Stephen Strasburg is perhaps the most heavily-watched, heavily-analyzed, and heavily-critiqued pitcher in Major League Baseball. From the time he was drafted first overall in 2009 at age 20, the hype surrounding the hard-throwing pitcher was massive, and it only continued to increase. The media interest in Strasburg peaked in 2012, during the infamous September shutdown as part of his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and with it came all of the associated pressure to perform in 2013 and beyond. Despite a couple of tough starts for Strasburg early this season, some current numbers and other factors suggest he will be just fine.
The strikeout factor has always been a significant part of Strasburg’s appeal. He has a fastball that once topped out in the triple-digits, which now sits in the mid-90s, and it is accompanied by the nastiest changeup in baseball, a devastating slurve, and a newly-minted slider. With those pitches, he’s found a way to strike out a preposterous number of batters. Over his five seasons at the MLB level, Strasburg averages 10.61 K/9, which is the best rate among NL starters during that period. This season, he’s struck out 14.14 batters per nine in his first four starts, which is far and away the best rate in all of baseball; Felix Hernandez is second with 12.66 K/9.
It’s easy to look at Strasburg’s 6.00 ERA through four starts, which has included two starts of fewer than five innings, and think the Nats’ ace is in trouble. While his early struggles to consistently throw six innings are a bit worrisome, it is early. Not to mention, ERA only tells one piece of the puzzle. There is a factor of luck and sample size present here.
Strasburg’s xFIP, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, is a much-better than league average 2.65. In fact, it is in the top five in the NL, near names like Zach Greinke, Jose Fernandez, and Adam Wainwright. The outlying factor for Strasburg is an extremely high .396 BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play, which is 103 points higher than his career average. Simply, based on his performance in previous seasons, Strasburg has had bad luck, and possibly struggling defense, affect his numbers and success.
The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore wrote a phenomenal article toward the end of spring training, which outlined Strasburg’s past and present struggles to keep his priorities in check. In short, Strasburg is a passionate guy, and he’s had trouble keeping baseball in perspective. In the article, Strasburg indicates that becoming a father has helped balance him, but it’s hard to imagine him completely mellowing out in one offseason. As Strasburg grows as a person, a pitcher, and a father – he is just 25 years old – I truly believe that he’ll be able to harness his competitiveness and his strive for perfection to be able to work through on-the-mound struggles that he has had trouble getting through in the past couple of seasons. He certainly has the raw stuff to do it.
Graphs and statistics from FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted