Rotation. The word suggests symmetry and evenness, with no element protruding and none dragging behind. It implies a smoothness and regularity of motion, like the earth spinning on its axis, a bowling ball humming toward the pocket or a basketball in glorious flight on a 3-pointer by Stephen Curry.
In baseball, a rotation is a team's five starting pitchers, and it's possible the Washington Nationals' five will be smooth, symmetrical and glorious, with the perfect spin, perhaps the best rotation we've seen in a long, long time.
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez are, without question, "the best rotation in the game,'' said Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur. The only question is the order of the five, which is what makes it so special, so potentially dominant.
In other great, recent rotations, such as the 1998 Atlanta Braves or the 2011 Phillies, there was little debate about the ace of those staffs, and there was distance between No. 1 and No. 5, but Washington's is different. The Nationals led the major leagues in starters' ERA (3.04) last year, and at certain points, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Fister were the No. 1 starter. And now they have added Scherzer, who was 70-24 over the past four years with the Detroit Tigers, and sent they Tanner Roark and his 15 victories and 2.79 ERA to the bullpen. Scherzer was named to start Opening Day against the New York Mets, which came as no surprise. But in this rotation, at least when it comes to stuff, one equals five, and five equals one.
"I've never seen anything like this,'' said veteran second baseman Dan Uggla, who is in camp with the Nationals. "In 2012, this team really started something by getting Gio, then adding Fister. And they keep doing things to make it even better. But this is just crazy.''
Crazy good. All five starters are between 26 and 31 years old, all are in, or close to, their prime. They all have a career ERA under 3.60 and a combined career winning percentage of .596 (331-234). All but Fister have made an All-Star team, all five have finished in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting in a season and have tremendous stuff.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman shook his head, smiled and said, "When they got Scherzer, I thought, 'Why did you need to do that?' Roark was awesome. They already had the best rotation in the game, then they got a Cy Young [winner]. Gio would be a No. 1 or 2 for most teams, and he's what, No. 5 now? On paper, this could be one of the best rotations in history. We love competition, we love to play the best and we play them 19 times.''
It is difficult to rate the greatest rotations of all time given that many of the best ones used a four-man rotation, including the 1905 Philadelphia A's, who had Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell and Chief Bender. The 1954 Indians rotation went 93-36 and had Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Bob Feller. The 1971 Orioles had four 20-game winners: Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson; that foursome went 81-31.
In the five-man-rotation era, perhaps the best rotation was the 1998 Braves, with Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, plus Kevin Millwood and Denny Neagle; they went 88-37. The 2011 Phillies had Roy Halladay (19-6), Cliff Lee (17-8), Cole Hamels (14-9), Roy Oswalt (9-10) and Vance Worley (11-3). The 2014 Tigers had the past three AL Cy Young winners in Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price in addition to Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. Last year, all five Nationals starters won in double figures, none had a losing record and all had an ERA under 4.00 (actually 3.58); the last team that can say that was the world champion 1992 Blue Jays with Jack Morris, Todd Stottlemyre, Jimmy Key, David Wells and Juan Guzman.
But the Nationals will have no part of the talk about historic rotations.
"Who says our rotation is great? We have to play first -- I have some experience on that,'' said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, who was part of the A's rotation in 1980 that won 79 games and completed 93, but two years later, it was dismantled due to injuries and overwork. "We [the A's] were supposed to be so good, then it all blew up. Everyone told us how great we were going to be, then it was like, 'Oh, that didn't work out.' This is baseball. Strange things happen. A little bump in the road can turn into a mountain in a hurry.''
For now at least, there are no bumps in this road, just five pitchers with something to prove.
"They are deep and dangerous,'' Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "What makes them so good is that they all do something a little different. Scherzer has the changeup; Zimmermann challenges you on every pitch; Strasburg sinks it at 95 [mph]. They have the lefty with the great curveball in Gio, and Fister throws it for a strike whenever he wants. It's a challenge. You just root for a true strike zone and hope you get something to hit.''
The Mets open the season with the Nats. "Their strength, as will be ours, is the depth of the rotation,'' Mets third baseman David Wright said. "A lot of teams have great 1's, and really good 2's and solid 3's, but their [Washington's] 4 and 5 would be top-of-the-rotation guys for other teams.''
Mets right fielder Michael Cuddyer said, "It's really good. And it's decorated. They have Cy Youngs, and ERA titles, the strikeouts, all that stuff. But we've seen good rotations before in this division and other divisions. When I was with Minnesota, we went through Detroit with [Justin] Verlander and Scherzer. Last year with the Rockies, we saw the Dodgers with [Clayton] Kershaw, [Hyun-Jin] Ryu and [Zack] Greinke. And we're all competitors here. We don't go into a series saying, 'Oh God, I hope we miss so-and-so.' I'm not like that.''
But if a team misses one Nationals starter in a series, they get another who is just as good. And if one of the five has to miss a start, Roark, the sixth starter, is just as good as the five.
"Not only would he [Roark] be in every other rotation in baseball,'' said Nationals utility man Kevin Frandsen, "but he would be in the top end of every other rotation in baseball.''
"It's almost an embarrassment of riches that Tanner is going to the bullpen, but that's a good thing for us,'' Nationals closer Drew Storen said. "You never know what might happen with injuries. Everyone has incredible stuff, but they all know how to pitch. This isn't a staff that has a high ceiling, you know, 'If this guy figures it out.' These guys have already done it. As a visiting hitter, there is no day off against our rotation. Look, everyone [in the major leagues] throws hard now. You can't out-stuff today's hitters, but our guys keep hitters off balance, and they all have different styles. Every day is a different challenge, but they all throw heat. It's going to be fun to watch them.''
It has been fun for Scherzer to meet his new teammates. He provided a quick scouting report on the other four pitchers in the rotation:
On Fister: "For me, the two most underrated pitchers in the game are Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. Douggie sinks it, cuts it, he has a slider, curveball and has a great, great feel for pitching.''
On Gonzalez: "It's amazing just playing catch with him. He throws his curveball and you have to ask, 'How can you snap it like that?' His curveball is about as good as I have ever seen.''
On Strasburg: "He has such a great fastball, but he throws his changeup at 92, and it sinks, the action that he has on his breaking ball ... it's going to be fun to watch him pitch this season.''
On Zimmermann: "He pounds the strike zone, he comes after you and he doesn't care. Every single time, he attacks. I've always wanted to be that way. He's better than anyone at that.''
When it comes to the history part of this, the comparison to other great rotations, Scherzer said, "We will talk about that at the end of the season. Talk is cheap.'' Agreed, but hitters are better judges of these things than pitchers. And Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman shook his head, smiled and said, "As a hitter, really, what are you going to do?''