Reminder: Stephen Strasburg Is Still Really, Really Good

If you were to conduct a casual survey among baseball fans about the greatest pitching season of all time, there’s no doubt that there’s a few years that would pop up regularly among the responses. Bob Gibson‘s 1968, certainly. Dwight Gooden‘s 1985 would probably appear, or Roger Clemens‘ 1986, or Steve Carlton‘s 1972. Randy Johnson has a few years you could point to. So does Sandy Koufax. So does Greg Maddux. There’s not really a wrong answer there, because it’s not a question that can be answered. Run environment and park effects have to be measured, and we can do that to some extent, but we can’t really account for the fact that some people prefer the quiet mastery of Maddux to the flame-throwing mastery of Johnson, or the fact that whether you were 15 in 1968 or still decades away from being born will absolutely color your memories of particular eras.

For me, the answer is a tie. It’s either Pedro Martinez‘ 1999 or Pedro Martinez‘ 2000, and it’s not hard to explain why. They were legitimately great seasons no matter how you looked at them, and they occurred right in the face of some of the highest offensive environments we’ve ever seen. It’s why Martinez’ ERA+ in 2000 was 291 while Gibson’s 1968 was 258, despite Gibson’s raw ERA of 1.12 being considerably lower than Martinez’ 1.74. And for me, I lived in Boston at the time. I was in college. I lived within walking distance of Fenway Park. I can’t say I specifically remember any starts of Martinez’ I saw in person in those two years, but I’m sure I saw at least a few.

Martinez, in those two years, did something no other qualified pitcher since 1900 has ever done before or since. He struck out more than 11 per nine, and he paired that with a walk rate below 2.00. That’s a bit biased towards recent pitchers, since the game as a whole simply didn’t strike out decades ago like they do now, but that doesn’t really change how fantastically impressive it was.

Now, realize this: This isn’t a post about Pedro Martinez. It’s a post about Stephen Strasburg, who, through his first 14 starts of the season, is on pace to do exactly that… not that anyone seems to be noticing. If it’s possible to be both a superstar and feel like a disappointment, considering how hyped Strasburg was as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, he’s managed to accomplish it.

* * *

Three notes about Stephen Strasburg, to follow imminently:

1) Strasburg’ s velocity is down. It’s not down by as much as it was when we noted it here on April 1, after the fact that he averaged under 93 mph in his first start of the year raised some red flags, but it’s down, by more than three miles per hour than it was when he reached the big leagues.

strasburg_velocity

This is generally considered to be a problem, at least for pitchers in general, if not specifically to Strasburg. It’s been the cause of much angst around Jered Weaver and CC Sabathia and others, as they realize that they can no longer blow the ball past a hitter. We know that in general, losing velocity corresponds to losing effectiveness, outliers like Mark Buehrle aside.

However…

2) After speaking to Strasburg two weeks ago, John Perrotto noted at Sports on Earth that the drop in velocity was more a strategy than a concern, saying that Strasburg “has since made a conscious effort to take a little bit off his fastball for the sake of preserving his arm over piling up strikeouts and blowing out radar guns.”

Intuitively, this makes sense. There’s still plenty we don’t know about how to keep elbows from exploding — Strasburg, of course, is a Tommy John survivor himself — but the one idea that does seem to be gaining some wider acceptance is the theory that the best way to get yourself hurt, short of pitching when you’re already injured, is to attempt to go at max-effort every single time. It’s probably not a coincidence that the increase in arm injuries is happening as the pitching velocity of the sports has gone up. To be clear, that’s not a 1:1 “there’s your answer” position, but it makes a lot of sense.

Of course, it’s a problem for guys like Weaver and Sabathia when not throwing as hard means they struggle to even get to 90. For Strasburg, dropping three or four miles still means he’s operating in the mid 90s. It’s easy to take some off when you’re starting from the top.

3) Despite taking some speed off, Strasburg is almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League. That’s maybe partially because Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey blew up, and Clayton Kershaw missed enough time that he doesn’t have the innings to qualify yet (Kershaw, by the way, is also doing what Martinez did, though again isn’t qualified), but it’s hard to argue the following:

FIP: 1st in NL (2nd in MLB behind Felix Hernandez)
xFIP: 1st in MLB
WAR: 1st in NL (3rd in MLB behind Hernandez and Corey Kluber)
K%-BB%: 1st in MLB, tied with David Price
SwSTR%: 3rd in NL (5th in MLB)

ERA and RA9-WAR don’t look upon him as favorably, mostly because A) the Washington defense has been wretched and B) related to A), Strasburg’s .354 BABIP is the highest of any pitcher in baseball.

Now, what I’d like to do here is make some grand statement about how Strasburg has significantly changed in 2014 to make for this success — that the slider he worked to add in the spring has been a dominant new addition to his arsenal, or that throwing slightly less hard is what has allowed him to increase his command. But the truth is, there’s no point in making a narrative where one doesn’t exist. (Although, as noted in the comments, he may have changed his position on the rubber somewhat.) He ditched the slider weeks ago, finding that it wasn’t working. His command has improved, but it was never a problem to begin with, and it’s not just about cutting down on the high-velocity pitches, anyway, because even those are going for strikes. On pitches above 96 mph, he’s improved his ability to locate them within the strike zone by roughly two percent every year, from 39.7 percent as a rookie to 47.3 in 2014.

