Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Stephen Strasburg now halfway to 3K strikeouts … is he a hall of famer?


 Photo via via

Photo via via

Earlier this month, some breathless headlines pointed out that Stephen Strasburg reached a surprising career milestone; he’s now eclipsed 1,500 career strikeouts.  Strasburg is the fastest to 1,500 career strike-outs by IPs than anyone in the history of the game.

He’s likely to add at least 100 more punch-outs this season (his average is about 150 Ks/season and is in his 10th pro season), but may add even more since we’re only about 1/6th of the way through the season.  So lets say he finishes the season with 1,650 strike outs.

So it occurred to me … is Strasburg really halfway to becoming a hall of fame pitcher?

We’ve generally in the history of the sport basically annointed anyone who hits that threshold a Hall of Famer.   Of the 17 pitchers who have hit 3,000 career punchouts, 14 are in the Hall of Fame, one is Roger Clemens, one is Curt Schilling and one is newly minted 3,000 club member CC Sabathia (another interesting test case for Cooperstown coming up in the next 5-6 years presumably … we’ll come back to him in a moment).

But nothing about Strasburg’s career so far screams “Cooperstown.”  He’s made a couple of all star games, finished 3rd in Cy Young voting in his best season, and for most of his career has not been the best pitcher on his own staff.   He’s been a very good pitcher, but injury prone with just one season out of his career 10 that didn’t feature at least a few weeks of D/L time.  He has one stellar season: 2017’s 6.4 bWAR season (also his peak Cy Young voting) but otherwise has a handful of 3-war seasons throughout his career.  He’s nowhere close to Hall standards by JAWS or any of the metrics.

Lets say for the sake of argument that Strasburg pitches another 9 seasons after this one, averages 150 K/s a year and is sitting basically where Sabathia is this season: upper 30s, in his 19th pro season and right on the cusp of 3,000 strikeouts.  Does that sound like a hall of fame resume to you?

(yes i know this is a huge leap of faith; you can’t project pitchers, he may blow his arm out again, yadda, yadda.  For sake of argument, assume Strasburg goes 10 more  years, averages 14-11 with 150 Ks/season).

Coming back to Sabathia: he won a Cy Young, finished in the top 5 four years out of five (missing one  year b/c he got traded between leagues) and was absolutely one of the top pitchers in baseball during his peak JAWs period.  He also will eclipse 250 wins (perhaps the new 300 wins of our era of the sport) and has had a nice late 30s rebound.  Is Sabathia a Hall of Famer?   Strasburg doesn’t even have 100 wins yet at age 30 (but will pass it by the all star break this year), and seems unlikely to even get to 200 wins based on his average/season.

I wonder if Strasburg is really this generation’s version of Kevin Brown, who was more remembered for his contract (he was baseball’s first 9-figure $100M deal) than his production.  Brown was a very good pitcher, but never won a Cy Young, never got to marquee career thresholds (300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts), but interestingly had a significant 5-year stretch in his late 20s/early 30s that has him ranked 49th by JAWS, ahead of 16 other Hall of Fame pitchers and perhaps leaving him as one of the most under-rated Cooperstown snubs of all time.  Strasburg isn’t even this right now: he’s a good #2 starter who can’t stay healthy for more than a few months at a time.  And I say this as a Strasburg defender.

What do you think?  Is the sport about to really start re-evaluating its pitcher career landmarks as the K rates skyrocket and the starter disappears.   And a guy like Strasburg has a chance to really demonstrate the issue if he can achieve some important career thresholds over the next 10 years.



Written by Todd Boss

May 6th, 2019 at 3:25 pm

9 Responses to 'Stephen Strasburg now halfway to 3K strikeouts … is he a hall of famer?'

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  1. I don’t think you can have a serious conversation about the HOF until someone has 2,000k’s. Love Strasburg, remember he left $50 million on the table to stay here.

    One of the reasons Brown was such a snub was because he was a complete ass who no one wanted to be around. He’s probably in Georgia right now beating up his dog.

    Mark L

    6 May 19 at 3:48 pm

  2. If Strasburg’s next ~9 seasons are as good as his first 9, he will definitely make the HOF. I say this for a few reasons: (1) the standards for SPs making the HOF are inevitably going to change; things like wins are going to decrease in importance, as the voters recognize that things like strikeouts and walks are far more indicative of a pitcher’s quality performance; (2) even though wins will decrease in importance, innings pitched will remain important. I wonder if averaging ~150 IP a season over 15+ years will be enough.

