It’s hard to glean too many positives on a team with a 13-26 record.
The Washington Nationals, tied for the most losses in the big leagues, have repeatedly stumbled in the first six weeks of the season. Between leading the majors in errors as of Thursday afternoon, sporting one of the league’s worst rotations and having an inconsistent lineup, the rebuilding Nationals aren’t in great shape.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all been bad, and starting pitcher Josiah Gray’s improvement tops that very short list. Gray, one of the prospects the Nationals received from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade last summer, has been Washington’s best starting pitcher so far this spring.
The 24-year-old right-hander leads the Nationals’ struggling rotation with four wins while having a 4.36 earned run average. His 1.27 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is far better than every other Nationals starter, none of whom has a sub-1.50 WHIP. And with 46 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings, he’s the lone Washington starter punching out more than one batter per inning.
“Every time we see (Gray) go out there every five days, he’s starting to get better, he’s starting to stay within himself,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said earlier this month.
Gray’s growth on the bump is a welcome development, not just for an organization that has plans for him to be a long-term piece in the rotation but also for a team whose starting pitchers rank in the bottom five in almost every statistical category. The group, consisting of Gray, Patrick Corbin, Joan Adon, Erick Fedde and Aaron Sanchez, owns a combined 5.61 ERA — the second-worst mark in the majors. No team’s starters have taken more losses than Washington’s 23, led by Adon at seven and Corbin at six.
The success, while modest so far, isn’t much of a surprise for a former top 100 prospect. Gray entered last season as Los Angeles’ top pitching prospect thanks to a mid-90s fastball and an athletic, repeatable delivery. He was briefly called up to pitch for the Dodgers last season but was shipped off to Washington — along with catcher Keibert Ruiz and two other prospects — for Scherzer and Turner.
Gray immediately entered the Nationals’ rotation, starting 12 games down the stretch and going through his fair share of struggles. But through eight starts this season, Gray is statistically better across the board compared to last year. Sporting a fastball-curveball-slider mix, Gray’s ERA is down almost a full point, he‘s allowing fewer hits and walks on a per-nine basis and he is striking out more batters.
“He‘s been good this year,” Ruiz said Wednesday. “I love when he pitches. He likes to compete.”
Just as important, though, is Gray’s consistency. He’s thrown five-plus innings in each of his last seven starts and six frames in three of his last four outings. The former second-round pick has shown flashes of dominance, like his 10-strikeout performance against the Marlins in late April, as well as maturity, such as bouncing back from a brutal first inning versus the Astros last week to get through six frames.
In his most recent start Wednesday, Gray fanned seven and gave up three runs across six innings in a 5-4 extra-inning win over Miami. The win snapped the Nationals’ three-game losing streak. His slider was dominant. He had an eye-popping 15 whiffs and six in-play outs on the 42 sliders he threw.
“I felt like I threw a lot of strikes, was in control of all my pitches,” Gray said after the game, on MASN. “The game plan was to just attack the zone, and I think we did just that. It was a great outing for the team, and I’m glad we got the win.”
After an off-day Thursday, the Nationals start a three-game series Friday against the Brewers in Milwaukee.