With the presence of top prospects Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin, and Matt Skole many expected the success of the 2013 Senators to rest on the shoulders of the offense. Pitching, save for Nate Karns, was an afterthought for many. “Coming into this year, that was our biggest question mark,” manager Matt LeCroy put it bluntly. But after 65 games, pitching is indeed what has them currently at a season-best three games over .500. Harrisburg sports a 3.61 ERA, best in the Eastern League, but that’s just one of many numbers that help explain their success.
A Scorching Hot Month for the Starting Rotation
After losing 7-6 to Richmond on May 15th, the Senators found themselves at their low-water mark of the season four games under .500. 28 days later and the Senators have bettered their record by seven games and are a lone game out of first place. Much of their success over the last four weeks can be directly traced to the strong starting pitching. In the last 25 games, the starting pitching has an ERA of 2.29, a WHIP of 1.04, and have held opponents to a .220 batting average. Not only are those numbers impressive enough, but they are going deep into games as they are averaging exactly six innings per start (and that includes Taylor Jordan’s 1-inning stint in Akron due to a rain delay that eventually turned into a 15-inning affair).
“Joe Pepitone or not, I own the inside of that plate!”
A philosophy the Nationals organization preaches from the lower levels to the majors is pitching to the inner half of the plate. Senators pitching coach Paul Menhart explains, “The game has changed where guys are leaning over the plate and they are not fearful of the ball. We’re going to throw in.” He also pointed to the wooden bat aspect of barrelling up an inside pitch, “It’s silly not to take advantage of that weakness in overall hitters. There are guys that can handle that inside pitch, without a doubt, and we recognize that.” A telling statistic of the pitching staff buying into the concept is they’ve already hit 37 batters this season which is good enough for second-most in the Eastern League. But Menhart carries no concerns about that number, “Sandy (Leon) has done a wonderful job along with Jeff (Howell) and Kris (Watts). I’ve been so pleased with them not giving in.”
No Free Passes
Walks are rarely a good thing. I’ve never heard a coach praise a pitcher for a leadoff walk or a base on balls in the late innings. Pitching coaches have lost their hair, temper, and jobs over a staff that can’t throw the ball across the plate. The Senators staff both understand the importance of throwing strikes and better yet are executing. Through the first 65 games this season, the Senators have walked 170 batters which is best in the Eastern League. That’s a staggering number when you consider the next closest team is 40 bases on balls away. Harrisburg also leads the league with 2.7 BB/9 which is a full walk per game below league average.
Another aspect of pitching that usually gets overlooked but is integral in the Nationals system is the ability to hold runners on and limit the opponents’ running game. Having a guy like Sandy Leon and his reputation behind the plate helps tremendously, but the pitchers carry just as much responsibility. “We’re not going to put you out there if you’re slow to the plate,” said Menhart. The numbers back it up as only 61 stolen bases have been attempted, good enough for the third lowest in the EL. Menhart sees the emphasis quick times to the plate has had throughout the system under pitching coordinator Spin Williams, “Credit to the lower levels because when they get up here, rarely do I have to make a change with many guys. It’s that important because it’s that important in the big leagues.”
A Pitcher’s Second-Best Friend
They say a pitcher’s best friend is the double play ball, but strikeouts have to rank up their pretty high too. According to Bull Durham, strikeouts are boring and fascist but don’t tell that to the Senators staff. Harrisburg ranks third in the Eastern League with 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings and with 556 total are on pace to break the previous team record set in 2011. Led by Tyler Herron, Aaron Barrett, and Neil Holland the bullpen has also pulled more than their fair share of the load as they are averaging 9.66 SO/9 on the season.