Stephen Strasburg is healthy and is finally shining as a result
- Stephen Strasburg has been one of the game's top hurlers since he arrived, but this may be the year the Nationals' starter is finally recognized for his efforts.
From 2012 through the present day, there are four pitchers with at least 21 fWAR (wins above replacement as calculated by fangraphs.com), an ERA better than 3.25, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, or the calculation of ERA that does involve outcomes on defense) lower than 3.00 and strikeout rate higher than 28%. Those four pitchers are Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg.
Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards, and was cruising to his fourth before getting injured last season. He has finished in the top five in NL Cy Young voting for six straight years. Scherzer last season became the sixth pitcher in MLB history to win the Cy Young in both leagues, and has finished in the top five each of the last four years. Sale has yet to put a Cy Young on his mantle, but he has made five straight All-Star teams, has been in the top five in Cy Young voting for four years running, and is likely at the head of the early Cy Young pack in the AL this season.
Strasburg, arguably the fourth-best pitcher in the majors since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012, is the only one in the quartet not to make a real Cy Young push at any point in his career. He has watched as pitchers like R.A. Dickey, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Arrieta, Rick Porcello and Corey Kluber have nabbed the highest individual pitching honor in the league. An incomplete list of pitchers with at least one top-five Cy Young finish since 2012 includes Kyle Hendricks, Zach Britton, Sonny Gray, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, Anibal Sanchez, Craig Kimbrel, Jered Weaver and Gio Gonzalez.
Strasburg, meanwhile, has never finished better than ninth in Cy Young voting. Health problems have long plagued Strasburg—he made just 23 starts in 2015 and 24 last year—and might be the primary reason he only has one career top-10 finish in Cy Young voting. Had he merely stayed healthy and taken the ball the standard 32 or 33 times in either of those seasons, chances are he’d have a top-five Cy Young campaign under his belt. Still, health can be a skill, and Strasburg hasn’t exhibited enough of it during his career.
That’s why the question, “Is this finally Strasburg’s year?” is fair, even if he has placed himself among the best in the game over the last six seasons. Should he eclipse the 30-start mark for the third time in his career, the bet here is that this will be his season.
Strasburg owns a 3.27 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 1.05 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 85 1/3 frames this season. He’s fifth in the majors in FIP, 10th in strikeout rate and eighth in strikeout-minus-walk rate. Strasburg and Sale are the only pitchers with an ERA better than 3.30 and a FIP that outpaces that mark. It’s hard to be unlucky, in ERA-vs.-FIP terms, when your ERA is that low, but Strasburg is finding a way.
It’s true that Strasburg is continuing along a trajectory he has set for himself his entire career, when healthy. That’s not to say that everything remains the same this year. If there’s one marked difference between 2017 Strasburg and the version of him that existed before this season, in addition to his much-discussed move to the stretch at all times, it’s how often he’s getting hitters to chase his pitches.
Our pals over at Fangraphs measure a statistic they call o-swing rate. This tracks the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone at which hitters swing. Strasburg’s career o-swing rate heading into this season was 31.9%. This year, it’s up to 35.7%, which would be a career high for a full season. The stuff is biting, as well, with Strasburg’s o-contact rate at 56.2%, a full three percentage points lower than his career mark. In other words, Strasburg is getting hitters to swing at more pitcher’s pitches than ever, and they are making contact with those pitches less frequently than at any other time in his career.
As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Strasburg’s whiff rate at a would-be career-high 12.2%. His ability to get hitters to chase is showing up in other beneficial ways, too. Strasburg’s 21.4% soft-hit rate is tied for the 15th best in the league. His 28.1% hard-hit rate is the 12th lowest in the majors. That’s all a statistically-driven way of saying that when hitters have made contact with Strasburg’s pitches this year, the contact has been weak. Or, at least, they’ve rarely done so with authority.
If there’s one pitch that best illustrates this, it’s Strasburg’s curveball. His changeup, too, is largely responsible for the whiffs-and-weak-contact phenomenon, but the change has always been a key part of his arsenal. Strasburg is throwing the curve 19.7% of the time this season, the third year of his career in which it has been such an important offering for him. The pitch has a 12.8% whiff rate and 67.9% ground-ball rate. Hitters have managed to hit just .154 against it with five extra-base hits, all doubles. Strasburg’s changeup remains his best secondary offering, but the curveball is doing more heavy lifting than ever before, which makes it his most interesting pitch this season.
Let’s take a look at the curveball in action. To do so, let’s first go all the way back to Strasburg’s first start of the season. We should have known then what his curveball was to become. He made no secret of it, throwing it 15 times in the Nationals’ 4–2 win over Miami. One of the first curveballs he broke off all season was this one to Marcell Ozuna, which produced a weak groundout to Daniel Murphy.
That ball was off the plate away, meaning there was little Ozuna was going to do with it. Strasburg won the pitch the moment the Marlins outfielder committed to his swing.
Such was the case with a strikeout of Matt Adams in a start against the Braves on May 21, as well. Strasburg went to the curve in a 2–2 count. The sharp movement of the pitch took it from the bottom of the zone all the way to Adams’s feet, but Strasburg had him absolutely fooled. Again, there was no way for Strasburg to lose on this pitch.
Lest you think Strasburg’s curveball is just a chase pitch, making it susceptible to losing its effectiveness if hitters start to lay off it, we present the following two GIFs. Strasburg is perfectly capable of throwing the curve for a strike, which he will often do to start a plate appearance, or when he’s even or behind in the count. It’s an especially good weapon in 2–2 and full counts, as both Matt Kemp and Ryan Schimpf have learned this season.
Strasburg’s health has always been touch and go, and that, more than anything, has kept him from cementing himself as one of the best starting pitchers of his era. Still just in his age-28 season, he has time to join the likes of Kershaw, Scherzer and Sale, in more than statistical ways. If he can stay on the mound for 30-plus starts this season, the baseball world will no longer have to ask “Is this Strasburg’s year?” It will have arrived.