    Honestly, though, I question the premise of this post. I think the probability that Strasburg’s next ~9 seasons being remotely similar to his first ~9 are next to nil. Eventually the injuries have to catch up to him. And even if the seasons are similar, guys like Schilling and Sabbathia will need to get voted in before Strasburg.

    Still, I think it is worthwhile to pause and think about how good Strasburg has been over a long period of time. He came into the league as a strikeout artist and has essentially maintained that skill despite numerous injuries, big and small. This is amazing! It’s also amazing how consistent he’s been. He’s had only the one truly great season, yet he’s never had a truly bad one. You would expect, I think, to see more peaks and valleys in a career. I don’t know whether ex ante you’d prefer a player to have peaks and valleys or be consistent, but I still think Strasburg’s consistency is amazing.

    (also, who cares if Strasburg isn’t the best pitcher on his own staff? Curt Schilling was mostly not the best pitcher on his own staffs with the Red Sox and the D’backs because he pitched with some all-time greats. The same is true of Strasburg during the Max era.* This is why we have statistics – so we don’t have to use really imprecise metrics like “was he the best pitcher on his own staff?”)

    *Also, Strasburg almost certainly has the two best starts in the playoffs during the Max era. Just sayin…)


    7 May 19 at 10:27 am

  3. Wow: the fastest to 1,500 Ks by IP for anyone in the history of the game. That’s an amazing stat. It also means he has the highest K/9 of anyone at this point in his career. And yet most Nat fans consider him a mild to moderate disappointment.

    I do think 200 wins and 3,000 Ks will be the twin magic numbers for Stras to even be considered for the Hall. To get there, he’s going to need at least a couple of big seasons in his early 30s, before age really catches up. He needs at least one CYA and a couple of 20-win seasons, although it would make an interesting case if he gets to 200 + 3,000 with no CYA and no 20-win seasons. Of course we’d also like to sprinkle in a little postseason success there as well. (He did look primed for a dominant postseason in ’17 if the team had advanced.)

    I’m looking for comps for a projected Stras career. The one that seems most similar at first glance is David Cone — 17 seasons, 194 wins, 2,668 Ks. Cone only had one CYA (at age 31) and one 20-win season (at age 35). He also accumulated five rings. He’s not in the Hall, and there are not a lot of folks arguing that he should be.

    An interesting potential comp in a career winding down is King Felix, now in his 15th season, 169 wins, 2,498 Ks, one CYA, no 20-win seasons. He’s only 33, but he hasn’t been particularly good for three or four years. There was a time in his late 20s that a lot of folks would have had him ticketed for Cooperstown, but he’s really hit a wall. If he can stay in the game, he may limp to 200 wins and 3,000 Ks, but I don’t think his numbers like WHIP, FIP, and winning percentage will be nearly as good as Stras’s when Stras is done. Stras has stellar career 1.09 WHIP and 2.92 FIP and xFIP. (For reference, Clemens ended up with 1.17 WHIP, 3.09 FIP, 3.50 xFIP. The current gold standard, Kershaw, has a 1.00 WHIP, 2.66 FIP, and 2.94 xFIP. Yes, Stras is neck and neck with Claw in these advanced metrics.)

    So . . . I’ll say Stras ends up with around 165 wins, 2,700 Ks, but no CYA or 20-win season. He won’t get above 20% vote by the writers, if that, but may get more serious consideration by the backdoor bunch a quarter century from now.


    7 May 19 at 1:39 pm

  4. Derek; I specifically said in the post “this is a leap of faith” to make assumptions about the 2nd half of Strasburg’s season. Yeah i get it; projecting ANY pitcher’s career stats halfway through his career. It was a “what if” post.

    I will say this: being the 2nd best pitcher on Arizona’s staff ABSOLUTELY has hurt Schilling. With no Randy Johnson in the NL, Schilling would have won two Cy Youngs during his time in Arizona and he’d likely have been a 1st ballot guy irrespective of his abhorrent twitter game. Instead, he’s got zero career awards to support his 3,000 career Ks but otherwise lacking resume and has now allowed narrative to overcome his accomplishments. So yes, it matters that Strasburg’s been overshadowed by a guy on his own team because that does still “matter” to a lot of voters.

    Perhaps in 15 yrs time there won’t be any more idiot hall of fame writers who take personal opinions about a player into account. one can only hope.

    Todd Boss

    8 May 19 at 11:08 am

  5. That game last night was insane. Strasburg was as good as I’ve seen him since before he went on the DL last year; I don’t think he gave up a single hard hit ball all night. He was clearly running out of gas, and if we had a normal functioning bullpen, Martinez would have pulled him to have a lefty face Thames. Instead, Strasburg blew Thames away and Cain was late on a fastball (Stras did leave it over the plate) and cued down the line the other way for a three-run double. What a bummer. It stinks (a) to waste such a good performance and (b) that the Nats need to be perfect to win games with this terrible lineup.

