Baseball loves to make a big deal out of round numbers. Think about all the key career milestones: 3,000 hits, 500 homers, 300 wins. A team that wins 100 games gets a whole lot more credit than one that "only" wins 99, and a team that loses 100 games gets a whole lot more blame than one that "only" loses 99. Players aspire to compile 200 hits in a season, or 20 wins or 100 RBI.
And then there is this standard pitching benchmark: 200 innings in a season. Why 200 innings? There's no particular reason, other than that nice, round number seems to signify a pitcher was effective enough to take the mound every fifth day over the course of a year.
Is that the best manner to determine a quality season? No, ERA, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, even wins tell you more about a pitcher than the mere number of innings he threw. And yet, there is something to be said for reaching the magical 200-inning plateau. Because more often than not, the teams that have the most 200-inning pitchers end up winning the most games.
Don't buy that logic? Well, take a look at the clubs that have boasted the most 200-inning starters over the last seven seasons: the White Sox (19), Diamondbacks (14), Giants (13), Angels (13), Braves (11), Red Sox (11), Cardinals (11) and Tigers (11). All perennial playoff contenders, not to mention five of the last seven World Series winners.
And now take a look at the clubs that have produced the fewest 200-inning starters over the last seven seasons: the Orioles (5), Royals (5), Pirates (5), Padres (5) and ... the Nationals (4).
Yes, that's right. No major-league franchise has seen fewer pitchers reach the 200-inning mark since 2005 than your Washington Nationals. Is it any surprise they've produced zero winning records during that same time frame?
The list of 200-inning Nationals pitchers is quite paltry. Livan Hernandez did it twice (2005 and 2010). Esteban Loaiza did it in 2005. And John Lannan did it in 2009. That's it.
Ah, but the tide may be turning at long last, because the Nationals' projected 2012 rotation has a chance to produce three (or perhaps even four) 200-inning starters.
The likeliest starter to do it is newcomer Gio Gonzalez, who narrowly reached the plateau each of the last two seasons with the Athletics (200 23 innings in 2010, 202 innings in 2011). Jordan Zimmermann, who was on pace for roughly 200 innings last season before he was shut down in September for precautionary reasons, is poised to surpass the number this time. Lannan, if he stays in the rotation the entire season, should also have a reasonable opportunity to get to 200.
And then there's Chien-Ming Wang, who tossed 218 innings for the Yankees in 2006 and would love to make another run at that total six years later now that his shoulder has healed from major surgery (though that proposition seems less likely than the others given his recent injury history).
What about Stephen Strasburg? Well, the Nationals won't let him approach 200 innings this season, not when he's still less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The club plans to keep on a schedule very similar to Zimmermann's schedule from last year, so look for his innings to be capped around the 160-mark. But if all goes well, Strasburg will have a chance to post his first career 200-inning season in 2013.
Is any of this guaranteed to happen? Not at all. There are plenty of variable and potential pitfalls standing in these pitchers' way.
But for a franchise that has rarely trotted one legitimate workhorse to the mound on an annual basis, the realistic possibility of starting multiple quality arms in 2012 is reason enough to be encouraged.