The Mystery of the Same Old Stephen Strasburg

The Nationals are in a pickle, and not one of those delicious hipster pickles with fresh dill and organic garlic cloves placed in a mason jar by a guy with lots of tattoos in some nondescript warehouse in Brooklyn. I’m talking a problem pickle. The kind you don’t want to see on your doorstep, the kind some hipster would make a horror film about with a hand-held camera in some nondescript warehouse in Brooklyn. Horror Pickle: The Dill of Death! It would be wonderfully awful! No, the nature of the Washington Nationals’ pickle comes from the lots of losing they’ve done this season — far more than the Mets, that is, who lead them both alphabetically (curse you, ancient Greeks!) and, possibly more importantly if more fleetingly, in the NL East standings.

Much has been said about the Nationals’ collapse, but some portion of their mediocre start falls on the broad shoulders of Stephen Strasburg, who my computer badly wants to call Stephen Starsbug, which needs to be a computer-animated movie starring Chris Pratt. In any case, Strasburg started out the season badly, then he hit the DL, then he pitched three games, then hit the DL again. His inconsistent health has been remarkably consistent. The odd thing was that, in between all these DL stints, Strasburg, one of the best pitchers in baseball since breaking into the majors in 2010, was awful. As Jeff Sullivan wrote about the issue back in May. Strasburg was having command issues, which manifested especially strongly with runners on base. But now he’s back (again) and he’s Stephen Strasburg again! What? How?

Then DL and then he came back for three starts, the first of which went well if oddly (Jeff covered that as well; Jeff covers a lot of things), and the third of which went well until he had to leave because the DL was calling again. This time it was an oblique strain, one which forced him off the mound for a month. He finally returned on August 8 and dominated the Colorado Rockies.

Since returning from the second DL stint, Strasburg has averaged 6.5 innings, 1.25 runs, 8 strikeouts, 0.6 walks, and half a homer. That’s an impressive if odd line because how do you know which one is the half homer? Point being it’s a far cry from the pitcher who was getting hit around for the first few months of the season. So what was the difference, and more importantly, is Strasburg ‘fixed’ enough to help the Nationals rather than hurt them during the playoff stretch?

In Jeff’s piece, he mentioned that Strasburg was having command issues early in the season. Looking at strength of contact allowed, you can see a difference between first half Strasburg and second half Strasburg, which conveniently separates his return from his second DL stint from the rest of his season.

Quality of Contact Allowed, 1st vs. 2nd Half of 2015
Half Soft Med. Hard
1st 21.8% 48.2% 30.1%
2nd 20.3% 55.9% 23.7%

Strasburg gave up more hard contact in the first half by seven percentage points. It’s an important difference, but it’s not a massive difference. We’re talking about seven points that essentially moved from medium contact to hard contact. That shouldn’t be the difference between a 5.16 ERA in the first half and a 1.73 ERA in the second.

What breaking it down by halves doesn’t do, however, is isolate Strasburg’s second DL stint from the first half, a thing that makes the first-half numbers look better. Here’s Strasburg’s quality-of-contact allowed numbers for April and May, in which he had a 4.60 and a 10.13 ERA, respectively.

Quality of Contact Allowed, April and May
Month Soft Med. Hard
April 20.4% 52.7% 26.9%
May 17.7% 45.2% 37.1%

Notice how his April numbers look a lot like his second-half numbers above, those produced by the new-and-improved, back-from-the-DL Strasburg. The culprit looks to be a brutal May. Indeed, Strasburg had an issue with his mechanics which seems to have improved following his first DL stint.

Could that be all, though? Well, that and probably some bad batted-ball luck sprinkled with some lousy defense behind him? In his previous article Jeff Sullivan mentioned that Strasburg’s first start following his first trip to the DL had seen him throwing his fastball up in the zone more than he had previously. I checked to see if this was a trend that continued, but sadly probably not. I checked his four most recent starts and, while two saw him utilize the high fastball, two did not. At least based on four starts it doesn’t seem an overriding strategic decision has been made as to the proper height of Strasburg’s fastball.

Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post published a piece on Strasburg following his latest greatest outing against the Padres. In it she discussed Strasburg’s resurgence with manager Matt Williams, catcher Wilson Ramos, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Perhaps they can be of assistance in this matter. Williams said the reason Strasburg has been better is he’s healthy now. That is an odd thing to say, because he’s been on the DL twice, of course, but he’s started three games since his most recent DL trip and his velocity has been consistent all season long. Williams may know something I don’t — I’d expect him to in fact — but outwardly it doesn’t seem health was the problem in his early season performance and thus not the difference maker between the two.

Ramos said, in essence, Strasburg’s velocity has returned and he’s pitching more aggressively. Here is a chart (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) showing the velocity on each of Strasburg’s pitches for each start this season.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

(Note: the dates are wrong on that chart but the opponents are correct.) It looks like there was a slow and slight increase in velocity over the season. That’s not atypical of the normal pattern a starting pitcher goes through over the course of a season. Further, it’s not like Strasburg was hurting for velocity when he gave up seven runs to Arizona in May, for example. There could be something to that, but it seems that, if so, it’s probably not huge. Strasburg has been averaging 96 mph on his fastball for months now, which includes when he was getting knocked around a bit.

