When Dave Martinez evaluates the way his players performed during the truncated 2020 season, he discounts whatever happened to start. With a pandemic and an abbreviated spring training period, the uncertainty of it all impacted some of his players early on.
So instead, the Washington Nationals manager looks toward the end of the season, right when his team began turning a corner — and right when the campaign came to an abrupt end, 102 games sooner than usual.
As Martinez and the Nationals prepare for the 2021 season, they believe there will be a return of some normalcy, at least where their pitching staff is concerned. After a down year for the trio of aces atop Washington’s rotation, Martinez saw encouraging signs as the season wound down that Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin were returning to their best.
And with Stephen Strasburg returning from carpal tunnel surgery, those three hurlers could restore one of the best rotations in baseball.
“With those three guys up at the top there,” Martinez said, “and Joe [Ross], [Erick] Fedde, [Austin] Voth — and who knows who we may end up getting somewhere down the line — I think we have a really good opportunity to repeat what we did in 2019.”
Strasburg only appeared in two games in 2020 before requiring the surgery. Martinez said the right-hander is still doing physical therapy but should be ready in February when spring training is supposed to start — although that date could change. He’s throwing “a little bit,” Martinez said.
Losing Strasburg after pitching only five innings strained Washington’s rotation immediately. Behind Corbin and Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Voth started 11 games. Fedde started eight.
And without one of their best arms, the Nationals’ rotation took a step backward. After finishing with a 3.53 starting pitching ERA in 2019 — the second-best mark in MLB, according to FanGraphs — the team’s 2020 starting ERA slotted in at 5.38, good for No. 27.
Scherzer and Corbin regressed, too. After throwing a 2.92 ERA in 27 starts the year before, Scherzer pitched to a 3.74 ERA while walking 23 batters — only 10 fewer than 2019 despite throwing 105 fewer innings. Corbin’s ERA rose to 4.66, and he allowed the most hits in the major leagues with 85.
But for both Scherzer and Corbin, Martinez said they felt their best as the season finished, ready to turn a corner that couldn’t come.
“I told Max, ‘Hey, lesson learned,’” Martinez said. “Build off of that. Get yourself strong again, get ready to go, and play that 162 games and you get your 30-something starts, we go from there.”
As Scherzer enters the last year of his contract, there haven’t been serious discussions yet over a new deal. But Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, said Tuesday discussions should get going in “after the new year” between he and Nationals owner Mark Lerner.
Scherzer’s a different pitcher than the one general manager Mike Rizzo drafted when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006. But Scherzer still gets it done, even with an off season last year.
“He’s a guy that is a chameleon; he changes as his career moves on,” Rizzo said. “He’s always coming up with a way to beat you. He’s such a competitive person. … I think it was a matter of consistency and routine for him when he struggled a little bit. But you know, the bar is so high with Max that anything but excellence is regarded as a failure.”
Excellence tends to be Scherzer’s way. Coupled with Strasburg and Corbin and Washington’s rotation has the talent to propel the club into another pennant race, despite finishing 26-34 in 2020. There are other questions surrounding the rotation, such as if the Nationals will look outside for a fourth starter and whether Ross or Fedde or Voth will establish themselves as the fifth starter.
But Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin provide a steady base.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran pitchers, we’ve got a lot of guys who really believe we can win again, which is really nice, including myself,” Martinez said. “We’ve got Scherzer, we’ve got Strasburg — who’s healthy — we’ve got Corbin.”
And with those three, anything is possible.