After winning again Wednesday, the Washington Nationals have the best record (14-4) in the National League. And there's just one obvious reason: their starting pitching has been phenomenal. How phenomenal?
From SI.com's Ben Reiter:
On Tuesday, [Gio] Gonzalez threw six shutout innings against the Padres to lift his record as a National to 2-0, and lower his ERA to 1.52. That miniscule figure ranks him only fourth in a five-man rotation that, through 18 starts, boasts a cumulative ERA of 1.71, and is the central reason why the Nationals -- who have never had a winning season in their seven years since moving from Montreal -- have a National League-best 14-4 record and a 2 1/2 game lead in the NL East.
Little about the rotation is due to change in the near-term, especially among a top three that suddenly seems to rival any club's, even the Phillies', in its quality. Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg (2-0, 1.08 ERA) and Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 1.33) are all 26 or younger, and not one of them can become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
While there is little reason to believe that the Nationals' deep, hard-throwing rotation will collapse any time soon, there is also little reason to believe that it can continue to pitch to its current standard, as, if it does, it would finish the season with an ERA that is more than three-quarters of a run lower than the best rotational ERA ever recorded, that of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals.
They obviously can't continue to combine for a 1.71 ERA. But they really have pitched brilliantly, and not just ERA-wise. Ross Detwiler, who's been brilliant, has the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the group: 3.75. The others, from top to "bottom": 8.0 (Zimmermann), 6.7 (Edwin Jackson), 4.2 (Strasburg), 3.9 (Gonzalez).
But most shockingly is this: In 18 games, Washington's starters have given up three home runs. Oh, and their relief pitchers have given up one home run.
By way of contrast, Clay Buchholz (as you might recall) gave up five home runs in one game.
Giving up only four home runs in 18 games is super-freaky and is the best argument for the Nationals regressing. And Zimmermann's not going to keep striking out eight times more batters than he walks. But this has the look of an excellent rotation. Zimmerman was really good last season. Gonzalez was really good last season. Jackson's been really good for a while. Strasburg's got a chance to be the best pitcher in the league.
Ross Detwiler's the only one I'm not sold on. He entered this season with a 1.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and underwhelming triple-A numbers. He was the sixth pick in the draft five years ago and maybe it's just taken that long for his talent to come out; if the Nationals didn't think so, they probably wouldn't have demoted John Lannan.
Finally, let's not discount the Davey Johnson Effect (D.J.E.). This is the manager's second season with the club. In all four of Johnson's previous managerial stints, his clubs improved significantly in his second season. If we prorate his 1993 and '94 campaigns -- the first a partial season, the second a strike season -- his teams have improved by 8, 21, 10, and 9 wins in his second seasons. The Nationals won 80 games last season. If the D.J.E. is real, we might expect the Nationals to win around 90 games this season, which would put them square in the middle of the playoffs hunt.