The Nationals, The Phillies, And Stuff

WASHINGTON, DC: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Davey Johnson compared the quality of the stuff thrown by his top three starters to the quality of the stuff thrown by the Phillies' top three starters. Which might be crazy and which might not, depending.

In my head, the Washington Nationals have never been very deep in starting pitching. There's a reason for that - the Washington Nationals have never really been very deep in starting pitching. The Nationals became the Nationals in 2005. Since 2005, Nationals starters rank second-to-last in National League ERA, and dead last in National League FIP. Also dead last in National League strikeout rate, for good measure. The Nationals have had some pitchers, but they haven't been pitching-rich.

Now the Nationals are pitching-rich. Stephen Strasburg is fully recovered and raring to go. Jordan Zimmermann is all the way back. And over the offseason, the Nationals signed Edwin Jackson and traded for Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals have built the kind of rotation that can carry a team to the playoffs, and all that talent's got manager Davey Johnson excited. Really excited.

Really excited.

The instinctive response is that Davey Johnson's insane. The top of the Phillies' rotation, of course, is Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. It doesn't get a lot better than those three guys. The top of the Nationals' rotation, meanwhile, is Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Jackson. I think. Maybe Zimmermann's in there. I don't know. Whatever the order, it's good, but it's not Phillies-good. Who could possibly believe that it could be Phillies-good?

Then you think. After much thought, here's where I've arrived: Davey Johnson might be insane, and he might not be insane, and it all depends on your definition of "stuff".

I don't know the definition of "stuff". I think the general understanding is that stuff is equal parts velocity and movement. Strasburg, obviously, generates fantastic velocity and movement. Gonzalez has always had electric pitches he's struggled to harness. The same goes for Jackson, whose raw pitches continued earning him the benefit of the doubt. Zimmermann gets into the mid-90s with his heater, and he throws four pitches, even though his change isn't great. Based on all that, maybe Davey Johnson's not crazy. Cliff Lee's pitches don't blow you away. Hamels is best known for his changeup. Halladay is Halladay, but he isn't Strasburg.

But, I wonder: should "stuff" have a command component? If not, why not? If stuff is a measure of how good a pitcher's pitches are, shouldn't it make a difference how well he can spot those pitches? Maybe stuff and location are two completely different things. Maybe they aren't, or shouldn't be.

It's command where the Phillies blow the Nationals out of the water. Halladay, Lee, and Hamels can usually put their pitches where they want to. Last year, Lee had the best strike rate in the National League. Halladay had the second-best strike rate in the National League. Hamels was No. 17, which is very good. Zimmermann throws a lot of strikes, if he's in the top three, and Strasburg can, too, but Gonzalez's command is not good. Jackson's isn't great. Halladay and Lee are location artists, with which the Nationals starters can't compete.

Basically, if command matters, then stuff-wise, the top of the Phillies' rotation has the top of the Nationals' rotation beat. If it doesn't, then the comparison makes sense. The issues with Gonzalez and Jackson have never been about their velocity or movement.

Ultimately, whatever. It doesn't matter which team in baseball has the best top three, or a better top three than somebody else. I just watched a 95-loss Mariners team that at one point had Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Doug Fister, and Erik Bedard. What matters is whole baseball teams, and which whole baseball teams are better than others. But at least the Nationals do have some quality starters to call their own, and maybe out of this we'll get a better idea of what "stuff" actually means. Or we'll forget all about what Davey Johnson said in half an hour and move on to the next thing. Stay tuned.

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