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The Nationals Went All In On Just A Few Great Pitchers. Will Others Do The Same?

The Nationals ended a 95-year World Series drought in Washington, D.C., by employing a different type of road map than that of most MLB champions this century. The blueprint? Consolidate dollars and postseason innings into the best pitchers you can sign.

As free agency gets underway, there are elite arms available, including two main cogs of the World Series rotations: Gerrit Cole, most recently of the Houston Astros, and postseason star Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract with the Nationals. Rival clubs could easily copy Washington’s plan this winter — it would just be expensive.

While most World Series winners this century committed between 10 and 16 percent of total payroll to their top-paid player, the Nationals spent 19.4 percent of their $197 million payroll (the league’s fifth largest) on Strasburg ($38.33 million).1 This is the highest share of dollars spent on one player by a World Series-winning club since the 2003 Miami Marlins gave 22.2 percent of its payroll to Iván Rodríguez, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.

The Nats’ second highest-paid player, another ace in Max Scherzer, was signed to a then-record free agent deal in 2015. He isn’t far behind Strasburg, earning $37.4 million this year. In total, the $75.7 million the Nats spent on their two aces represents 38.4 percent of the team’s payroll. Add in Game 7-winning pitcher Patrick Corbin ($12.9 million), whom the team turned to last winter after being spurned by Bryce Harper, and the Nationals spent 44.9 percent of their payroll on three pitchers.

The lucrative deals paid off in October. Strasburg had a postseason for the ages, winning two World Series games and accumulating a 5-0 record in the playoffs. Scherzer won Game 1 of the World Series and allowed just two runs in Game 7 against the vaunted Astros offense. Corbin contributed three scoreless innings in the series clincher.

The nature of play changes in baseball’s postseason. With more off days and more urgency, teams can spread work around by going to the bullpen or electing to concentrate more innings in fewer arms. The five Nationals pitchers with the heaviest workloads, in terms of innings pitched this season, accounted for 57.5 percent of regular-season innings and 70.3 percent of Washington’s postseason innings — the greatest share among teams in the postseason, and way beyond the MLB average in recent years. That group included rotation stalwarts in Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.

Many teams have moved away from concentrating significant portions of payroll in one player, perhaps because of injury risks or the decline in performance often witnessed in 30-something free agents. But the Nationals bet on consolidating their resources in established, experienced players — the pitching staff is tied as the second-oldest in baseball — and it paid off. (Though it obviously helped to have a young star like Juan Soto delivering 4.8 wins above replacement on a salary of just $578,300.)

So will other teams follow Washington’s lead and pay more for top players? Those that are serious about winning may be ready to reconsider spending more. The correlation between payroll and winning this season was the seventh strongest since 1984, according to salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.

Notable pitchers who will hit the market this offseason include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler. But the biggest by far is Cole, who seems ready to test the open market. Instead of wearing a Houston Astros cap after the Game 7 loss, Cole spoke to reporters while sporting a hat from the Boras Corporation, which represents him.

There could actually be a bidding war for Cole’s services, something that has been lacking in recent offseasons. Cole, 29, developed into an ace in Houston, coming off a season of 326 strikeouts and 7.4 WAR. He figures to have a chance to set the record for a free agent pitching contract, potentially besting the $217 million contract David Price received from the Boston Red Sox after the 2015 season. Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Houston’s Game 7 starter, are the only other pitchers to have exceeded $200 million deals in free agency.2

Strasburg could be close behind Cole in terms of top-dollar contracts. The San Diego Padres are reportedly considering making an offer to the Southern California native, who has been the eighth most valuable pitcher in baseball since his debut in 2010.

It remains to be seen if clubs like the pitching-needy Padres will try to follow the Nats’ consolidation plan. It can work — but it could cost them.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Totals include salaries and prorated signing bonuses as of opening day and don’t take into account deferred payments.

  2. Clayton Kershaw’s $215 million contract with the L.A. Dodgers in 2013 was an extension.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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