The simple fact is, this isn’t new. Strasburg was dominant when he made his debut at 21 years old, and the elbow surgery hasn’t changed that. From the start of 2012 until now, he’s got the No. 4 FIP, the No. 2 xFIP, the No. 2 K%-BB%. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of that with new flavors like Masahiro Tanaka, Fernandez, Harvey and Yu Darvish, or in the midst of his unpopular shutdown in 2012 and the disappointment that was Washington’s 2013, but he’s always been this good. If too many fans seem to not be noticing that, well, too many fans probably care that his record since the start of 2013 is just 14-13. They shouldn’t. They do.

Strasburg is succeeding for the same reasons he always has, namely that he has a changeup that can do this, as he showed in Monday night’s dismantling of the Giants, making it among the three best changes in the game since the start of last year:

strasburg_change_2014-06-09

He’s got a top-five curve that can do this:

strasburg_curve_2014-06-09

Which all helps make the fastball with movement on it look even better:

strasburg_fastball_2014-06-09

Yet it never really does seem like we talk about Strasburg as though he’s among the elite with Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Fernandez and the rest. That’s less on him than it is on us. We should probably take the moment to accept that Strasburg can’t be overrated, not when he’s living up to the hype and then some, in ways we’ve rarely if ever seen before.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


49 Responses to “Reminder: Stephen Strasburg Is Still Really, Really Good”

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  1. D. Goat says:

    My favorite part of this excellent article is the three gifs are of Giants. Thank you.

    +21 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jason B says:

      Well their fans often say they don’t get enough attention on here, so Mike was simply rectifying a wrong.

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  2. Stephen says:

    It’s fitting that Strasburg is doing thus far what Pedro accomplished since their arsenal is so similar. The number of pitchers in baseball history with three plus-plus pitches has to be in the handful. That was one of things I found so awe-inspiring about Pedro but only a relatively short time later, a big guy with huge ears has come along with the same quality of stuff on the same mix of pitches.

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  3. Mike Rithgen says:

    Boston University, huh

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  4. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    Stras is back, baby!

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  5. Brian says:

    1888 Silver King though

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  6. Brian says:

    As I was reading the first paragraph I was thinking “Pedro in 2000 is better than all of them”…To do what he did in the middle of the steroid era is just absurd.

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    • Catoblepas says:

      Yeah I was ready to come down here and flip some tables if Pedro didn’t get mentioned, but the best was just being saved for last.

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  7. ivdown says:

    “3) Despite taking some speed off, Strasburg is almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League. That’s maybe partially because Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey blew up, and Clayton Kershaw missed enough time that he doesn’t have the innings to qualify yet (Kershaw, by the way, is also doing what Martinez did, though again isn’t qualified)”

    I’m glad you brought up Kershaw, he’s the first thing I thought of when you mentioned what Strasburg was doing. Funny enough, when I changed the innings from qualified to 40 (Kershaw has just under 50 IP so far) and made it starters only, another Pedro season was added and Kershaw’s current season was added, but no Strasburg:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=sta&lg=all&qual=40&type=8&season=2014&month=0&season1=1900&ind=1&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=17105&players=0

    I’m not sure why.

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    • ivdown says:

      I just noticed Kershaw’s innings were at 43 and he was only 4-2 on that page, so it did not include his last start. I’m guessing same thing with Strasburg, which is why he’s not on that list.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Yeah. I think there was an issue with the data import this morning. It’s being fixed.

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    • Brian says:

      Yay I noticed the same thing — Pedro 2001! Seriously, you can argue about the best single season, but there’s no argument for best two-three season run.

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      • Iron says:

        Bob Gibson 68-70 could make a nice argument for best 3 year stretches. 30.2 fWAR in that stretch. It was a different era, less strikeouts but much less power, but I’d certainly throw it in there along with Koufax’s 65-66 for two-year stretch. Nothing against Martinez, he may win the argument in the end… but there’s an argument.

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    • Scott says:

      Strasburg has a career worst whip and opponent’s BA. That may have something to do with why he is getting “overlooked”. He’s giving up a hit an inning.

      Cueto and Wainwright have been the best pitchers in the NL this season and Strasburg isn’t even close (K:BB rate be damned).

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  8. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    Also, what about 1978 Ron Guidry? 273 innings with a 1.74 ERA? That has to be up there.

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  9. ivdown says:

    I was really happy to see this article, I was just singing Strasburg’s praises 2 days ago on another blog talking about how amazing he’s actually been and no one really seems to notice. It’s amazing that he’s put up such great numbers since he came up but isn’t regarded normally as one of the best. If he is able to start throwing 200+ innings a season, he will really be right up there with Kershaw and Wainwright.

