Wednesday June 24th, 2015

Stephen Strasburg was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball through the first two months of this season. Before a strained left trapezius muscle forced him to the disabled list at the end of May, Strasburg’s runs allowed equaled or exceeded his innings pitched in exactly half of his starts. In his last four turns before the neck injury cut his May 29 start short after a single inning of work, Strasburg made it past the fourth inning just once. By the time he landed on the DL, he was sporting a 6.55 ERA, 59 ERA+ and 1.72 WHIP and had managed just one quality start out of 10.

Fielding-independent analysis suggests there was some bad luck involved in that performance (Strasburg’s opponents hit .395 on balls in play, while his peripherals awarded him a 3.97 FIP). However, Baseball Prospectus’s new Deserved Run Average statistic, which attempts to adjust for virtually every variable that might impact a pitcher's results, from fielding and park factors down to the home-plate umpire and game-time temperature, tells us that Strasburg was every bit as bad as his numbers. Strasburg allowed 7.54 runs per nine innings in those first 10 starts (unearned runs included). Per DRA, he deserved to allow 7.98.

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Digging into Strasburg’s poor start to the season in mid-May, I found reduced velocity, a lot of hard contact and a drop in strikeout rate connected to a reduced ability to get hitters to swing and miss. Most alarmingly, I found a steep decline in the effectiveness of what had formerly been considered Strasburg’s best pitch, his changeup. Clearly, I was not alone. In his return from the disabled list Tuesday night, Strasburg threw five scoreless innings in a 3–1 win over the Braves, showing good velocity, limiting hard contact and showing a renewed ability to get hitters to swing and miss. And he did it almost entirely without his changeup.

Strasburg’s velocity had actually returned prior to his stint on the disabled list. In May, he averaged 96.6 mph on his fastball, his highest single-month average since June 2012. He maintained that average over 94 pitches Tuesday night, hitting 98 and 97 with his final two pitches of the night. More importantly, he was able to use that velocity to get past hitters. Strasburg got 10 hitters to miss Tuesday night, just the second time in 11 starts this season that he hit double-digits in that category (the other was his lone quality start, in which he got 11 swings and misses in 95 pitches). Even more impressively, all six of his strikeouts came via the swing and miss, all on fastballs, most of them up in the zone at 97 mph.

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The fastball was Strasburg’s key pitch on Tuesday. Counting four- and two-seamers together—the former accounting for more than two-thirds of his fastballs, though he threw more two-seamers than he had in any other start this season—65% of his pitches were fastballs, 72% of those were strikes and nine of his 10 swings and misses came on fastballs (the other was on a curve). By comparison, Strasburg threw just four changeups all night, though one wonders how much that had to do with what happened to his first.

After falling behind Braves leadoff man Jace Peterson 2–1 on fastballs, Strasburg threw him a 90 mph changeup that Denard Span caught just in front of the 402 sign in National Park’s centerfield. Strasburg threw two more in the top of the first, resulting in a ball and a groundout that ended the first inning, but then effectively abandoned the pitch, throwing just one more in the game, a called strike to the first batter in the fourth inning. That first-inning changeup to Peterson was arguably the hardest hit ball off Strasburg all night. He allowed just four hits, two solidly hit line-drive singles, a ground-ball single and a double over leftfielder Michael Taylor’s head off the bat of Eury Perez in the fifth, Strasburg’s final inning of work. Peterson’s fly out to Span and Perez’s double were the only two fly balls to the outfield off Strasburg in the game.

So let’s go back over those red flags from May. Reduced velocity? Not an issue Tuesday night; he sat at 97 with his fastball averaging 96.5 mph. Hard contact? Not an issue, there were just two balls hit hard enough to become extra-base hits. Drop in strikeout rate? Not an issue, he struck out 30% of the batters he faced (six of 20). Fewer swings and misses? Less of an issue as 15.6% of Strasburg’s strikes in this game came via a swing and miss. That wasn’t quite up to his 18% from the last four years, but it was closer to that level than his 11% mark through those first 10 starts this season. The reduced effectiveness of his changeup? Clearly this is very much an issue, as Strasburg effectively abandoned the pitch. However, he proved Tuesday night that he can succeed without it.

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How long he’ll be able to do that, to what degree he will attempt to reintroduce the pitch and what impact that might have on his performance, all remain to be seen. A home game against the Braves, who just lost their best hitter, Freddie Freeman, to the disabled list, was a relatively soft assignment for Strasburg, and he’ll get to face the Phillies, against whom he threw his one quality start this season, in his next turn on Sunday. Still, Tuesday’s outing was an encouraging one, with Strasburg having clearly taken steps to address what had been ailing him before his injury, fine-tuning his mechanics to generate a straighter line toward home plate and a more consistent landing spot and altering his pitch selection.

Given the far-less encouraging return of Doug Fister last Thursday, an effective Strasburg would allow the Nationals to use rookie Joe Ross as a potential replacement for Fister should the latter again show reduced velocity and effectiveness in the finale of the Braves series this Thursday. Ross, a former first-round draft pick acquired from San Diego in the three-team Wil Myers trade, was called up straight from Double A earlier this month and dominated in his second and third major league starts (15 1/3 IP, 3 R, 2 BB, 19 K) only to be optioned to make room for Strasburg on the roster and in the rotation on Tuesday.

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The Nationals are obviously a better team with an effective Strasburg in the rotation, but it’s worth noting that their up-and-down season was starting to tilt back up even before Strasburg’s encouraging performance Tuesday night. Tuesday's win was their fourth in a row, the first three being a weekend sweep of the Pirates, who have the second-best record in the National League, keyed by Max Scherzer’s no-hitter. With the Mets’ 3–2 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday, Washington has opened up a 2 1/2 game lead in the NL East which matches its largest lead at any point this season. That lead may not be any more of a guarantee of future success than Strasburg’s performance against the Braves, but both suggest that the Nationals are heading in the right direction once again.

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