With Max Scherzer now in Washington, trade rumors have begun to swirl around Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. So which righthanded ace should the Nationals hang on to?
By signing Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract that will pay him $210 million over the next 14 years, the Nationals have put themselves in a fascinating financial bind. Washington already had several key players entering their walk years this season — including starting pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann, shortstop Ian Desmond and outfielder Denard Span — and did little to sort out that situation this winter. Now, by adding Scherzer's contract to the mix, the Nats have only complicated that situation further.
Scherzer is now the third player with a nine-figure contract on Washington's roster, joining Jayson Werth, who has three years and $63 million remaining on his seven-year, $126 million deal, and Ryan Zimmerman, who has five years and $76 million left on his six-year, $100 million contract, which includes an $18 million club option for 2020. Keeping Zimmermann or Desmond in Washington would likely require additional nine-figure commitments, and the same goes for former top pick Stephen Strasburg, who is due to become a free agent after the 2016 season.
It seems clear the team is hoping that prospect Michael Taylor, who turns 24 in March and made his major league debut last August, will be able to replace Span in center by next year. With Tanner Roark having proven himself worthy of a rotation spot in 2014, it may be simple enough for the Nationals to allow Fister, who will be 31 on Feb. 4 and is the oldest of their starters (not to mention the one with the lowest career strikeout rate), to leave after the coming season. Desmond, who trails only Andrelton Simmons and Troy Tulowitzki in Wins Above Replacement among shortstops over the last three years combined, is a much more difficult call. But by trading for Yunel Escobar and shortstop prospect Trea Turner this offseason, Washington seems to have sent a clear signal that it does not intend to keep Desmond beyond the coming season.
That leaves Zimmermann and Strasburg. If the Nationals do indeed let Desmond go, they should be able to afford a nine-figure deal for one of their two righthanded aces. But signing them both seems unlikely, and with Zimmermann's free agency due to arrive in November, the organization needs to have a plan in place now. If it were your decision, which of those two would you rather sign long-term?
Upon first glance, Strasburg appears to have some rather obvious advantages over Zimmermann. For starters, the upcoming campaign will be Strasburg's age-26 season and Zimmermann's age-29 season. Strasburg, however, is not three years younger than Zimmerman; he is two years, one month, and 27 days younger. The trick is that the two pitchers' birthdays fall roughly a month on either side of the June 30 cutoff for "baseball age," with Zimmermann born on May 23 and Strasburg born on July 20. What's more, in terms of their ages at free agency, there is really only a one-year difference between the two. Zimmermann will be 29 this November, and Strasburg will be 28 in November 2016. Put another way: If each signed a seven-year deal upon becoming a free agent, Zimmermann would be 36 on the final day of his contract and Strasburg would be 35 on the final day of his. That's not a significant difference.
Strasburg does have a clear advantage in strikeout rate, having struck out 28.5 percent of the batters he has faced in his career, or 10.3 per nine innings, to Zimmermann's 20.2 percent and 7.5 K/9. Similarly, Strasburg has a better career strikeout-to-walk ratio, with 4.49 K/BB to Zimmermann's 4.06. Look a little closer, however, and Zimmermann's command of the strike zone actually exceeds that of his more superficially dominant rotation mate. Zimmermann has bettered Strasburg in strikeout-to-walk ratio in each of the last two seasons, and in Strasburg's three full seasons since Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann has posted the better K/BB, 4.43 to 4.29.
Looking at Strasburg's yearly rates, one could suggest that it really wasn't until this past season that he regained his peak control, as he shed a full walk per nine innings to drop his rate to 1.8 BB/9 against 10.1 K/9 for an outstanding 5.63 K/BB. However, Zimmermann bettered even that, leading the National League with a mere 1.3 walks per nine innings and upping his strikeout rate to 8.2 per nine for a stellar 6.28 K/BB.
Zimmermann has other advantages. He induces more pop-ups, nearly doubling Strasburg's rate in 2014, with 16 percent of his fly balls staying in the infield compared to Strasburg's nine percent. Zimmermann also throws more first-pitch strikes (68.9 percent over the last three years to Strasburg's 62.3 percent), giving him an important leg-up in at-bats: Major leaguers hit for an OPS 200 points lower in plate appearances that started 0-1 in 2014 than in plate appearances which started 1-0.
Those first-pitch strikes not only help Zimmermann get ahead of hitters (he has reached 0-2 more often than Strasburg over the last three years, as well) but also to work more efficiently. Since 2012, Strasburg has thrown 3.87 pitches per plate appearance, Zimmermann 3.68. That might not seem like much, but over the last two seasons, since the Nationals lifted the innings limits on Strasburg, both pitchers have made 64 starts, and Zimmermann has thrown 15 more innings.