    Currently, among MLB starting pitchers, Max ranks 1st in fWAR and Stras is 5th; Max is 1st in FIP and Stras is 11th; Max is 2nd in xFIP and Stras is 4th.

    Both pitched really well against a tough lineup (Stras ABUSED Yelich, who belongs in the conversation for best hitter in MLB, non-Trout division) and yet the team lost both games.

    I am depressed. The team will surely play better, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of the other teams in the NL East that are in front of the Nats. But I am legitimately worried that it may already be too late (or that it will be too late soon, after we get thumped by the Dodgers in LA).


    8 May 19 at 11:14 am

  6. Todd, pointing out Schilling’s lack of Cy Young awards obscures the point you’re trying to make. A pitcher can be the best pitcher on his staff and STILL not win Cy Young awards because there is a better pitcher in the league (see Mike Mussina). If Randy Johnson was on the Padres, Schilling would still have zero CYAs. The question is whether there is a meaningful difference for Schilling’s candidacy that Randy Johnson was on Schilling’s own staff, not that Randy Johnson existed and was better than Schilling. Don Drysdale is in the HoF, and it took him longer than Koufax to get in because he is not as good as Koufax. The same is true vis-a-vis Johnson/Pedro and Schilling.

    Although I think the lack of Cy Young awards is affecting Schilling’s candidacy, I (a) don’t think the effect is very large (Mussina just got in without any CYAs), and (b) don’t think the fact that Schilling pitched on the same staffs as Randy and Pedro has anything to do with the fact that he hasn’t been elected. What’s driving the failure of his candidacy is his ongoing assholery combined with the ridiculous standards geriatric HOF voters have for starting pitchers. And he, like Don Drysdale before him, will eventually get in because he clearly deserves it.


    8 May 19 at 11:29 am

  7. Not sure if you’re agreeing with me or disagreeing. Drysdale’s candidacy was affected by being on the same staff as Koufax. Mussina waited years to get in b/c of no Cy YOung awards. You admit not having a Cy YOung is affecting Schilling.

    Here’s my point, as it relates to both Schilling and Strasburg. I believe that a certain type of writer, when it comes to evaluating Hall of Fame candidacy, absolutely takes stupid stuff like this into consideration. Awards matter. Being “the best guy on your team” matters. I don’t agree with those sentiments; I just acknowledge them as being factors.

    Anyway, this post was about Strasburg. I wrote the post b/c I was frankly shocked that he was already at 1,500 punchouts, and given the fact that he’s signed through 2023 seems likely to really rack up a ton more. I think he’d be a really interesting use case (kinda like I think CC Sabathia will be an interesting use case when he’s eligible) if he were to get to 3,000 ks with the current lack of cy youngs. that was it.

    Todd Boss

    8 May 19 at 12:11 pm

  8. I agree with you that Cy Young awards matter (though I don’t think they should, because there are much better metrics to use in evaluating pitchers). I agree with you that being not as good as another HOF caliber pitcher who pitches at the same time matters (this, I think, should matter, because performance relative to peers ought to matter). I do NOT agree with you that being on the same TEAM as another HOF pitcher matters in any meaningful sense (and I think we both agree that it should not). I think Drysdale’s candidacy was affected by being not as good as other pitchers who pitched at the same time. I do NOT think it was meaningfully affected by being on the same staff as Koufax. And we should also consider the potential POSITIVE effects of being on a staff with another ace. Drysdale and Schilling probably don’t pitch in as many playoff/World Series games if they aren’t on staffs with other great pitchers. In Schilling’s case, his postseason performance is part of his candidacy. His postseason performance is almost certainly not as impressive (because of fewer opportunities) if he doesn’t pitch alongside Randy and Pedro.

    If Strasburg maintains his current form he will be an interesting test case. He excels in the ways sabermetric guys think are important and is deficient in ways most old-school types think are important. If he gets to 3,000 Ks and maintains his current rate-stats, I bet he’ll get in, especially if he was able to get to 3,000 Ks in fewer innings than anybody else in history (which would be an amazing accomplishment).


    8 May 19 at 12:35 pm

  9. […] this season, when Stephen Strasburg hit 1,500 career strikeouts I posted a thought piece speculating on his Hall of Fame chances.  That conversation kind of got derailed in a projection discussion versus a theoretical […]

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