How Many Runs Would Strasburg Have Saved?

The Washington Nationals face elimination from the playoffs today at home, down 2-1 in their NLD Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Pitching for the Cardinals is Kyle Lohse, who is a fine, if not excellent, starter. The Nationals counter with left-hander Ross Detwiler — or, as he will likely be referred to more than once by TBS broadcasters Dick Stockton and Bob Brenly, “Not Stephen Strasburg.”

The reader probably hasn’t heard about it even once, so allow me to say: Stephen Strasburg is an excellent pitcher for the Nationals. He had Tommy John surgery towards the end of the 2010 season. He rehabbed for the majority of the 2011 season. Entering 2012, the Nationals suggested that they’d enforce some manner of innings limit with Strasburg — just as they had the previous year with other, young Tommy John-survivor Jordan Zimmermann. Then both Strasburg and the Nationals were really good — like, good enough, at one point, that the playoffs became a foregone conclusion (which is weird for the Nationals). Then people were like, “Are you really going to shut down Stephen Strasburg?!?” And then the Nationals were like, “Yes.” And then they did. In September.

It’s not necessarily the case that Stephen Strasburg would be pitching this game today, but it’s also the case that the only reason Ross Detwiler is pitching this afternoon is because Stephen Strasburg was shut down. Otherwise, the Nationals would have likely deployed a playoff rotation of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson — with Strasburg pitching a hypothetical fifth game.

What the people are certainly wondering — and which question Stockton and Brenly will certainly ask today — is “How much is Strasburg’s absence actually worth in terms of run prevention?” Or, alternatively: “How many runs would Strasburg have saved over his replacement(s)?”

The are a number of ways to answer that question, a number of variables to consider, but the simplest method is to begin by looking directly at Strasburg versus Detwiler.

Here are Stephen Strasburg’s and Ross Detwiler’s lines from this season, including only innings compiled as a starting pitcher:

Stephen Strasburg 28 159.1 5.7 30.2% 44.2% 7.4% 80 73 72
Ross Detwiler 27 151.0 5.6 15.0% 52.3% 7.2% 91 101 109

While we don’t know how Strasburg would have pitched in Game One — and don’t know how Detwiler will pitch in Game Four, this afternoon — we do know that, on average, both pitchers threw about 5 and 2/3 innings per start. We also know that, when he pitched, Strasburg (on account of his various index figures) was the sort of pitcher to allow about 75% of the league-average number of runs. Detwiler, meanwhile, would allow runs (more or less) at a league-average rate.

Another thing we know is that the Cardinals scored 4.72 runs per game — presumably, against league-average pitching. That means, on average, we would expect them to score 2.97 of those runs over 5.2 innings. Against the league-average Detwiler, in other words, the Cardinals would likely score 2.97 runs. Against Strasburg, however, who allowed runs at 75% of the league-average rate, the Cardinals would score only 2.23 runs.

In this case — considering none of the other variable that a smart reader is definitely already considering — Strasburg would save 0.74 runs over Detwiler.

But wait, there’s more!

Because Strasburg would start Game One, he’d also start Game Five — i.e. a game that will now, if it’s played, be started by Gio Gonzalez. In order to calculate the impact of Strasburg’s absence, we also have to figure out how many runs (if any) Strasburg would have saved over Gonzalez.

Like before, we consider the pitchers’ lines side-by-side:

Stephen Strasburg 28 159.1 5.7 30.2% 44.2% 7.4% 80 73 72
Gio Gonzalez 32 199.1 6.2 25.2% 48.2% 9.3% 73 73 87

In this case, the pitchers are much more evenly matched: Strasburg’s peripherals are better, but Gonzalez actually prevented real-life earned runs at a greater rate than him. Also, their FIPs are identical. Also, Gonzalez pitched more innings per start. The Cardinals would, very hypothetically, score about 3.32 runs in 6 and 1/3 innings — that is, Gonzalez’s average during the regular season. If we assume that Gonzalez also allows runs at 75% the league-average rate, then we would expect him only to concede 2.49 runs over that many innings. That’s slightly more runs than Strasburg, but also in slightly more innings. I feel comfortable calling it even. I hope you do, too.

