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Stephen Strasburg: Number One Fantasy Pitcher?

The wait was well worth it. Stephen Strasburg finally pitched (mostly) a full season with the Washington Nationals, and proved the Tommy John surgery couldn’t stop the one-time best prospect in the game. While Strasburg was obviously great, he was also held back by an innings limit, which caused him to miss the final month of the season. It also prevented him from going deeper into games early in the year, as Davey Johnson wanted to preserve his stud pitcher as long as he could. Despite his dominance, Strasburg has never recorded an out during the eighth inning. But all of that is about to change. Strasburg is expected to enter next season with no restrictions. That means he won’t be shut down early, and he should be allowed to work deeper into games. Based on the potential he’s shown thus far, that could make him the top pitcher in fantasy next season.

Many people have gushed about Strasburg as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and one of the best pitching prospects of all time. Well, 251.1 innings into his career, it’s starting to look like both of those things are true. Since 1969, when the pitcher’s mound was lowered, Strasburg leads all starters with at least 250 innings pitched with a 2.47 FIP. He also leads the same list with a 30.8% strikeout rate. In this instance, it’s tough to argue he was overhyped. The performance definitely meets the expectations.

It’s incredibly difficult to predict how Strasburg will perform next season, as there’s no great comparison for him. Sorting for pitchers who have produced similar value at age-23 is problematic, because Strasburg only threw 159.1 innings, which led to a 4.3 WAR. Under different circumstances, where he had no restrictions, he would likely place much higher on the list. Trying to find pitchers with similar styles isn’t the best either, since no pitcher has ever struck out a higher percentage of hitters at that age than Strasburg. The closest player to Strasburg in strikeout rate is Clayton Kershaw, who had a slightly better walk rate. If Strasburg can improve on his walks, he could turn into Kershaw with more strikeouts next year.

Strasburg’s early shutdown caused him to fall in the end of the season rankings for starting pitchers. In Zach Sanders’ rankings, Strasburg was the 17 most valuable pitcher. Strasburg is bound to improve on that ranking simply based on the fact that he should be available the entire season. That would presumably mean that Strasburg would also be able to run up his pitch count a bit more, allowing him to pitch deeper into games. Johnson had a quick hook in games where Strasburg struggled early. Though Strasburg probably could have thrown more pitches, Johnson didn’t want him to stay out there and labor through innings. Johnson’s most puzzling pulls came on May 4, when Strasburg allowed three runs in six innings and was pulled after throwing just 76 pitches, and on June 30, when Strasburg gave up three runs in three innings and was pulled after 67 pitches. Strasburg may not have had his best stuff during that June start, but still could have salvaged his start with a few more solid innings. Johnson should hopefully allow Strasburg to battle through some of those scenarios next season.

Even with the increase in innings, it’s probably foolish to expect Strasburg to get enough innings to finish as the top fantasy pitcher. The pitchers that finished one and two in Sanders’ rankings were R.A. Dickey and Justin Verlander, both of who finished with at least 230 innings pitched. It’s unlikely that the Nationals would allow Strasburg to turn into that type of workhorse this early in his career. It will probably take a couple of seasons before they are comfortable allowing him to throw anything near that amount. Verlander, for example, had two seasons with at least 200 innings pitched before he jumped to 240 in 2009. But, with around 200 innings next year, Strasburg seems like a sure bet to finish in the top-10, and probably has an outside shot at the top-5 based on how dominant he performs. The potential remains for Strasburg to one day be the best pitcher in baseball, but it probably won’t happen this season.