…the blackness of space illimitable; unimaginable space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance of anything on earth. –H.P. Lovecraft The Music of Erich Zahn
Welcome to 2013 where Washington Nationals fans can stare into the void of unimaginable heights. Nats fans stand at the base of the mountains of madness ready to ascend in search of some forbidden knowledge. For the Washington Nationals on paper are the best team in baseball, but that is if everything goes according to plan, and all the Nats players play to their career averages. There are of course other options. Frightening and scary options. Options that should lift the spirits, but instead bring great fright. It is a siren’s call. Beautiful music from an unknown source to lure us to stare at the sky and attempt to discover where it ends.
The Nats ceiling is higher and defies logic more than the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Consider for a second the stories of the change-up of Jordan Zimmermann finally working, the reports of what Strasburg will pitch like now unbound, of Detwiler like Zimmermann adding a change-up, the fact that Gio Gonzalez has seen his BB/9 drop by an average of 0.42 a year over the last four seasons from 5.11 in 2009 to 3.43 in 2012, and that Dan Haren had his worst season ever in 2012 and when healthy is capable of being on of the most efficient control pitchers to have ever played the game. It isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the Nats once again finish with five pitchers with double digit wins and beyond that five pitchers with 15 or more wins, but there is that ceiling again, infinite and undefined, inviting us to reach ever skyward.
There is a latent fear that comes with the approach of a baseball season. Hopes are built up and expectations counted like pre-hatched chickens. The big fear that Haren will be no more than he was last season, but consider that in those games he started the Angels went 12-18 while the Nationals in games Edwin Jackson, the man Haren replaces, pitched went 12-19. That means little as other forces where at work and Jackson was the starting pitcher for four of the Nationals blown saves in 2012. Still at his worse Haren is a suitable replacement for Edwin Jackson and the back end of the Nationals rotation, and at his best he is the pitcher who owns the fifth best K/BB ratio of all time. There is also fear about Ross Detwiler and what happens if he regresses from his 3.40 2012 ERA to his 4.04 FIP, but understand that the average NL starting pitcher in 2012 had a 4.04 ERA. If Detwiler does regress to his 2012 FIP then he is a league average starting pitcher which at the back of a rotation is excellent.
These two big concerns highlight the strength of the Washington Nationals. If what is perceived to be a negative happens then while it will be viewed as a failure for the Nationals it is still a success when compared to the rest of the league. That is what makes the ceiling so scary. If things go wrong it won’t be that bad, but if they go right…if the change-ups of Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler take them to that next level, if Dan Haren returns to form of being the typical Dan Haren, if Strasburg, the man with the already god-like 11.21 K/9, becomes more deceptive, and if Gio Gonzalez once again improves on his walk rate the ceiling is unknown. It is at a height undetermined that no team in the history of baseball may have ever reached. That is right. The starting pitching staff of the Washington Nationals has a chance to be the best that has ever taken the field. It is a scary thought to let sink in, and its optimistic nature makes it no less true. The reality of the Nats ceiling will twist the mind with blinding light.
Look at Strasburg and his quest to become more efficient. He averaged 93 pitches and 5.7 innings a start. With his WHIP of 1.15 he was averaging 23.655 batters faced a game and 3.93 pitches per batter. In 2013 Strasburg is going to be allowed to throw more pitches and he is going to attempt to become more efficient with those pitches. If Strasburg can lower his pitches per batter by even a quarter of a pitch on average and throws an average of 97 pitches per outing like Jordan Zimmermann did in 2012 then he will be able to face 26.358 batters an outing and last an average of 6.35 innings a start. And it is never a bad thing for a team to have their best starting pitcher on the mound more often.
Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler, and Haren are all working to improve in 2013 and evidence has been on display this spring that they all might accomplish those goals. If they do then the 2013 Nationals are going to be a scary sight to behold and a team that will be remembered for a long time. The ceiling for this pitching staff isn’t just racking up the wins in 2013, but earning a place in baseball lore. And imagining the heights that they can ascend to is like trying to climb to the top of Mt. Olympus and shake hands with Zeus.