Beyond this very basic look at run prevention, it is, of course, necessary to consider context: during a regular-season game, manager Davey Johnson will have let his starters get into trouble. In the playoffs, he is forced to have a significantly quicker hook. According to Baseball Reference, opposing batters had just a .610 OPS against Strasburg for their first plate appearance of a game. In the second plate appearance of a game, batters posted a .641 OPS. For the third, it was a .741 — that is above the National League average of .718. In a playoff situation, Davey Johnson is much more likely to call upon his bullpen — any of whom could likely hold the opposition to a below-average OPS for a short stretch — than let even the Stephen Strasburg face an opposing lineup a third time. Accordingly, Strasburg is unlikely to have saved even as much as the three-quarters of a run noted above.

In conclusion: does Strasburg’s absence make a difference? Yes, but one that is more likely to be overstated than not.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

31 Responses to “How Many Runs Would Strasburg Have Saved?”

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  1. evil kevin towers says:

    its too bad there’s no way to quantify the confidence advantage a team has with their best player leading the charge. kind of like how the justice league is more effective when superman is around, even if he just sits on his super ass. strasburg not being around has got to take the wind out of the team’s sales to an extent.

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  2. dc says:

    you forgot about strasburg batting!

    and if you are talking head 2 head the biggest difference would have came in game 3.

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  3. The Radio Waves Were Like Snow says:

    Isn’t there an equally valid subjective argument to be made the other way in that they would play harder in order to overcome the shortcoming of losing their “best player?” In terms of professional baseball players, I’m thinking the effect is negligible. Either argument is all narrative…. (especially in the case of the fabricated fictional superhero team to which you’re comparing the Nationals)

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    • The Radio Waves Were Like Snow says:

      This was meant as a reply to evil kevin towers above.

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      Baseball is regarded as a sport that’s best played relaxed. So it’s probably likely that they are playing harder, but also very likely that this means they are pressing and their performance is suffering.

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  4. KDL says:

    Considering the narrative is basically: If the Nats don’t win the World Series, it’s because they shut-down Strasburg…I’d say Carson’s conclusion is right on.

    One of the problems facing the sports talking heads (esp. the baseball guys) is the fact that admitting that Strasburg pitching in the playoffs isn’t the HUGE, simple solution to all the Nats problems they claim, requires an admission that the MLB playoffs are the closest thing we have to crapshoot in professional sports.

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    • Kumar says:

      You are vastly overstating the role of chance in baseball playoffs.

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    • monkey business says:

      You are vastly understating the role of chance in other sports postseason.

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    • Rally says:

      If Strasburg pitched this series, he would have had 2 complete game shutouts, allowing no walks and striking out 17 per game. So do the Nationals win the series? Yes, because they just need one more win in a non-Strasburg start, and they already have two.

      If the Nats get by the Cardinals and lose to the Giants 4 games to one, the question will be “Would they have won with Strasburg?”

      And the answer is yes, because Strasburg would have pitched games 1-4-7, striking out 14, 16, and 19, completing each game for a shutout. The strikeouts would be down in game 1 only because he’d be tired after so little rest from his game 5 start in the previous round.

      Those are the assumption the media will work from if/when the Nationals are eliminated.

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  5. I Agree Guy says:

    The answer is 12.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      No, the answer is 42

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      • daniel cumings says:

        Not meant as a reply to Eminor

        “Quality Starts” is a terrible statistic because allowing 3 runs in 6 innings is not quality. However, if you define a QS as allowing no more than 2 runs in 6 innings or more, that is quality, and every quality start gives your team a high probability of winning. For 2012, RDet had 9 QS in 27 starts while SStr had 20 in 28 starts. By this way of thinking, a start by SStr is more than twice as likely to result in a win than a start by RDet. Seems significant to me.

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      • Stuck in a slump says:

        While I agree with you Daniel, the purpose of quality starts is an attempt to measure “did this starting pitcher keep his team in the game?”, for which quality starts is a fairly good measurement.

        Teams score more than 3 runs, on average, per game, so if a pitcher limited the opposing team to 3 runs or less, then he’s allowed his team the chance to win.