As for pitching more aggressively, it’s difficult to say what that means. It could mean throwing more strikes, or it could have to do with the mix of pitches, or it could be something else altogether. Before his first DL stint, Strasburg threw 67% strikes. After coming back from the DL — but before returning to it — he threw 64% strikes. Since returning from the DL the second time Strasburg, has thrown 67% strikes. Similar numbers, all of them. That doesn’t seem like it.

As for the pitch mix, here’s a chart (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) showing the pitch mix for each start Strasburg has made in 2015.

Strasburg Brooksbaseball-Chart

I don’t see much there. There was an uptick in curveball usage in the first three starts after returning from the DL but that has subsided back to more normal levels over the last two starts. So unless it means something I just can’t think of at the moment, that doesn’t seem like anything either.

Finally, that brings us to Zimmerman, who said that Strasburg is throwing more strikes than he was before (nope) and getting ahead more (maybe). So I went back and calculated the number of pitches Strasburg threw at 0-1 versus the number he threw at 1-0 for each of the three sections before and after DL stints this season. Before his first trip to the DL, he was ahead 59% of the time. In between DL trips he was ahead 70% of the time. Since his second DL trip he’s been ahead 65% of the time. Maybe there is something small to that, but it don’t seem like a huge difference maker, either.

Interestingly, Janes asked one other person what the difference was for Stephen Strasburg: Stephen Strasburg. Writes Janes: “Strasburg said nothing is different now than when he struggled earlier in the season.” So while it’s possibly accurate that Strasburg’s own approach hasn’t changed, his comment doesn’t help us find an explanation for the newer, better results.

In any case, there’s logic to Strasburg’s comment: either he truly believes he’s pitching the same way or he’s not interested in giving away to the media whatever changes he has made. It’s interesting, though, that the manager and starting catcher don’t seem to be aware of what has led to Strasburg’s resurgence. Because something has. Whether it was a mechanical alteration as Jeff alluded to, or something else, there is something different about Stephen Strasburg that’s leading to better results. It could be a combination of improved luck and a bit of all of the above, a group of small improvements that have together made a large difference. Regardless, the Nationals will probably still miss the playoffs, but it should be some small bit of relief to know that Strasburg can be a large positive part of a DC playoff team even if that isn’t until next season — owing to the whole pickle thing.

We hoped you liked reading The Mystery of the Same Old Stephen Strasburg by Matthew Kory!

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Dovif
Guest
Dovif

Strasburg is one of the main reason the national has been a .500 team for 135 games. The team with the “best rotation” in history has a 3.8 era and a 4.2 2nd half era. Scherzer, Zimmerman have a 3.8 and 5+ era for the 2nd half. While the hitter has a .233 average and a sub 700 ops? Last and 4th last in the league. This is a epic collapse… Is they have hit at Miami level

They have made the surprise team in the nl a big story. All the other contenders st l, Pitts, chc, sf and la were all supposed to make the playoff or be 3rd in the nl Central (Cubs) and contending. The mets had a 5% chance of winning the east, with many experts thinking they will finish behind the Marlins (whom they will finish in front of by 50 games) so Collins should be the favourite for manager of the year, does the collapse of the national make him less deserving of the award?

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

I’d say the main problems have been Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and a general case of the injury bug (Strasburg, Werth, Span, Rendon, etc.). Wilson Ramos and Matt Williams are also in the mix as problems.

Quik
Guest
Quik

I do think the extent to which injuries have derailed one promising Nationals season (2013) and now appear to be well on their way to derailing this one suggests that roster construction might be at fault. They’ve got a lot of core production tied up in players with bad injury histories (Ramos, Rendon) or bad age profiles (Werth) or risky roles (their rotation). (Obviously every team has to build a rotation, but shifting more resources to the rotation involves taking on more risk, since pitchers get hurt so much.)

It seems to be a bit of organizational philosophy–I recall that the Giolito pick got rave reviews as a high-risk, high-reward choice due to his health status, and that’s landed much more on the “reward” side so far. And hey, when it works, it really works. But I do wonder if Rizzo will shift towards a somewhat less risky strategy if they do end up missing the playoffs this year.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

They’ve actually been prodigiously lucky with the rotation health from 2012-15. Strasburg had his ’12 shutdown and his ’15 hiccups, of course, but aside from that there have not been any major rotation injuries during this recent run. Which is, honestly, pretty unbelievable.

You’re right about having a very high-risk roster, of course. I’m not arguing with you – just musing.

Dovif
Guest
Dovif

Injuries did not decide the race, if it did, the mets would have been hit harder with Murphy, wright, cuddyer, darnald, wheeler, Parnell, etc all injured at one point during the year

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

The Nationals assembled their planned starting lineup for the first time all year, last week. You can’t win the “injury game”.

(Strasburg, Fister, Stammen, Span, Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, Ramos, Barrett…)

Quik
Guest
Quik

I don’t know if they “decided” the race or not, but they definitely had an influence.