Stephen Strasburg is Better than you Think
Maybe not for you, reader of this blog, but for a large segment of the Nationals fan base, talk radio, and the voices inside Thomas Boswell's head Stephen Strasburg is overrated, over hyped, and an overall disappointment. When Stephen Strasburg takes the mound this evening he will do so with a 3.70 ERA. The 53rd best ERA in the majors. That isn't good for a former number one overall pick who was supposed to be the best pitching prospect the world had ever seen. Strasburg had the electric debut followed by a sustained hot streak in 2010 where he had a 2.91 ERA striking out 92 and walking 17 in 68 innings before needing Tommy John's surgery. Then Strasburg returned towards the end of 2011 and was just as good producing a 1.91 ERA with 24 strikeouts and two walks in 24 innings. It was a fast and promising start to the career of Stephen Strasburg and it spoke of a promising future. That future is now and for many it hasn't come to pass. Over the last two seasons Strasburg has a record of 14-15 and for many baseball fans this is all they need to know. The flat 3.00 ERA in 2013 is meaningless as is his 2014 FIP of 2.76. As far as Strasburg's 2014 ERA being so far off of his FIP the reason is simple. Strasburg has a 2014 BABIP of .356 compared to his career average of .302. More balls in play becoming hits leads to more base runners and more runs allowed. So despite the fact that Strasburg has the best K/9 in the majors he is still allowing runs at an above average rate because more balls in play are becoming hits than is the norm for him.
When looking at the batted ball data for Strasburg the abnormal BABIP can be chalked up to bad luck or poor defense behind him. Strasburg's line drive, ground ball, and infield hit percentages are all within 2% of his career averages. This means that the balls that are falling in for hits are being put in play with as much solid contact as they always have been against Strasburg and for whatever reason some that should be becoming outs are not. Stephen Strasburg's K% and BB% are both excellent at 27.7% and 5.2% and show that Strasburg is both avoiding free base runners and creating his own outs at a higher than average rate. Both of these things should lead to run prevention, but they are being countered by the higher than average BABIP.
The good thing about baseball is things have a way of averaging out, and K% and BB% are stats that normalize quickly for a season while BABIP is one known to be prone to high fluctuation. Stephen Strasburg's FIP tells us that he is pitching quite excellently and that by the end of the season his ERA should be much closer to the 3.00 or below range instead of the 3.70 range it is at right now, but for most people the record and ERA is all that matters, and their favorite team losing creates in them a visceral response and someone has to be to blame and since pitchers are only capable of allowing runs it is often a pitcher that is going to be blamed.
Strasburg over his last two starts has not been sharp. He allowed four runs against the Braves and seven to the Brewers and in both starts he gave up too good of contact with two strikes on the hitter. Pitching sequencing has been the last hurdle to greatness for Stephen Strasburg for a while now, but Strasburg also mentioned after his last start that he might be tipping his pitches and even with his wipe out curve and change a batter won't swing if he knows it’s coming because it's going to be a ball. If Stephen Strasburg can add the deception back to his delivery and everything looks like the fastball out of his hand then those pitches will go back to being swing and miss strikeout pitches, and Strasburg won't be forced to go to his fastball in 2-2 or 3-2 counts.
As it stand Stephen Strasburg has had a good season. He's been let down by his teammates on both offense and defense on occasion, but not to the degree of 2013 where the Nationals lost ten games in which Strasburg allowed two or fewer runs. The disparity between Strasburg's FIP and ERA, and Strasburg's ability to prevent walks and generate his own outs point to a coming regression. It points to a hot streak on the horizon. Stephen Strasburg will take the mound at Nats Park tonight, and many people will complain on the internet and talk radio as to how he is overrated and never lived up to the hype and how they don't trust him on the mound, but you, reader of this blog, know differently. Stephen Strasburg has had an excellent season so far, but the luck dragons have not been on his side. They are fickle and his fate will turn and those that doubt will be surprised, but not you.