. As much as his slider gets all the attention and whiffs, without this fastball establishing the edges, batters would spit on his slider each time they got the slightest whiff of its scent.

 

Slider (37% usage)

Seriously though, this is one incredible pitch. Corbin’s slide piece returned a .158 BAA last season – matching his career mark on the nose – and returned a higher SwStr than Zone rate. You read that right, Corbin’s sweeper held a 27.6% SwStr and 25.7% Zone rate, and it makes sense when batters are willing to chase it off the plate nearly half the time.

This is why he’s a perennial 30% strikeout arm and don’t expect its usage to go down any time soon.

 

Changeup (6% usage)

It may surprise you that Corbin throws more than two pitches, and he does shock batters with this changeup every so often.

There’s a reason it’s so infrequent – the pitch isn’t very good. Staggering news, I’m sure. It doesn’t earn enough chases (27% O-Swing), nor does he trust it in the zone (34% Zone rate) and it even returned a poor 130 wRC+.

Let’s just think of Corbin as a two-pitch pitcher still.

 

Curveball (4% usage)

I’m not entirely sold that this pitch exists. Corbin himself has said that he throws his slider with a slower arm speed at times, turning it into a slower breaker than can be construed as a curveball. The result was a pitch that Corbin would throw to steal a strike in the zone and fortunately not get beat in the field (just 3 hits in 117 thrown).

 

2020 Outlook

It’s hard not to expect more of the same from Corbin, who has found a groove with his fastball and slider for two straight seasons, and forming into the consistent volume arm you want.

There are questions surrounding the fragility of his fastball given the low velocity, though with such an excellent slider in his back pocket and a display of a rebound during a quick rough patch, it’s hard to imagine too low of a floor.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 28% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Patrick Corbin 2020 projection:

3.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 30% K rate in 190 IP

 

Anibal SanchezLocked Starter

Nickname: The Simile

 

2019 In Review

After a shocking 2018 season that gave us a 2.83 ERA and 1.08 WHIP from Sanchez, obvious regression was served…but not quite as much as we had expected. Sanchez’s 3.85 ERA and 1.27 WHIP certainly helped in many leagues across 166 frames and now we’re left wondering what’s next. His cutter and changeup (splitter, really) each took a step back, but were still enough to survive. Can he keep surviving?

 

Fastball (35% usage)

What do you do when your fastball isn’t as good as it used to be? You throw fewer of them, of course!

It seems obvious, but few pitchers have the boldness to execute it across a full season, including Sanchez who has seen his heater rate drop from 57% in 2016 to just 35% last season. His array of four-seamers and sinkers were emphatically “please don’t hit me!”, returning a low 17.5% O-Swing on four-seamers that makes you wonder how it returned a .228 BAA.

Oh wait, the .229 BABIP. That’ll do it.

Meanwhile, the sinker was plain awful. An even lower 15.1% O-Swing while his good luck with his four-seamer was handed over to his sinker, which held a .422 BABIP. So that’s how things evened out to just plain-old average(ish).

Keep throwing four-seamers instead and at this low rate, k? Thanks.

 

Changeup (28% usage)

Alright, Sanchez has this split-changeup and it’s surprisingly good. It’s constantly flirted with 20% SwStr clips and held its highest O-Swing of his career last season at a strong 51%+ mark.

The problem lies in the necessity to get ahead with other pitches to properly set it up. It can do a whole lot of damage, but if Sanchez is forced to throw a strike with it, batters can take advantage.

Sanchez didn’t have the same complementary pitches last year as he did in 2018, meaning more at-bats concluded on changeups before two strikes, raising its BAA from .139 to .237.

It’s not ideal, but don’t think less of this changeup. Think less of the heater and cutter.

 

Cutter (28% usage)

I like to call this pitch the McHugh cutter as the last two seasons, it’s done a wonderful job of starting above the strikezone only to fall at the last moment to nip the top of the zone. See that oddly light red? That’s not supposed to be a thing.

