Nationals Arm Race

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

What’s eating Stephen Strasburg? Some stats and some thoughts

52 comments

Strasburg's  having a weird season. Photo unk via thewifehatessports.com

Strasburg’s having a weird season. Photo unk via thewifehatessports.com

Knee-jerk question: who is the best starter on the Washington Nationals?  Who do you call the team’s “Ace?”

For years its been Stephen Strasburg, even when Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann were getting Cy Young votes (Gio 3rd place in 2012 and Jordan 7th place in 2013).  Its been Strasburg even when Zimmermann makes two consecutive all-star teams and the team acquires Doug Fister, who is 13th in the majors in accumulated fWAR over the past four seasons.  Its still Strasburg despite the fact that #5 starter (and someone who people in this space argued rather vociferously for “stashing” in AAA this year in lieu of other pitchers) Tanner Roark leads the team in victories right now.

(all stats on baseball-reference.com and/or fangraphs.com as of 7/31/14).

But this year, something is amiss with Strasburg.  He’s having a complete jeckyl-and-hyde season in many ways.  To wit;

  • He leads the starters in FIP and xFIP,  (indeed; among qualified starters right now in MLB, he’s 11th in FIP and 4th in xFIP, training just leading Cy Young favorites Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka).
  • He leads the Nats starters in fWAR.
  • He leads the NL in strikeouts with 10 more than his closest competitor Johnny Cueto.

I dunno.  If someone told me that a starting pitcher was leading the league in Ks, was 4th in xFIP, 11th in FIP and was 6th in velocity i’d say you had a pretty darn good pitcher.  But he’s been arguably the Nats *least* effective starter this year all in all.

Yet he’s just 7-9 on the season with a 3.55 ERA (one 1/100th of a point better than Zimmermann for last on the Nats rotation).   He has the worst WHIP of any of our starters at 1.240.  The team is just 11-12 in his starts.

So what the heck is going on?  Here’s some interesting statistical splits:

  • Compared to last year, his K/9 is up, his BB/9 is down.  That sounds good.  But his ground ball percentage is down and his line drive percentage is up.  Batters are putting better wood on the ball.  Which leads to…
  • His current BABIP against is an astoundingly high .345.  That’s the third highest BABIP of any qualified starter this year and a good 50 points higher than the league average.
  • Why are hitters getting such good wood on him?  Here’s a hint: for reasons unknown, batters are squaring up his fastballs like never before.  Checking his Pitch F/X data: he’s got a batting average against (BAA) of .294 on his four-seam fastball and an astounding .350 against his two-seam fastball.  Both of those figures are 50 points higher than the comparable BAA for those two pitches from 2013.
  • His velocity is down.  Which is kind of like saying that a model has gained a few pounds, but still.   Last years’ avg MPH on his two fastballs were 95.2 and 95.3.  This year?  94.5 and 94.6.  That’s just 7/10ths of a mph, and even with his loss of velocity he’s still easily in the top 10 in the league in average fastball velocity (6th in four seam velocity among starters), but its still declining.  In his 5 pro seasons his 4-seam average fastball velocity has gone from 97.6 to 96.0 to 95.8 to 95.2 to his current 94.5.

It sounds to me like a combination of slightly declined fastball velocity and some bad luck has led to hitters squaring up his fastballs more this year, resulting in more line drives, higher BABIP and more runs.  That more or less explains the huge delta between his ERA and his FIP.  But why?  Pitch F/X isn’t showing much of a change in fastball movement from last year to this year, so it is hard to argue that he’s lost movement on his fastball.  Could it all just be about location?

A couple more split-related observations (some of these we’ve seen during broadcasts):

  • Home ERA: 2.62.  Away ERA: 4.68.  Yeah, but lots of pitchers have big home/away splits.
  • First Inning ERA: 5.09!  Second Inning ERA: 4.30.  He’s getting hit early and often.
  • He’s improving as the game goes on; his stats against the order the second time through are significantly better than the first time through, something you don’t normally see.

If he’s so bad in the first inning, is he just having difficulties getting loose and finding his spots?  Is he falling behind and grooving fastballs and getting more line drive hits?  Why is he so significantly worse on the road?

On the bright side, the combination of an inflated BABIP and a huge delta between xFIP/FIP and his ERA does tend to indicate that there should be some regression back to the mean.  Maybe we’ll start seeing a bunch more of 7ip, 4hit, 2walk, 10K outings and he’ll break off a slew of dominant starts to help the Nats pull away in the division, just in time to lead the charge with a  home-field start in game 1 of the playoffs.

Thoughts?  Are you worried?  What else do you think is causing his troubles this year?

