27 years ago, Davey Johnson walked into his team’s clubhouse and declared that anything short of a World Series Championship would be a disappointment. The 1985 Mets had been the second-best team in the National League, winning 98 games but failing to make the postseason thanks to a 101-win campaign from the division rival Cardinals. 1986 was to be a different year, and despite bringing back largely the same roster, the Mets knew that this time they were the team to beat. Led by the best starting rotation in baseball with phenom Dwight Gooden at the top, everyone expected them to be even better than the year before and finally earn their rightful place atop the baseball world.
The rest, of course, is history. The Mets won 108 games that season, and after two legendary playoff series, earned the second World Series title in franchise history.
This spring, a now 70-year-old Johnson walked into the Washington Nationals clubhouse and gave a similar speech. Like the ’85 Mets, the 2012 Nationals saw their season end in bitter disappointment, though they suffered the additional indignity of making the postseason, only to lose in the opening round when Drew Storen failed to hold a two-run lead in the 9th inning of the decisive game.
But after an offseason where they made just a few adjustments to an already formidable roster and pitching staff, the Nationals entered the 2013 season as the prohibitive favorites to represent the National League in the World Series. And, like their manager’s last (and only) pennant winning club, this Washington team will go as far as their pitching staff takes them. To see just how similar the staffs of the two teams are, let’s take a closer look at each Nationals pitcher and his Mets counterpart from 1986.*
*Note: With all due respect to Ross Detwiler, since the Mets primarily went four deep in ’86, we’re going to leave him out of this. Suffice to say you’d be hard-pressed to find a better 5th starter in all of baseball.
1. Stephen Strasburg vs. Dwight Gooden
The easiest comparison to make is the one at the top. Both Gooden and Strasburg were top-2 overall draft picks (Gooden No. 2, Strasburg No. 1), and arrived in the Majors with a tremendous amount of hype. Strasburg, having gone to college, arrived later in life than Gooden, who won the 1984 Rookie of the Year Award at age 19, but has an eerily similar pedigree as a flamethrowing right-hander with a devastating breaking ball. Let’s see how each pitcher fared heading into the 2013 and 1986 seasons:
The numbers are obviously skewed in Gooden’s favor, as his 1985 campaign ranks as arguably the most dominant by any starting pitcher in the modern era. But, as we all know, he would never again reach those heights, starting in ’86. Gooden was excellent that year, but for the first time showed that he was human, and put up numbers (2.84 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) that we’re likely to see from Strasburg this year. In fact, Strasburg’s strikeout rate is far better and should remain so for the next several years while he can continue to throw in the upper-90s.
2. Gio Gonzalez vs. Sid Fernandez
Though Fernandez and Gonzalez have a significant age difference heading into these respective seasons (Gonzalez will turn 28 at the end of the season, Fernandez turned 24 late in 1986) and throw from opposite sides of the rubber (Gonzalez is a lefty, Fernandez a righty), their previous seasons are remarkably similar:
Not only that, but after Fernandez experienced a bit of a regression in ’86, Gonzalez can probably expect a bit of the same this season. His 2012 season saw an improvement in every single category above compared to his career averages, and while some of that can be attributed to a move from the AL to the NL, his .267 BABIP and 3.38 xFIP indicate that this year’s numbers won’t be quite as impressive. But, either way, both he and El Sid are high strikeout/high walk guys who can dominate when they’re on.
3. Jordan Zimmermann vs. Ron Darling
Unlike the previous pitchers discussed, Zimmermann and Darling rely less on velocity, and far more on finesse and command to get batters out. They’re also the closest in age in terms of the time frames that we’re looking at, as Darling turned 25 during the 1986 season, and Zimmermann will turn 27 next month.
Aside from an unusually high walk rate, Darling put up the second-best numbers of his career in ’85, only eclipsed by his performance the following season. Similarly, Zimmermann was excellent in his second full season as a starter last year, reaching career highs in innings pitched (195.2), strikeouts (153) and ERA. He may not get the press that Strasburg and Gonzalez do, but his presence in the rotation gives Davey Johnson a level of consistency that he might not get from his other starters, and thus is just as valuable to the team as Darling was to the Mets.
4. Dan Haren vs. Bob Ojeda
Now we come to the veteran acquisition portion of our study. The Mets traded for the left-handed Ojeda from Boston prior to the 1986 campaign to round out their top 4, and the Nats came to terms with Haren on a one-year deal this past winter. Both pitchers were the oldest members of their respective starting staffs, with Ojeda at 28 in ’86 and Haren now at 32:
Haren’s stats from last year have to be taken with a grain of salt, as his recurring back problems reared their ugly head throughout the year, and he was much better to close out the season after spending time on the DL. He’s off to a rough start now in 2013, but his pedigree has shown that he can dominate when he’s healthy.
Meanwhile, Ojeda came to the Mets with tempered expectations as a junkball throwing lefty, then proceeded to have a career year in ’86 by leading the team in wins (18), ERA (2.57), and WHIP (1.09), numbers that he would never come close to duplicating. If Haren can give the Nats anything close to what Ojeda gave the Mets that year, they could run roughshod over the National League.
Obviously the odds of the Nationals dominating the National League the way that the Mets did in 1986 are slim, particularly after their sluggish start to the season and the fact that the Braves look like they’ll give them stiff competition for the NL East title. But with the quality of pitchers that they can roll out every day means that extended losing streaks will be few and far between, and should at least earn them a ticket to the postseason. And at that point, their starting rotation will give them the edge in just about any series you can imagine.
By: Craig Lowell
ALL STATS TAKEN FROM FANGRAPHS (www.fangraphs.com)