Sanchez was a bit worse doing so last year, though. He can have success keeping it down-and-away from right-handers (or jammed to lefties), but plenty of cutters fell thigh-high in 2019, leading to fewer whiffs and fewer balls hit into play off cutters out of the zone. There was some mid-season calibrating as well and while it was still good enough, it wasn’t the much-needed strike getter to properly set up his changeup.

I fear that things will only get worse before they get better with this pitch, and the house of cards will crumble down.

 

Curveball (6% usage)

This is as clear of a “show-me” pitch as you’ll come across with a 58% zone rate. It’s not something you want to see a whole lot of.

 

Slider (3% usage)

With his cutter becoming a solid strike-getter, this slider has been put on the backburner. That’s fine by us – the loopy breaker has returned a negative pVal for five straight seasons.

 

2020 Outlook

I’m not too optimistic about a repeat from Anibal. While his sinker shouldn’t be this terrible, his four-seamer is a major red flag that can create plenty of problems, even with its reduced usage.

His split-changeup can still miss bats and maybe the butterfly changeup from the playoffs will make a large appearance in 2020, but the cutter seems to be on a downward trend that will make it tough for the split-changeup to be the weapon we want it to be.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 16% K rate in 110 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 20% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Anibal Sanchez 2020 projection:

4.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 18% K rate in 140 IP

 

 

Joe RossFringe Starter

Nickname: The Other Ross

 

2020 Outlook

Ross returned from TJS in 2018 and things haven’t gotten easier, returning two seasons of 5.00+ ERAs in a small 78 inning sample. His wicked slider of old isn’t nearly as sharp as it used to be, and the command of his sinker is still to be determined.

There’s hope for development with a proper spring training and possible momentum out of camp to nail down his sinker/slider combination, but he’ll likely be a low IPS arm at best with plenty of volatility, making him a very questionable fantasy asset.

 

Austin VothFringe Starter

Nickname: Ted

 

2020 Outlook

Voth could very well be the fifth starter exiting camp if the Nationals elect to hold off signing a veteran arm and there are things to like. He improved his heater to sitting 92/93 mph constantly, while his curveball looks to be a strong whiff offering, touching 20% SwStr in his limited 43.2 inning sample last season.

But that’s about it. His cutter leaves much to be desired and I’m concerned his fastball/curveball approach isn’t enough to carry him into a sturdy back-end arm. Maybe as a streamer for fantasy, but unlikely more.

 

Erick FeddeFringe Starter

Nickname: The Feddes

 

2020 Outlook

There were moments where Fedde was a questionable streaming target for teams, but it’s very difficult to endorse an arm that returned a sub 13% strikeout rate across 78 innings. There just isn’t enough here to chase for him to be on your radar.

 

 

Nickname explanations:

Max ScherzerMad Max. Because duh.

Stephen Strasburg: Anne. Named after the S.S. Anne. Yes, another 90s Pokemon reference. Shhh.

Patrick Corbin: Windows. He’s a PC.

Anibal SanchezThe Simile. You know when using “like” or “AS” to show similarities.

Joe RossThe Other Ross. We want him to be like his brother Tyson back in the day. We really do.

Austin VothTed. You know, Ted, the Voth. It’s a reference from the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Erick FeddeThe Feddes. Don’t trust the Feddes.

 

Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm)

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor. Worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

  • Avatar Daniel M Johnson says:

    I don’t think you are using “journey man” correctly. Ross has been with Nats since he first came up to MLB in 2015. Doesn’t journey man refer to someone who has been traded a lot?

    Aside from that, good stuff.

    • Nick Nick says:

      Yeah, I think I could have used a better way to describe Ross’ career.

      It has been a journey, though. Called up and had a hit moment, then struggled leading to TJS, took a bit long to recover and is a bit lost now, with his earlier shine fading.

      Not really a journey man in the conventional sense (I lean that’s more “long time in minors”), good call.

      And thanks!

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