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Taking a look at the Nationals pitchers' best pitches

Taking a look at the Nationals pitchers' best pitches

By Cam Ellis

It's no secret that the Nationals can pitch a little. Besides having MLB's lowest ERA, the Nats boast a top-10 mark in batting average against, strikeouts, and quality starts. They're probably in the upper echelon of a variety of additional pitching stats, but you get the point. A bigger question mark than usual heading into the season, the Nats have ridden bounce back performances from Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, relied on the steady all-star talent of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, and gotten a surprising lift from Joe Ross on the way to a franchise-best start. 

What's made their pitchers so tough thus far? What pitches work for them and which ones should they stay away from? Using a handful of different statistics, this article looks to explain what pitch is each starters strongest and most effective. One of the best ways to get a singular representation of a pitches value is using FanGraphs' Pitch Type Linear Weight value, which is explained in full here. Like any lone baseball stat, it doesn't tell the whole story; what it does is help give an understandable value to each pitch and help shed light on how valuable it is to the pitcher. Which pitch is most valuable to which pitcher? Let's take a look. 

Max Scherzer

Best Pitch: Slider

Scherzer's case is tricky because the question of sample size comes into play. As you'll see above, the numbers suggest his cutter is his most effective pitch - a cutter he's only thrown three times all year. His slider generates the most swings out of the strike zone (O-Swing%), the most amount of swinging striks (SwStr%), and the least amount of contact (Contact%) in general. 

The chart above shows the batting average against each of his pitches. Considering his three most common pitches thrown are his fastball, slider, and change up, and his slider's BAA is the lowest of any three of those, it stands to reason that that's his best pitch. 

Once again, we're leaving Scherzer's cutter out of any debate because he's only thrown three all year. With that in mind, his slider takes over as the most swung at pitch, evident by it's 19.35 wiff percentage. Scherzer leans heavily on his four-seamer, but when he needs a go-to out, the numbers say he goes to his slider. 

Stephen Strasburg

Best pitch: Change up

This one's no secret. Strasburg's change up has always been lethal, and the numbers show it plenty of love. A 3.1 pVAL is his best by far, and the Swing and Contact numbers back up the claim. What's especially important here is that there's a fair sample size for all, minus the two-seam. Through four starts, Strasburg has evenly distributed his breaking balls, but the change up has been his bread and butter. 

As if you needed any more convincing: a 0.00 batting average against his change up. 

Brooks Baseball lists Strasburg's two-seamer as a sinker because of the similar movement on each pitch. No matter - the change up still takes the cake with a 22.92 wiff percentage. 

Gio Gonzalez

Best pitch: Changeup, barely 

This is the closest one yet. Interestingly enough, Gonzalez's change has much better Swing percentage numbers, while his curve has better Contact percentages. pVAL gives the slight edge to the change up, that's probably has something to do with the fact that he's thrown more change ups than curves. 

Still, it's neck and neck. The change garners a .071 batting average against while the curve generates a .091 baa. It's splitting hairs, but hey, that's what analytics is all about! 

These two graphs echo what the FanGraphs board said: it's really six one, half-dozen the other with Gonzalez. It's not groundbreaking, but interesting to see nonetheless. A case could easily be made for Gio's curve, but for now we'll say that his go-to pitch his the changeup. 

Tanner Roark

Best pitch: Changeup, by a mile

It's pretty terrifying when your number four starter is capable of a 15-strikeout game like Roark's last outing. His numbers across the board are pretty pedestrian - except for his changeup. Both his pVAL and his pVAL/C (the latter adjusted to a value per 100 pitches) on the change dwarf any of his other pitches, and the Swing and Contact numbers do the same. Even for a contact pitcher, 18.8 SwStr% is pretty good. 

The only batting average against that's lower than his change is his four seam, which he barely throws (only 15 on the year so far). Also, not to be a wet blanket, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, the numbers show that maybe Roark should stay far away from his curveball. 

This one is as obvious as they get. It's the change. Moving on. 

Joe Ross

Best pitch: Slider

This may come as a surprise to some fans, but to those who watch Ross a lot, it's anything but. Sure, he's a sinker ball pitcher and a pretty good one at that. But his most effective pitch - the one he uses to get outs - is his slider. Granted, sinker balls are meant to be hit into the dirt while sliders are intended to miss bats, but still. The sliders' Swing and Contact percentages alone suggest an incredibly effective pitch, let alone when you compare it to his sinker or his change.

A .200 batting average against is impressive, while the .273 against the sinker is just okay, especially as his primary pitch. The .429 against the change is a victim of sample size, so exhale Nats fans.

Like previously stated, it doesn't make a lot of sense to compare a sinker and a slider when it comes to swings and misses. The slider alone, though, at 20.35% is a very good pitch. 

So there you have it, Nats fans. Your rotation thrives on the changeup mainly, with a little bit of slider on the side. 

RELATED: State of the Nats: Wins piling up, but tough stretch awaits

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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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