52 Responses to 'What’s eating Stephen Strasburg? Some stats and some thoughts'

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  1. You quantified your concerns with excellent statistical analysis, Todd. I’ve had worries about Strasburg since last season, even if I didn’t compile the stats to back me up. He’s just not the ace. And he’s not young enough to say “he’s still young” anymore. I don’t know if he lacks the composure to overcome pressure and adversity or what his deal is, but he is once again should not be the team’s number-1 starter. Honestly, he’s not even 2 or 3, is he? If the playoffs started tomorrow, my rotation is Fister, Z’mann, Gio, and Roark. How crazy am I to even type that? All of you feel free to correct me with impunity, but I really feel that way.

    clark17

    31 Jul 14 at 5:15 pm

  2. I think you’ve nailed it by looking at his fastballs. He used to be able to blow hitters away at will, but as his fastball has gotten a little slower each year, he’s not a skilled enough “pitcher” to miss bats as well. So, he’s either striking guys out or they are hitting him hard.

    You look at Fister and Roark, who aren’t as blessed with talent as Stras, and they move the ball around and change speeds better. They had to learn to pitch because they didn’t have the ridiculous talent.

    To get back to being an ace in all definitions, he has to be more strategic about his pitching, and not rely only on blowing hitters away… or he has to get his velocity back to where it was.

    Andrew R

    31 Jul 14 at 11:27 pm

  3. I just looked up Stras’s game log and was astounded to see that the Nats have lost seven of his last nine starts. I was looking up run support, which was low for Strasburg last season but not this year. For the record:

    Gonzalez – 3.88
    Strasburg – 4.23
    Roark – 4.40
    Zimmermann – 4.55
    Fister – 4.76

    That’s pretty healthy support for everyone, although it makes clear that they obviously enjoy the games when Fister is pitching.

    Moving on to something that can’t be quantified, here’s a theory on Stras’s drop in velocity. Perhaps he is trying to be too precise, taking something off the pitches in an effort to pinpoint them. This particularly seems to be the case when he’s not getting calls and getting upset with umpires. Is it in his head, or his arm? It’s hard to know. Or maybe Stras is trying to learn from Fister but is compromising his stuff in the process.

    I also wonder whether he’s starting to doubt his fastball. Take Stanton’s key AB this week. Sitting dead-red, Stanton took a mighty hack at a fastball but fouled the pitch straight back. At that point, a confident fireballer would have said “can’t touch this” and climbed the ladder at 97 and 99. Instead, young Luke didn’t trust the force and hung a curve that Stanton clobbered into the corner.

    Oh well. If I had the answers, I’d have McCatty’s job! What I do have is an answer to Clark’s question – if the playoffs started today, Fister and Roark are at the top of my rotation, regardless of bruised egos. Zmnn is probably third, particularly after Gio got shelled last night by a below-average lineup. I’d make the call on the fourth starter based on righty/lefty power of the opponent, but neither Gio nor Stras would be guaranteed a spot in the starting four.

    KW

    1 Aug 14 at 6:21 am

  4. Clark; there was a point sometime in the past month or so where I watched him blow up another early game and basically said to myself, “ok thats it.” Something has flipped for me; instead of arguing for Strasburg and excusing this and that and saying “well but if you look at his xFIP he’s top 5 in the league” I think its time recognize what he is. I just don’t ever see him being in the argument for best pitcher in the game ever again. I don’t see him ever winning a cy young. There’s just something about him that is missing.

    We didn’t even talk about the “make up” issues that he’s consistently displayed on the mound when things don’t go his way.

    If playoffs started tomorrow, there’s no way in hell Matt Williams doesn’t trot out Stras-Gio-Zim-Fister. Roark may be the most dominant guy but he’s the rookie, and if there’s anything we’ve learned about Williams so far, its that he is a veteran’s player manager, to hell with the rookies and youngesters.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 8:47 am

  5. Run Support; yeah for whatever reason Stras has been plagued with bad run support. Here’s my theory:

    Strasburg routinely gets hit in the early innings, and the team is consistently behind. Baseball teams have a hard time playing from behind, and especially once they get 4 runs down. You see it *all* the time. Boswell had a great stat once that some huge percentage of games feature the winning team scoring more runs in one inning than the opponent scores all game. So if Strasburg gives up 4 runs in the 2nd inning … a large percentage fo the time that’s all the r uns the opposing team will need to win. So the offense gives up/goes into cruise control. Its a long season; you know this sh*t happens.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 9:06 am

  6. What Andrew R said. This is a guy who was able to effortlessly blow away hitters from college through his first couple of seasons at the MLB level. I was there for his first game, and remember feeling an electric thrill shoot through me when the numeral 100 appeared on the velocity meter on the scoreboard, not to mention when he got that incredible 14th K to end the 7th inning and his night. I can’t imagine how he muct have felt. Walking on air would probably only begin to describe it.

    But how many truly great games has he pitched since that first abbrieviated season? The only two that stick out as truly memorable in my mind was his gutty win at Fenway back in 2012 when he blew away 13 Red Sox hitters in just six innings, and that complete game 4-hit, 10-K shutout against the Phillies last year. This from a guy who back in June 2010 we would have figured would probably tossed at least one no-no and a bunch of 1, 2 and 3-hitters by now, not to mention should have had at least a few games where he met and/or exceeded his debut game K total, which he has not done even once.

