Given the media circus around the event, you surely already know the specs behind Stephen Strasburg’s Spring Training debut with the Washington Nationals yesterday: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 27 pitches. If you spend any time on Twitter, you caught wind that he touched 98 mph (thankfully we have Twitter, because the radar gun didn’t kick into the TV broadcast until inning three) and threw all four of his pitches for strikes. And after the game, you probably heard that Jim Riggleman sounded a little less confident the Nationals wouldn’t start him him in the minors: “We’ll make that call as an organization. But as far as he knows, he’s like everybody else trying to make the club.”
My feelings about starting a top prospect in the Major Leagues on Opening Day have already been voiced, so we won’t re-hash that today. Instead, since Strasburg wasn’t available during the Fan Projections on this site, I want to open up a dialogue about the expectations that we have for his first season in the Majors. I want to approach this using the components that make up FIP: home runs, unintentional walks, hit by pitches and strikeouts. I’m eliminating innings pitched from the discussion — we’re going to use 150.
Why? Because it’s nice and round and possible. It accounts for either a May call-up, an early shutdown in September, or a slight injury. And I want the focus to be on the component stats. Let’s talk about each:
Home Runs: I point you to Jeff Sackmann’s study on The Hardball Times about the average college pitcher’s development, and his interesting findings that players give up more home runs as they progress through college. Strasburg was no exception: even though his sinker got better in college, and his GO/AO ratio was 1.41 as a junior, his four home runs allowed were more than expected. Now a 0.33 HR/9 isn’t bad, but the Aztec had given up just one over 134 innings in his first two seasons. Then, in the Arizona Fall League, Strasburg gave up three big flies over just 19 innings.
This is going up quickly, and I can tell you Major League players will be no easier. I’m going to go with 18 home runs allowed.
Unintentional Walks: This is, of course, one of Strasburg’s hallmarks — he walked just 50 batters in a college career almost reaching 250 innings. He did walk seven in the Arizona Fall League, so I think we can probably toss a walk rate below 2.0/9 out the window. Still, you will never find a scout that won’t rave about his fastball command. And yesterday, with his last strikeout a perfectly controlled full-count breaking ball, you saw the touch he has with all his weapons. I’m going to go with 45 walks, representing a 2.7 BB/9.
Hit By Pitches: There’s an old story about Wes Roemer, who was famous in college because he never walked anybody. His walk-less streak kept a dialogue about him going, and scouts were quick to give him a 80 on the 20-80 scale for command. However, another scout noticed that Roemer wasn’t walking people because if he got to a three ball count, he would just peg the player. I don’t think is an uncommon story in college baseball, and I tell it because it’s interesting, not that it applies to Strasburg. In fact, he hit just 7 batters in his final two seasons, and avoided them completely in the Arizona Fall League. Conservatively, let’s say 5 HBP, and move on.
Strikeouts: This is where the intrigue lies. I’m guessing it’s been a long time since Strasburg didn’t strike out a batter an inning — all three years of college, every summer baseball stop, and last fall in the Arizona Fall League. He showed yesterday that he won’t be intimidated by stars like Miguel Cabrera, who he sent to the bench with a nasty high fastball. However, he was also very sinker-heavy against the Tigers, and I wonder if the two-seam fastball won’t be his bread and butter early in the count. I also wonder if hitters won’t take the Chipper Jones approach and swing early to not fall behind. All in all, I’m projecting 135 strikeouts.
I want to hear your predictions in the comments, but those are mine — a conservative first year equaling out to a 3.95 FIP. And if you think I’m setting the under/over there, you’re wrong, because I’ll take the under.