The 80-20 Approach

The Nationals need 14 fWAR from their three star pitchers.

As long as GM Mike Rizzo has been in charge, the Washington Nationals have been a perennial contender built around starting pitching. Rather than diversify, the Nats put all their eggs into just a couple of baskets. This is not a good strategy, right? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket now, everybody said to anybody who would listen.

The Nationals make it work.

Let’s start with the Padres. They added everyone under the sun this offseason, building a stable of rotation arms that runs ten deep. They know injuries are going to happen, so they’re stockpiling arms capable of stepping in. Logical.

The way the Nats behave, you’d think diversification was the risky strategy. They bank on the reliability of a few starters at the top of their rotation. They won’t admit to the inevitability of losing their starters to injury.

Go ahead, have your chuckle: how is that the strategy for a team built around Stephen Strasburg?


Phase One


Stephen Strasburg joined the team in 2010, and he’s been at the center of their competitive strategy ever since. The names of his rotation mates have changed but the strategy has been the same: put All-Star-caliber arms around Strasburg.

Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez were his running mates in phase one. They were good, but when Strasburg went down for the first time, they weren’t enough to keep their contender afloat. Whether that was by design, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s the essence of an all-or-nothing strategy, right?

When the Nats made the playoffs for the first time in 2012, their big three of Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez accounted for 63 percent of their total team pitching WAR – the 28th-highest share for a top-3 since 2010.

In 2019, the Washington Nationals had three of the top 15 pitchers in baseball by fWAR: Max Scherzer (#4), Stephen Strasburg (#7), and Patrick Corbin (#13). This was, in essence, the ultimate culmination of Rizzo’s strategy.

GM Mike Rizzo’s team-building philosophy comes from his time as the scouting director of the Randy Johnson-led Diamondbacks, who also saw a top-heavy approach to pitching win a World Series. In 2001, Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Byung-Hyun Kim accounted for 81% of their pitching team bWAR. That’s a huge chunk, and not very indicative of a playoff team. Better teams tend to have more than just a few elite arms. The 80-20 approach simply worked in 2001.

And it worked again in 2019, when Strasburg, Scherzer, and Corbin accounted for 81 percent of the Nats’ pitching bWAR.

Zimmermann and Gonzalez were good arms in their prime, but Scherzer and Corbin are the supersized edition.


Top-3 Dominance


The next question I have is whether or not this top-heavy approach is something that other good teams employ. Instead of looking at actual playoff teams, I’m going to look at the top third of teams from 2010 to 2019 by team fWAR. Basically, if the playoffs were decided by pitching alone, these would have been the top teams.

  • From 2010 to 2019, the top-3-producing arms on “playoff teams” account for 58.6 percent of their teams’ total WAR.

  • From 2010 to 2019, the top-3-producing arms on “non-playoff teams” account for 70.68 percent of their total pitching fWAR.

The Nats employ a losing strategy.

And yet, the Nats only qualified as a “non-playoff” squad by their team fWAR three times out of these ten seasons.

So perhaps Rizzo’s 80-20 approach isn’t so much a losing strategy as it is an unlikely winner. After all, no strategy is perfect. Take the volume approach, and spread the risk around. But if you can find the reliable arms as Rizzo has, then perhaps it makes sense to gamble on the health and performance of three reliable arms as opposed to ten.

The Nats’ margins are still slim, of course. The health portion is complicated, but so is performance reliability. They need to know with fair certainty not only that Strasburg, Scherzer, and Corbin can stay healthy, but that as a trio, they can produce upwards of 80% of the fWAR necessary to get them into that top third, the “playoff” teams. Using the last ten years of data, 16.7 fWAR is that line.

80 percent of 16.7 is 13.36 fWAR: that’s the lower threshold the Nats’ threesome needs to target. Each of their horses needs to put up a 4.5 fWAR season.

Strasburg has hit that marker three times in his career (’14, ’17, ’19). Corbin has hit 4.5 fWAR just twice in his career (’18, ’19).

As for Scherzer, well, that’s where Rizzo get his bread buttered. Using an extrapolated total from 2020, and Scherzer has hit or surpassed 4.5 fWAR in nine consecutive seasons.

Ah, yes. Having a future Hall of Famer on staff certainly helps.

Of course, it’s certainly noteworthy that the only time all three put up a 4.5 fWAR season in the same year was, of course, 2019, the year the Nationals won the World Series. The formula works – when it works.

S0, can the Nats trio do it again? Let’s see how it’s going so far:


Rizzo doesn’t mind if you doubt his strategy, however. Per Matt Weyrich of NBC Sports, he said at the start of the season, “Everyone’s picking the champions of the divisions and MVPs and Cy Youngs before the season starts, it’s just too difficult to do. But we’re built to win this year and we want to win and our resume speaks for itself. We’ve done a lot of good things and you’re wearing a ring because of it and that’s what we’re all about is trying to get another one of those.”

That’s Hall of Fame-level confidence.

Unfortunately, they haven’t seen Hall of Fame results yet. Each of their three hurlers has started two games, and they’ve thus far accrued -0.6 fWAR. They now have an even steeper uphill climb the rest of the way.

Can they do it? Well, they’ve done it once before.


Photo from All-Pro Reels Photography & Icon Sportswire | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

One response to “The 80-20 Approach”

  1. Dave says:

    Three aces, a few good relievers, a solid defense and a few good bats plays well in the post-season… if you can get there.

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