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 used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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