        Yes, a pitcher could, in theory, start 34 games, and pitch to the tune of 204 IP, and a 4.50 ERA, this would be a below league average pitcher, so why would he have 34 quality starts? The idea is that the pitcher has done his job, and the rest is up to the offense and bullpen.

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  6. Mike N says:

    I think there’s a better argument in the fact that Strasburg has a better chance of putting in a quality outing (at least before he got tired towards the end.) It’s not so much that Strasburg would’ve saved less than a run over Detweiler, but that he would’ve been a much safer option than Detweiler when every game is of huge importance. You could estimate the relative probabilities that Strasburg would give up 1 run, 2 runs, etc. in 5 2/3 innings, and I bet he’d be a big improvement over Detweiler in terms of win expectation.

    Or, related point, you’re losing a lot of inference when you only look at averages.

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  7. bpdelia says:

    i think this is an instance where averages are just not useful. its better to think of it in termsvof what are the odds of a strass gem vs a rdett gem. gems produce wins very often. strass produces gems very often rdett does not. ergo strass us much more likely to produce a win. seems pretty straight forward. shutting him down may have been the correct long term move. however there is simply no argument to be made that it is anything other than a very bad thing for the 2012 nats. true aces are so rare and, along with dominant two way nba wings are the single most valuable assets in pro sports today. you can win without em but its hella easier with em.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      1. Learn to capitalise words.
      2. Oddly, Ross Detwiler has, in actual fact, pitched what one might call a “gem.” 6 IP, 1 unearned run.

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      • bpdelia says:

        lol. Dude I am typing on my phone and the phone has keyboard issues. In the remainder if my response i will not be using capitals because it is a pain in the ass and you are a Dick.

        I did not say that detwiler hads not ever nor will he ever throw a great game. i did say that of the two strass is CLEARLY (i capitalized that whole fuckin word for ya!) more likely to throw a great game. is that really something that can be argued? I mean, it’s quite obviously true. So your comment was kind of a waste of time aside from the crucially important policing of proper mobile device capitalization protocol. And for that I thank you with a final sentence with FIVE capital letters.

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      • I Agree Guy says:

        Then don’t type on your phone?

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    • DominicanRepublican says:

      A dominant NHL goalie and a dominant NFL quarterback are each more important than a dominant MLB starting pitcher that plays in 20% of games. They’re also much more important than a two-way NBA wing.

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  8. Aaron (UK) says:

    I count SIX.

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  9. MikeS says:

    This is the problem with applying statistical analysis to a small sample size. The same analysis could “prove” that replacing Miguel Cabrera with Nick Punto would only cost the Tigers a couple of runs over 5 games. The point is, that while any pitcher can go out and give up 6 runs in 2 2/3, or throw 8 innings of shutout ball, and that over 162 games the difference in average contribution in any given game will be small, the Strasburgs of the world are far more likely to be really good on any given day than the Detwilers.

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  10. Todd Boss says:

    Who gives a sh*t how many runs Strasburg could have “prevented” if you’re not scoring runs? In four NLDS games they’ve scored 3,4,0 and 2 runs. 9 runs in 4 games, four of those runs which were basically meaningless as they got pounded 12-4 in game 2. I don’t care if you’ve got Cy Young pitching; unless you can guarantee a 9-inning 2 run outing every time out the Nats are still probably losing the same number of games they’ve managed to lose already this series.

    The Narrative of this series (as Tom Verducci accurately pointed out today) should be lack of Offense, not lack of Strasburg.

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  11. yolo says:

    legit analysis

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  12. chuckb says:

    This doesn’t count all the runs he’d have added to the Nats’ offense through his hitting with RISP. It would’ve been a clean sweep!

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  13. A DC Wonk says:

    The above analysis, good as it is, doesn’t seem to take into account that Stras was tired and lagging towards the end of the season. His ERA was between 6 and 7 his last three starts. OTOH, Det seemed fairly fresh. (And he sure seemed fresh last night!)

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  14. Dick Stockton says:

    The Nationals clearly made an errah by shutting down Strasburg. Errah errah errah. Jetah. I like to hear myself speak. Errah by Jetah!

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