After overcoming a 19-31 start to last season, the Nationals have fielded questions all offseason asking how they plan to get off to a good start in order to avoid needing another midseason turnaround. Though there is likely no singular answer to those questions, there is one aspect of their roster that could give them an advantage in the first few weeks of the season.
As a franchise that's been repeatedly self-described by general manager Mike Rizzo as a "pitching-first organization," the Nationals' success in 2020 will largely hinge on the health and effectiveness of their starting rotation. For some teams, such a reliance on starters could spell trouble when pitchers only have a few weeks of training camp to get ready for Opening Day.
But Nationals manager Davey Martinez put together a training program in March for his starting pitchers to follow at home while the season was on hold. Now, with just 11 days to go before the Nationals open the season against the New York Yankees on June 23, Martinez is pleased with how far along his starters are in their process of building up their arms for the start of the 60-game campaign.
"I'm very encouraged that they followed what we put together for them during the off time," Martinez said Sunday. "They came in prepared to go and they came in in good shape and it makes things a lot easier when nobody put on 15, 20 pounds. They were all in good shape so they've looked good so far."
The Nationals' rotation is already approaching pitch counts it wouldn't normally see until midway through spring training. Max Scherzer threw 48 pitches in his first sim game last week. Stephen Strasburg tossed 52 on Friday while Patrick Corbin pushed his pitch count up to 43 on Saturday in his first taste of facing live hitters. Even Aníbal Sánchez, the oldest of them all, has already had two outings with over 60 pitches since returning to Nationals Park.
If their top four arms are all prepared to throw 100+ pitches by the start of the season, the Nationals would be in a much better spot than other teams that are bracing for an uptick in bullpen usage while their pitchers use their first few starts to get back up to full strength.
In a normal year, most starters don't even typically reach an average of 100 pitches per start. Only 10 qualified starters did it last season and three played for Washington: Scherzer (102.6), Strasburg (102.5) and Corbin (100). That advantage was already important in a 162-game season. When applied to a 60-game slate, it becomes all the more vital.
"Just [trying] to continue to try and build up and ramp this up as best we can and obviously things are different for everybody so we're just trying to make sure we're ready to go once the games that count start," Corbin said Sunday.
While Martinez doesn't rule out the idea of pulling pitchers earlier than they might like early on, he also said that such a task is easier said than done when dealing with the personalities of some of his top arms.
"We're going to have to see where these guys end up at the end of camp," Martinez said. "I know 60 games ain't 162 games but…our guys, they're very intense. It's going to be hard to take Max out of a game after the fifth inning when he's doing well but there might have to come a time where we have to do that just for longevity. But these guys, for me, if they keep doing what they're doing, they're going to be ready to go out the chute."
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Nationals Plan A is for their starters to be ramped up by Opening Day originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington