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Stephen Strasburg: Not Quite Elite

Posted By Brad Johnson On December 9, 2013 @ 3:15 pm In Starting Pitchers | 15 Comments

Last season, Stephen Strasburg was selected for an average price of $28 and was taken 13th overall in Yahoo! snake drafts. An 8-9 record over 183 innings prevented him from living up to his pre-draft hype. Despite a 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 191 strikeouts, Strasburg delivered just $14 of value to his owners. Strasburg is entering his age 25 season with concerns about his durability, so the question on everyone’s mind is “should I target him in my draft?”

Strasburg dealt with forearm soreness near the end of the season, which can indicate an elbow injury. As of December 5th, his rehab was said to be progressing steadily although he may be a few days behind the curve in spring training. Most fantasy owners will get an opportunity to verify his health next spring, which could affect his auction price substantially.

He also missed time last season with an oblique injury. Such injuries can recur and may indicate an imbalance in the core. However, he seems to have fully recovered, so it shouldn’t be a cause for concern unless he shows symptoms of another core related injury. Any minor injury that causes him to alter his mechanics could also put pressure on his oblique.

Aside from the injury risk, Strasburg is a model front line fantasy starter. His strikeout rate declined from ridiculous (11.13 K/9 in 2012) to very good (9.39 K/9 in 2013), while he maintained a strong walk rate of 2.75 BB/9. His ground ball rate increased over seven percent to 51.5% and a low line drive rate allowed him to limit hitters to a .263 BABIP. That latter figure may have been a fluke and it’s unclear whether we should expect Strasburg to continue burning worms and limiting line drives.

Strasburg still relies on a fastball, change-up, and curve ball. Last season, his fastball was good, his curve ball was great, but his change-up was downright fascist. Let’s turn to the tables.

Strasburg RA
Strasburg Saber

The first chart shows his results and averages while the second chart contains information on pitch outcomes. Batters managed a paltry .128 batting average against Strasburg’s change-up without ANY extra base hits. The pitch is a strikeout weapon and hitters who bothered to swing at the pitch whiffed 47 percent of the time. His curve ball was similarly effective, although he did allow five extra base hits with the pitch. Given the effectiveness of his secondary weapons, it’s possible that he will continue to generate low BABIP’s.

If there’s any complaint about Strasburg’s repertoire, it’s that he’s somewhat predictable. He leans on his fastball with the first pitch or when he’s behind in the count, which is typical of any pitcher. He’ll then mix in his curve ball and change-up once he’s ahead in the count. Unsurprisingly, left-handers see more change-ups while right-handers are more frequently attacked with the curve ball. Given the superlative nature of his pitches, a straight-forward approach is probably fine. He also mixes things just enough that he’s never too predictable.

Which brings us to the issue of how to price him. Strasburg is a Mercedes brand pitcher, so he’s not going to go cheaply in any league. There will always be someone willing to shell out big bucks to roster him. A year from now, I expect to be writing that Strasburg was worth about $15 (more wins and mild rate stat regression), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be willing to pay more in the draft. He has the talent to win 20 games while posting excellent rate stats, which would be worth about $30. That upside has value.

The first question to ask yourself is “Am I willing to bet that he’ll make 30 or more starts?” If the answer is no, then exclude him from your plans. Hint: it’s perfectly acceptable to bet against Strasburg reaching 30 starts.

If you’re willing to gamble on 30 starts, then you have to decide what you expect of his strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates. Will he continue to produce a low BABIP like last season or will it be around league average like in 2012? If you find yourself projecting similar rates to last season, then it might be worth bidding around $25 for Strasburg. You’re unlikely to win him for less.

Personally, I expect to be on price enforcement duty and no more. There are too many risks to justify a mid-$20’s bid unless I have some extra cash lying around. With most players, you can hold out hope that he’ll fall through the cracks and sell at a reasonable price, but we can probably rule that out with Strasburg. 


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