Stephen Strasburg Is the Ace We Always Wanted

Stephen Strasburg made his worst start of the season last night. At home, against the Detroit Tigers, Strasburg struck out 11 over seven innings, allowing four earned runs on six hits, three walks, and two home runs. The Nationals won the game on a walk-off home run by Clint Robinson in the ninth inning, and Strasburg took the no decision. A game in which Strasburg completed seven innings and struck out double digits was his worst start of the year in terms of ERA, and his worst start of the year in terms of FIP. It was his best start of the year in terms of signing massive contract extensions bordering on $200 million.

That last night’s performance was Strasburg’s least impressive of the season is impressive in and of itself. He’s been baseball’s third-most valuable pitcher by FIP-WAR, eighth-most valuable pitcher by RA9-WAR, and fifth-most valuable pitcher by an even mix of the two. And while what he’s done this seasons is an elevated level of performance relative to previous seasons, Strasburg’s been on this run for a while now. You could make the case that this is the best we’ve ever seen him.

This time last year, Strasburg had an ERA above 6.00, and we ran a “What’s Wrong With Stephen Strasburg” post on this very website. What was wrong with Strasburg, it turned out, was that he was hurt. He was removed from a game the night that post was published with a nagging shoulder injury, and just a couple weeks later hit the disabled list on account of some side and neck problems. Strasburg missed a few weeks, came back in late June, and since then, he’s made 20 starts, he’s struck out seven batters for every walk, he’s ran a 2.13 ERA and a 2.19 FIP. Since then, he’s been as close to peak Strasburg as we’ve seen:

StrasERAFIP2

This stretch of starts since returning from the disabled list last year is the best of Strasburg’s career, in terms of preventing runs. It’s the best since 2012 in terms of strikeouts, walks and homers. Strasburg’s always been great. Lately, he’s been even better than that.

During the offseason, Jeff Sullivan ran a little survey where he asked you all to help define an ace. The list of pitchers within the post didn’t include every great pitcher, but it included plenty of great pitchers, and plenty of interesting cases. Strasburg was on the list, and when the results were published, his placement surprised me. He received 57% of the vote for ace status, which Sullivan considered a pass, but considering the dropoff between Strasburg and the next-highest rated pitcher — Adam Wainwright, at 72% — I considered Strasburg to be the first one out.

Regardless of where the line was drawn, Strasburg was voted soundly beneath the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer, which I had a hard time wrapping my head around. Over the course of their careers to that point, Strasburg had the group’s best FIP, best xFIP with a sizable lead, and his run prevention was topped only by Gray. Shortening the window to 2013, to begin with the year in which Cole and Gray debuted, Strasburg still led the pack in WAR, with numbers that stacked up against the rest across the board. There’d been no discernible difference between Strasburg and those four young pitchers who were deemed clear-cut aces by the crowd — in fact, there was a case to be made Strasburg had been the best of the bunch — yet Strasburg wasn’t granted “ace” status by the public. Seemingly, he never has. This needs to change.

Sullivan echoed my sentiment of being surprised by Strasburg’s placement in the poll. He considered several factors for the showing. The first being Strasburg’s awful start to the season, pre-DL trip. Some folks likely wrote Strasburg’s 2015 off, and hadn’t realized he ran a sub-2.00 ERA over his final 13 starts. Second being, thanks to Max Scherzer, Strasburg probably hasn’t even been the best pitcher on his team in recent years, though that probably says more about Scherzer than it does Strasburg. Then there’s the status of being a No. 1 overall pick, and the idea that Strasburg’s never lived up to the hype, thanks to his injuries.

But what’s funny is, Strasburg’s undeniably been one of the best pitchers in baseball in this early season, and yet his 2016 numbers are almost indiscernible from his career numbers:

Stephen Strasburg, 2016 vs. Career
Year K% BB% GB% HR/9 BABIP SwStr% FBv
2016 30.4 6.3 48.3 0.55 .300 12.4 94.8
Career 28.8 6.1 46.3 0.83 .305 11.3 95.4

Strasburg’s mostly just been what he’s always been, and what he’s always been is one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. He throws about as hard as anyone, he’s hard the third-best strikeout-walk differential in baseball dating back more than two years, he gets whiffs at an above-average clip, and he gets grounders at an above-average clip.

There’s also signs he’s evolving as a pitcher. For one, he’s folded a slider into the repertoire this season, and he’s shown an encouraging level of trust in it. Consider that, for his career, when Strasburg fell behind in the count against a righty, he’d go to a breaking ball just 17% of the time. This year, he’s gone to the breaking ball 35% of the time behind in the count, and it’s mostly the slider. The changeup has turned into an out-pitch against righties, and it’s been convincingly the best changeup in baseball this season:

StrasCH

Whereas Strasburg used to throw the fastball in the zone around 40% of the time when he debuted, he’s become more aggressive with the pitch as time’s gone on, and now more than half of Strasburg’s fastballs are thrown over the plate. He’s also been elevating them since his return from the disabled list, and to excellent results.

The injury history will always lead to durability concerns, and the number of innings Strasburg’s been able to throw has likely been as much of a factor in his lack of ace perception than anything. But consider that, with a more aggressive fastball and a broader repertoire, last night marked the fifth time in just seven starts this season that Strasburg worked at least seven innings. Dating back to his return from the disabled list last year, he’s completed at least seven innings in 12 of 20 starts (60%). In his entire career prior to that, he’d completed seven innings in just 33% of his starts. Not only have we seen a more dominant Strasburg over the past year, we’ve seen a Strasburg that again looks capable of throwing 200 innings.

Stephen Strasburg has seemingly never achieved ace status with the public, but he’s earned it. He’s been one of baseball’s best pitchers this year, and his numbers don’t look too different from what he’s always done. He’s got as good of stuff as anyone in the game, and right now, he’s rolling on the best run of his career. He’s using newfound breaking balls to get back into counts, he’s striking out righties on one of the game’s truly elite changeups, and he’s pounding the zone with his lively fastball more than ever. It’s less formulaic, with every ounce of the stuff that’s kept people so intrigued all these years. But there’s more than just intrigue; Stephen Strasburg is a bonafide ace. Last night, he just got recognized as one.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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