Skip to content
August 5, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Another season from Strasburg: How has he changed?

Last year, after Stephen Strasburg completed his 33rd career start on June 30, 2012, I wrote a post noting that he had completed the equivalent of a full season and looked at how he’d done. With his last start in Detroit, he’s now at 66 career starts and has completed the equivalent of a second full season, so it seems like an opportune time to see how he’s changed over the last 13 months.

This post will also kick off a series of posts I’d like to do, looking at the team’s key personnel and how they fit into the team’s prospects for 2014 going forward. (I haven’t completely given up on 2013, but I’m realistic enough to recognize that 2014 should now be the team’s most important focus.)

First 33* 15 7 2.68 185 11 46 238 5.17 2.09 5.6
Second 33** 11 12 3.26 196.2 21 62 209 3.37 3.41 5.9

*  6/8/2010 thru 6/30/2012

** 7/6/2012 thru 7/30/2013

We can see that with the exception of innings pitched, every statistic has declined. In his 33 starts since July 2012, Strasburg has given up more runs, more home runs, and more walks, and has gotten fewer strikeouts than he had in his first 33 starts. If we do those comparisons on a per-batter-faced basis, his home runs increased from 1.50% to 2.60%, his walks increased from 6.26% to 7.67%, and his strikeouts decreased from 32.38% to 25.87%.

In my earlier post, I compared his first-season-equivalent performance with the MLB leaders in 2011. Those comparisons looked pretty good—if his first 33 starts had all been completed during the 2011 season, he would have ranked sixth in the majors in ERA, ninth in fewest home runs allowed (among qualified pitchers), third in strikeouts, fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and first in fielding-independent pitching (FIP).  If we make a similar set of comparisons of his second set of 33 starts to the 2012 MLB leaders, Strasburg’s performance looks much less impressive. If starts 34 through 66 had all occurred during 2012, Strasburg would have ranked 16th in ERA, 40th in fewest home runs allowed, 9th in strikeouts, 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 19th in FIP.

Over the last 13 months, Strasburg has basically slid from being perhaps one of the top five pitchers in baseball, with comparisons made to Pedro Martinez in his prime, to maybe one of the top 20 or 25. In fact, it’s no longer clear that Strasburg is even the Nats’ best pitcher. It’s funny—when Nats fans and bloggers talk about why the team has disappointed, they talk a lot about Denard Span and how his on-base percentage is maybe 10 points lower than it should be. Span is not the problem the Nats should be worried about. They should be much more worried about Strasburg’s FIP being up 1.3 runs per game, and about Ryan Zimmerman‘s fielding and Adam LaRoche‘s hitting. Those are the problems, along with an incredibly weak bench and a disappointing bullpen and Dan Haren‘s strugges, that have caused the Nats to miss their expectations by so much.

What’s caused Strasburg’s performance to slip? It’s hard to point to any one thing. Turning to the annual data (I didn’t try compiling pitched ball data across the 33 game periods), we see that his fastball velocity, which averaged 97 during 2010 pre-Tommy John surgery, has never regained that level and has continued to slip a bit, down 0.5 mph this season from 95.8 to 95.3. Although the increase in walks and hit-by-pitch suggest control problems, I don’t see a significant decrease in his percent of pitches in the zone. But there is more contact and fewer swinging strikes. Batters seem to be seeing his fastball better and are making better contact with it, which gives him fewer opportunities to turn to his still excellent curveball and change-up.

In putting together a list of players with the highest trade value, Dave Cameron of recently gave a nice summary of Strasburg’s current status, which I pretty much agree with:

He’s still an excellent pitcher, but it’s been awhile since he looked like the best pitcher on the planet. He might not ever look like that again… It is likely that Stephen Strasburg peaked in 2010, as a rookie.

All that negativity aside, teams would still be lining up out the door if the Nationals made him available. He’s got three years of team control left at arbitration prices, and the low innings totals and lack of sexy win numbers this year will keep his price reasonable. He still throws 95, gets strikeouts and ground balls, and has an ERA of 2.99. He might be worse, but worse than historically amazing isn’t so bad.

Strasburg is both terrific and kind of disappointing at the same time.

It’s really, really tough for a pitcher to maintain elite status year after year. Pitchers can and sometimes do re-gain that status—maybe they pick up a new pitch or make some change in mechanics to improve their command. But most don’t. While we remain hopeful that Strasburg may eventually reach the heights that originally looked possible, the reality may be that we’re looking forward to several seasons of a merely very, very good pitcher, and not an historically great one.

%d bloggers like this: