It's impossible to describe Stephen Strasburg's first five starts this year with just an adjective. No, you need at least an adverb and an adjective to convey how unhittable he has been while simultaneously giving up 16 earned runs in 27 innings. I settled on "bizarrely dominant" because it appropriately illustrates how lights-out his stuff has been at the same time that he has allowed the seventh-most earned runs in the league.
Strasburg has two double-digit strikeout games. In his first, on Opening Day, he fanned 10 Mets, though he also gave up four runs on five hits in six innings. He struck out 12 in 6.2 innings against the Marlins his third time out, surrendering just one run on three hits. He narrowly missed his third double-digit strikeout game in his last start, whiffing nine Cardinals across six frames. These outings represent the ups in Strasburg's up-and-down April.
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While he has had the strikeout stuff working in all five of his starts, he's been knocked around in two of them. He gave up three earned runs on eight hits and three walks in 4.1 innings against the Braves on April 5. Ten days later, the Marlins lit him up for six runs on those same eight hits and three walks in four innings. These, of course, are the downs. He still racked up 11 strikeouts in those 8.1 innings, and that's the most important takeaway here for the Strasburg owner: While the results and the rates have been frustrating at times, Strasburg appears to be more deadly with his stuff this season than ever.
Before we get to the pictures, let's start with the numbers. Strasburg is first in the league in K/9 (14), second in K-rate (34.4 percent) and fifth in swinging-strike rate (14.6 percent). The usual caveats about small sample sizes apply here, but a study by Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found that strikeout rate for pitchers tends to stabilize after facing about 70 batters. Strasburg has faced 122 this year, so we can start to trust that sky-high K-rate. No one has had a season-long K-rate that high since Randy Johnson's 37.4 percent in 2001, but Yu Darvish fanned 32.9 percent of the hitters he faced last year, the league-wide strikeout rate is up again this year, and if someone is going to approach the Big Unit's number, it will likely be a pitcher who has the benefit of facing his opposite a few times each game.
Strasburg's velocity is down a touch this year, but he's offsetting it with a better-than-ever changeup. His average fastball is 94.2 mph. However, he's also throwing it just 54.8 percent of the time, way down from 61 percent last year. It's the changeup that has been his best pitch this season. He's throwing it on one-fifth of his offerings, and has already racked up an astonishing 5.16 runs saved per 100 changeups. Hitters have offered at it more than 50 percent of the time when it has been out of the zone, and the pitch has a 31.9-percent swinging-strike rate, both signs of just how filthy it has been.
Let's take a look at the highlights from Strasburg's last start, his six-inning, two-run, nine-strikeout performance against the Cardinals.
The first two strikeouts come on curveballs, but then Strasburg puts on a changeup show. Four of his nine strike threes came on the change, with the other two coming on fastballs (two four-seamers, one two-seamer). Check out the final strikes at the 18-second, 23-second 31-second, and 51-second marks. Two things really stand out about Strasburg's use of the change as a strike-three pitch.
First, while a changeup is generally used to offset the hitter's platoon advantage (right-handed pitchers will use it more frequently against left-handed batters, vice versa for southpaws), three of Strasburg's strikeouts with the change are against righties. Sure, one of those righties is Shelby Miller, but Strasburg can clearly use this pitch no matter the handedness of the hitter. The second thing is the counts that Strasburg goes to the changeup to get strike three. Two are 1-2, one is 2-2, and the last is 0-2. Here, again, Strasburg is being unpredictable with the changeup, throwing it in plus counts where a hitter might expect a breaking ball, and even counts when a hitter could be sitting on his heat.
There are two more takeaways for fantasy owners from Strasburg's latest outing. First, his average fastball was back up to 94.8 mph, the fastest it has been in a start this season. Second, he scrapped the slider that had been giving him such trouble in his first four starts. Strasburg added the pitch to his repertoire this year, but he hasn't seen a ton of success with it. He has thrown the pitch 35 times in April, according to Brooks Baseball. Hitters have a .500 batting average and .875 slugging percentage against the offering. While Strasburg said that he didn't stay away from it by design in his start against the Cardinals, don't bet on seeing it all that often the next time he takes the mound.
Despite some early-season hiccups, Strasburg remains a dominant pitcher, and appears ticketed for his first 200-strikeout season. The opportunity to buy low on him may have passed with that outing against the Cardinals, but it can't hurt to check in with his owner and see if you can offer the right price to pry away one of the best starting pitchers in the game.