Milestones on K Street?

A friend of mine remarked recently:

So the Rays’ pitchers just set the record for most K’s in a season by an AL team with 1,246. The 2003 Cubs hold the MLB record with 1,404. The Nats currently have 1,237 K’s on the season. What are the odds that the Nats’ pitchers break the Cubs’ mark in the next 3 years? I say even money.

This is one of those things that sneaks up on you. As much as I follow the Nats’ pitching staff, I had not really been keeping track of their cumulative strikeout figures. Currently, the Nats are third in the league, behind the Phillies (1290) and the Brewers (1299), although I have to believe the Brewers’ strikeout totals are somewhat inflated from having to face the Astros and the Pirates (who are, respectively first and second in strike-outs while batting) so often.

Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way. The Nats pitching staff posts a collective 8.18 K/9. There are about 90 innings left in the year. Assuming nothing changes radically, we’d expect around 82 more strikeouts through the end of this year, bringing the total to something like 1,328 or so. So, no way the 2012 Nats come close to the 2003 Cubs’ unbelievable strikeout totals.

Could the Nats equal such a mark?

We can try to make an extremely crude projection. Let’s assume an unlimited, 200-inning Stephen Strasburg. Let’s further assume that Edwin Jackson re-signs with the organization, and that Ross Detwiler remains in the rotation. That gives us a five-man rotation of Strasburg, Gio, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler. So let’s start by looking at how they’d do.

Looking at totals since 2008, here’s what the K/9 rates look like:

Strasburg: 11.21
Gonzalez: 8.79
Zimmermmann: 7.41
Jackson: 6.92
Detwiler: 5.48

Assuming all of them pitch 190 innings (I know, very very crude here), this is what it looks like:

Strasburg: 236 strikeouts
Gonzalez: 186 strikeouts
Zimmermann: 156 strikeouts
Jackson: 146 strikeouts
Detwiler: 116 strikeouts.

That gives us a starting pitching rotation total of 840 strikeouts. So far, in 2012, those same five have recorded 800 strikeouts. This seems plausible. So the 840 strikeouts from the starting rotation would need an additional 564 strikeouts from relievers to equal the 2003 Cubs. 2012 Nats relievers put up 433 strikeouts, all together.

What if we don’t bother with all this tiresome averaging over the past several years, and assume the Nats pitch at the same level they’ve done in 2012? Well, assuming 190 innings for everybody:

Strasburg: 11.13 K/9; 235 K’s
Gonzalez: 9.36 K/9; 198 K
Zimmermann: 6.95 K/9; 147 K
Jackson: 8.03 K/9; 170 K
Detwiler: 5.68 K/9; 120 K

For a staff total of 870 strikeouts.

But let’s look back at those 2003 Cubs K/9 rates:

Kerry Wood: 11.35 K/9; 211 IP; 266 K
Mark Prior: 10.43 K/9; 211.1 IP; 245 K
Matt Clement: 7.63 K/9; 201.2 IP; 171 K
Carlos Zambrano 7.07 K/9: 214 IP; 168 K
Shawn Estes: 6.11 K/9; 151.2 IP; 103 K

Wow. Strasburg today has nothing on Wood and Prior in 2003. They got more strikeouts, more often, over far more innings than we now think prudent. The forgotten man here was Shawn Estes, who racked up 103 strikeouts in 28 starts for the 2003 Cubs.

If the Nats are going to challenge the 2003 Cubs for the most strikeouts by a pitching staff in a single season, they’re going to have to hope that several of the following happen in the same year:

  • Stephen Strasburg pitches over 200 innings
  • Jordan Zimmermann pitches over 200 innings
  • Gio Gonzalez pitches over 200 innings
  • Ross Detwiler discovers some way to get 2 more strikeouts per 9 innings
  • The bullpen gets more strikeouts

Aptitude, not (N)at(t)itude.

As I write this, the Washington Nationals have won 61 games and lost 40 and enjoy a four-game lead in the National League Eastern Division above the Atlanta Braves.

These are heady times in Nats town. The last time a baseball team from Washington was this good, Franklin Roosevelt was President.

Naturally, folks have wanted to attribute the team’s success to something special:

The stat-heads can debate this one for all eternity, arguing whether or not such nebulous concepts make any difference in a team’s won-loss record. All that matters is this important fact: The men who wear Nationals uniforms and help create their roster universally believe they are winning right now not only because of their physical abilities but because of their camaraderie and fortitude.

This is more Natitude than I am prepared to swallow.

The players may believe that it’s their “winning attitude” that’s making them win. I’m not in the clubhouse, so I don’t know. It’s tough for me to gauge a player’s (N)at(t)itude from Section 315. Here’s what I do know: The 2012 Nats are a pretty good baseball team.

As of this writing, the 2012 Nats score an average of 4.4 runs per game–just above the NL. East’s average of 4.3 runs per game. If the standings were based purely on average runs scored per game, they’d look like this: ATL (4.6), NYM (4.5), WAS (4.4), PHI (4.2), MIA (3.7).

The story–and it’s the same story we’ve been telling all year–is that it is extremely difficult to score runs against the Nats. They allow only 3.5 runs per game on average. As of this writing, no other team in all baseball allows fewer runs than the Nationals.

Behind the “K Street” rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Detwiler, the Nationals pitching staff dominates. They are tied with Cincinnati (another first-place team) for the lowest ERA (3.26) in the National League. They are third in strikeouts. They have the lowest FIP (3.52) in the big leagues.

The Nats aren’t winning because they have a winning attitude. They are winning because they are performing in a way that sets them up to win, night after night. Their offense is only average, but their superlative pitching prevents so many runs that the end result is spectacular.

When you’re on a team like that, why wouldn’t you be happy? Why wouldn’t you think that you had a chance to win every time you went to the ballpark?

Everybody is busy praising Nats GM Mike Rizzo about his careful attention to clubhouse intangibles. That does these Nats a great disservice. They are performing in very tangible ways, and reaping the intangible benefits. Nothing fosters a winning attitude like winning.