The Nats own the NL East, but they could be playing with fire

AP Photo/David Goldman

It’s only May, but the Washington Nationals are running away with the NL East. The problem is that come October, their rotation might be running on empty.

On Sunday, Stephen Strasburg became the latest Washington starter to raise eyebrows with an unusually high workload. Facing Atlanta, the historically fragile righty -- a Tommy John survivor who scared the bejesus out of Nats fans in September when he was shut down with a partially torn pronator tendon -- threw 118 pitches, his second highest total in nearly four years. In case you’re wondering, his highest came earlier this month against Philly, when he tossed 119 pitches. After topping 115 pitches just three times in his first seven years, Strasburg has now done so twice in the past three weeks.

He isn't the only Nats starter working overtime. Despite a bumpy first couple of months of the season, fellow righty Tanner Roark (4.73 ERA) has reached at least 100 pitches in every start since Opening Day. Included among those is an ice-inducing outing against Arizona in which Roark threw 125 pitches. Besides being his highest pitch count ever, that is tied for the highest in the majors this season (Yu Darvish and Trevor Bauer have also hit the 125-pitch mark).

But wait, there’s more.

Every one of Washington’s four regular starters (it has been a revolving door in the fifth slot) is using more bullets than last year. Leading the pack is Gio Gonzalez, who’s averaging 106 pitches per game, fourth in the National League and nearly 10 percent more than the 97 per contest he threw last season. Even ace Max Scherzer (up 1.3 percent) is throwing more, which seems virtually impossible, given that last year, Washington’s workhorse fired more pitches (3,563) than any NL hurler not named Madison Bumgarner.

Put it all together, and you get the unbelievable list below, dug up by Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information:

No, your eyes do not deceive you: All four of Washington’s regular starters rank among the top five in pitches per outing. Yikes.

If you think this is about Dusty Baker doing Dusty Baker things, think again. Yes, the Nats skipper has a reputation for leaning on his starters more than most bench bosses. Yes, he’s known as “The Widow Maker” for his seeming propensity to run hurlers into the ground until their arms fall off. But take a look at last year’s leaderboard:

Although those same four Washington starters all ranked with the top 15, Scherzer was the only one among the top five. Whether Baker bashers want to admit it or not, there’s a big difference between fourth/seventh/eighth/15th and first/second/fourth/fifth. The former was Dusty being Dusty, giving his rotation rope aplenty despite a stout bullpen that finished with the second-best ERA in the majors last season. The latter? That’s Dusty being human and doing anything and everything to avoid using a relief corps that has been lighter fluid instead of lights-out.

Just how horrific have Washington’s relievers been? Through Sunday’s games, their 5.40 ERA was the worst in the National League -- by nearly half a run. Because of injuries and ineffectiveness (not necessarily in that order), the Nats already have had five pitchers record a save. Perhaps even more alarming, they’ve had six relievers post a blown save. As a unit, they have been charged with eight botched saves (second-most in the NL) and are on pace to eclipse last year’s total of 14 well before the All-Star break. Blake Treinen and Joe Blanton have been bad. Koda Glover and Sammy Solis have been hurt. Shawn Kelley has been bad and hurt. All of which is to say that you can hardly blame Baker for acting like the bullpen phone is covered in cooties.

The good news is that so far, Baker and the Nats have been able to get away with it. Seven weeks into the season, they’re seven games up in their division, the largest lead in the majors. Judging by the putrid state of the NL Least (four of the eight worst records in baseball belong to the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins), the Nationals should continue to get away with it -- if the plethora of pitches doesn’t catch up with the rotation.

Not even two months into the season, Washington’s starters are showing signs of wear and tear. Check it out:

April: 3.92 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3.14 K/BB

May: 4.18 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB

Those April numbers include a historically atrocious spot start by Jeremy Guthrie, in which the 38-year-old hurler (who has since retired) got torched for 10 runs in 2/3 of an inning. Take away that outing, and the monthly comparison looks like this:

April: 3.34 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 3.45 K/BB

May: 4.18 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB

Could Washington’s rotation just be having a down month? Sure. But it’s hard not to draw a correlation between pitch preponderance and plummeting performance. It’s also hard not to think ahead and wonder how Nats starters (especially Strasburg) will hold up over the next four months. If they continue to get used like this, maybe there won’t be anything left in the tank when playoff time rolls around and Washington needs more than its big bats to get past the big dogs.

There is hope, though. First and foremost, GM Mike Rizzo almost certainly will make a deal (or five) to bolster the bullpen between now and the end of July, just as he has done in each of the past couple of years. In theory, said deal(s) would have a trickle-down effect and lighten the load on the starters. Beyond that, Nats relievers can’t possibly be as bad and/or unhealthy as they’ve been so far. Even if they are, last year’s San Francisco Giants proved that bad bullpens aren’t necessarily death to rotations. Don’t believe it? Check out the 2016 chart above.

Last year’s version of this year’s Nationals? The Giants, who made it to the playoffs despite a shaky bullpen that contributed to a trio of starters (Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, Bumgarner) ranking 1-2-3 in pitches thrown per outing. What’s more, Bumgarner and Cueto showed no ill effects, as both were nails in the postseason. True, Samardzija got lit up in his Game 2 LDS start against the Cubs. But the fact that Chicago won the series 3-1 had less to do with that and more to do with the Giants' bullpen, which blew late leads in each of the last two games.

Come to think of it, maybe Baker ought to keep riding that rotation all the way through October.