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  10. Matt says:

    I almost stopped reading the article after your first paragraph of best pitching seasons of all time didn’t mention Pedro’s 1999-2000. Luckily I looked ahead a bit. Nice work

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  11. Bip says:

    Strasburg is underrated because although his whole career looks outstanding, he has never had THE season that causes the mainstream media to take notice. Basically, in order to be considered an ace by the media, particularly in the NL, you have to have a whole season of over 200 innings and an ERA under 3, and probably be in contention for the lead in wins, unless the season is otherwise outstanding, or if you are the ace of a division winner. Strasburg is probably still most famous for getting shut down in 2012.

    Also, the run environment in the NL is just insane right now, isn’t it? Strasburg has a FIP of 2.29. That looks totally incredible, and yet he’s only on pace for 5 WAR this season, in about 200 innings. His ERA is under 3, and yet his ERA- is over 80. That mark was good enough to lead the AL in the mid 2000’s, and in the 2014 NL, an ERA of 2.99 is considered “eh, pretty good”.

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    • hscer says:

      Strasburg’s current pace gets him to 5 WAR at 168 innings; 200 innings would make almost 6 WAR. I think your general point there stands, though.

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      • Bip says:

        Woah, that was weird. I could swear I was looking at his player page and saw he was worth 2.1 WAR so far. I just reloaded the page and now it says 2.6. Anyway, that means you’re right.

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  12. Brian says:

    I’m not seeing Strasburg first in NL WAR or 3rd in MLB

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2014&month=0&season1=2014&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=19,d

    I see him 3rd in NL (Wainwright/Cueto) and 12th in MLB. My error somewhere?

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  13. triple_r says:

    Not only is he really good, he’s really unlucky as well (which you mentioned). That’s a rare combination.

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  14. Derek Zoolander says:

    His stuff is really really ridiculously good looking.

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  15. Jorge Fabregas says:

    Worth noting (maybe) that the unluckyish BABIP is inflating his K/9. Chris Sale, for instance, has a similar and slightly higher K%-B%, although he has the same innings/injury issue as the aforementioned Kershaw. Hard to keep track of all the ridiculous pitching seasons going on right now.

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  16. SassyApples says:

    I am a casual observer of the game, but I would point some attention to the fact that Strasburg dominates for an average of 6 innings at a time (much like a Zach Grienke), where as Wainwright, Kershaw, King Felix, Verlander, etc have tended to average 7 innings a start. Is there a logic or way to place more value on those later innings and getting 3 more big outs per start?

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    • David says:

      Strasburg is near the top of the league in innings pitched this year.

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    • arc says:

      Innings Pitched per Game Started

      Wainwright 7.2
      Felix H. 7.0
      Verlander 6.6
      Strasburg 6.2
      Kershaw 6.2
      MLB Avg 5.9

      Pitches per Game Started

      Verlander 112 (!)
      Wainwright 102
      Felix H. 102
      Kershaw 102
      Strasburg 97
      MLB Avg 96

      I don’t know how meaningful this data is, but it’s worth pointing out that Strasburg doesn’t have complete control over his pitches per game; that’s largely a manager’s decision.

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      • John C. says:

        I wonder what the impact is of two other factors: (1) the Nats have struggled to score runs in Strasburg’s starts, which tend to get him PH for earlier; and (2) the manager is willing to PH for Strasburg because the Nats bullpen has also been all kinds of awesome (other than Ross Detwiler) this year.

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      • Bip says:

        Where are you getting those numbers? Baseball reference says Kershaw has 89 pitches per start this year. I know those aren’t career numbers, since Wainwright does not average 7.2 innings per start over his career.

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      • SassyApples says:

        That’s what I mean. I think those that still average 7-8 innings per start deserve some extra consideration. I acknowledge it is often a manager’s decision (and they continue to ride Verlander too hard), but those extra outs over 30+ starts really keep a bullpen fresh, whether they are lousy or outstanding.

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    • ivdown says:

      Kershaw’s innings are skewed by a freak 1.2 IP mess in Arizona and a 5 IP rainout win in Colorado last week. I get getting lit up happens, it’s just certainly an outlier. Then the weather cost Kershaw anywhere from 2-3 IP in the Colorado start, he was flat out dominant that day.

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  17. Sean C says:

    I was reading the first paragraph, wondering where Pedro was. At it’s conclusion, I was quite disappointed.

    And then I read the second paragraph … and YOU TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELF!

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  18. Eric Feczko says:

    Well, it’s not quite Pedro yet…

    When you collapse across multiple years, Pedro maintained a K-rate over 11 and a walk rate under 2 over a period of six years, from 1998 to 2003:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2003&month=0&season1=1998&ind=0&team=&rost=&age=&filter=&players=

    When another pitcher manages such incredible strikeout and walk numbers over a period of 168 games started, then they can be placed in Pedro’s tier.

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  19. Bo Knows says:

    I had those similar concerns about Strasburgs velocity until I watched some video from him last year and the year before, one thing that sticks out noticeably is that there is far less effort going into his delivery. It looks the same, but it doesn’t look like he’s going 1000% max effort. I’m glad to hear that quote from him verify my suspicions that he was winding it down a few notches

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  20. Victimize says:

    Pedro put up a 11.9 war in 1999… wow

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  21. Steve Z says:

    Last two starts not great from Strasburg. Cause for concern?

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