Then there's the matter of overall arm health. Both pitchers had Tommy John surgery late in their rookie season. Both were brought back from the surgery slowly by Washington, appearing in a handful of starts at the end of the following season and restricted to roughly 160 innings the year after that. Zimmermann has had a relatively clean bill of health since. Looking at Baseball Prospectus' injury data, a brief bit of shoulder inflammation in July 2012 didn't cause Zimmermann to miss any time and did not re-occur. A sore neck the next July coincided with the All-Star break and also did not happen again, and after he was hit in the pitching shoulder by a comebacker in his penultimate regular-season start last year, all he did in his next two starts was throw a no-hitter and come one out shy of a shutout in the Division Series against the Giants.
Strasburg, however, hit the disabled list in June 2013 due to a latissimus dorsi strain, has had several instances of tightness in his pitching arm (including forearm tightness that kept him out of action for two weeks in September 2013) and had surgery to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow in October 2013. He was healthy throughout 2014, and his 34 starts and 215 innings pitched were the most in a single season by either pitcher. But he also lost another half-tick off his fastball, resulting in a decline of a full mile per hour in his average four-seamer from 2012 to '14.
That leads us to the fascinating fact that Strasburg, who averaged 98.9 mph on his four-seamer as a rookie in 2010 before Tommy John surgery, now throws roughly the same speed as Zimmermann. Per BrooksBaseball.net, in 2014, Strasburg's four-seam fastball had an average velocity of 95.67 mph, while Zimmermann's was at 94.63. The key difference there is not the remaining mile per hour, but the fact that Zimmerman's velocity has remained staggeringly consistent over the last three seasons (94.62, 94.62, 94.63), while Strasburg's has continued to decline.
So Strasburg is younger, but Zimmermann appears to be healthier. Strasburg compiles more strikeouts, but Zimmermann has more command of the strike zone and is arguably more dominant. What about the results? I'm not talking about pitching wins (though Zimmermann has a clear advantage there, 57-43), but about a starting pitcher's two main jobs: eating innings and preventing runs. We've already seen that Zimmermann's efficiency has made him the better innings eater over the last two seasons despite Strasburg taking the ball more in 2014. Per Fielding Independent Pitching, Strasburg has been the more effective pitcher over the last three seasons, posting a 3.00 FIP to Zimmermann's 3.18, but it's probably that FIP is making an excessive correction for Zimmermann's advantage in batting average on balls in play.
As we saw above, Zimmermann's superior ability to get first-pitch strikes puts hitters at a disadvantage that has a significant impact on their results. Add in his higher pop-up rate, and it seems likely that Zimmermann's lower BABIP — .290 over the last three years compared to Strasburg's .301 — is due less to luck than to excellent pitching. After all, .290 is hardly an aberrant figure: The major league BABIP against righthanded pitchers in 2014 was .297. Given a righthander who excels at getting first-pitch strikes and pop-ups, .290 seems plenty sustainable. Indeed, Zimmermann's BABIP has seen less fluctuation than Strasburg's over the last three years, never changing by more than 30 points from one year to the next, while Strasburg's fell 50 points in 2013 and bounced back 55 points last year.
That brings us back to their actual on-field results. Since 2012, Zimmermann has posted a 2.96 ERA (131 ERA+) to Strasburg's 3.10 (124), and over the last two seasons, with Strasburg more than two years removed from his Tommy John surgery and with his innings limits removed, Zimmermann has posted a 2.96 ERA (128 ERA+) in 413 innings to Strasburg's 3.08 (124) in 398 innings.
There may be no right (or wrong) choice between the two of them, but I feel more confident about Zimmermann's future than Strasburg's. That's partially due to Strasburg's slightly more complicated medical history and corresponding decline in velocity -- however gradual it may be -- and partially due to my belief that Zimmermann is simply the better pitcher right now, as seen in both his overall success and the elements thereof, such as his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and first-pitch-strike and pop-up rates. Mix in the fact that Strasburg, by virtue of being younger and having an extra year team control remaining, as well as being a former No. 1 pick and nationally-celebrated phenom, might bring a stronger return in a trade, and the decision to extend Zimmerman and trade Strasburg is one that I could make with confidence.
Most significantly, by signing Zimmermann instead of Strasburg, Washington could stand pat for 2015. That would allow the team to take one crack at winning a championship with Desmond and the mind-blowing rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Fister and Gio Gonzalez, and still have the option of cashing in one of its young aces, in this case Strasburg, via a trade prior to his walk year.
That seems like the best of all possible worlds for the Nationals and their fans, and confirms my decision: The Nationals should extend Jordan Zimmermann now and trade Stephen Strasburg next winter.