    When a dude who it always came easy for no longer finds it so easy, he either works harder to try to get back to that level, or he gets frustrated and wallows in his newfound mediocrity. Unfortunately, Strasburg seems to have the latter mindset rather than the former. (I hope I’m wrong about that, BTW).

    Of course, baseball history is chock full of sad tales of pitching phenoms who failed to live up to the hype coming into the league for a wide variety of reasons, including getting hurt or succumbing to the pressure. Strasburg hasn’t been David Clyde, but he doesn’t look like he’ll ever be Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale either.

    bdrube

    1 Aug 14 at 9:11 am

  7. @TB – if the playoffs started tomorrow, and Gio was in the rotation instead of Roark, MW should be fired on the spot. And it isn’t just him who is a “veteran players’s manager,” that is clearly Rizzo’s mindset as well. I cannot phathom for the life of me, for instance, why Souza continues to rot in AAA with the absolutely excrable Scott Hairston still with the big club. They’ll say “Souza is young and needs to play everyday” To which I would respond “B dot S exclamation point–dude is 25 and has been “playing everyday” in the minors for seven years now. He either knows how to hit or he doesn’t. One thing’s for sure, though, Hairston CAN’T hit anymore.

    bdrube

    1 Aug 14 at 9:20 am

  8. Allow me to amend my playoff starters. After last night, I would start Roark ahead of Gio. My knee-jerk reaction is to mix a LHP into a rotation of right-handers, but that shouldn’t apply here. GIO is imploding right now, and he’s not a clutch playoff guy anyway. I still hold him primarily to blame for the Game 5 collapse in the ’12 LDS, even more than Storen. His unraveling with a 6-0 lead is what started everything that followed.

    Regarding Strasburg, I started arguing last year that I would prefer the team pursue an extension of Zimmermann over Strasburg. J-Zimm has earned his contract on the field, Stras just hasn’t. It’s not like he’s bad, he’s just not an ace. And I agree with Todd completely that he never will be. The Nats need to start coming to grips with this so they can adjust their future decisions accordingly.

    clark17

    1 Aug 14 at 9:40 am

  9. Bdrube: Strasburg’s best games? I knew my subscription to the play index would pay off! Here’s his 3 best games by GS (not the best indicator but a good one to narrow the field):
    – #1: (GS of 88): 8/11/2013 vs Phillies: Complete Game 4-hitter, 1 walk, 10ks. This is his ONLY COMPLETE GAME in nearly 100 MLB starts over 4 seasons. Think about that. Kershaw and Wainwright both have 5 CGs this season.
    – #2: (GS of 86): 7/24/13 outing against pittsburgh: 8ip, 2hits 1 run (a solo homer) and 12 Ks .. and he took a LOSS. He gave up 2 hits over 8 innings and took the loss.
    – #3 (GS of 78): 6/2/12 win over Atlanta: 7ip, 4 hits, 0 walks, 9 Ks.

    His 14-K debut is his 11th best game by Game Score. The outing you mention against boston is way down there; like #32.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 9:45 am

  10. Gio in playoff rotation over Roark; not saying I agree with it … but you *know* that’s whats going to happen.

    I’ll repeat my ‘proof’ that Williams favors vets over his younger players. Look at the splits for Span, Zimmerman, Werth and LaRoche. With perhaps 1 or 2 games exception, those guys have never deviated from “their” lineup spots. Span always leadoff despite his limited capabilities there. Zimmerman always 5th. LaRoche always 4th. Werth always 3rd. Then go look at the lineup juggling jobs that Rendon, Harper and to a lesser extent Desmond have gone through. Rendon has batted all up and down the order. Harper constantly buried at 6th despite his proven offensive capabilities and known power (this is pre-injury … and yes I’ll admit this is more about earlier in the season than now, when he looks hurt and lost at the plate).

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 9:50 am

  11. Souza: don’t get it either. McLouth is owed some cash and has defensive value (perceived anyway; UZR belies his “defensive late inning replacement” value). But both Frandsen AND Hairston are now hitting at OPS+ rates that are 20-30 points below league average. That’s bad. All we did last year was whine about how awful our bench production was … and yet this year we’re right back in the same spot. OPS+ figures for the bench: Frandsen 66, Hairston 78, Espinosa 77 (though he’s gotten so many at bats that B-R.com thinks he’s the starter now), Lobaton 56 and McLouth 47. That’s f*cking awful!!!

    Meanwhile, you have the following hitters on your 40-man roster (with ML OPS numbers): Souza 1.033 in AAA. Moore: .897 in AAA. Taylor: .938 in AA. And don’t forget Brandon Laird, also sitting in AAA with good numbers (.853 OPS) and some MLB experience.

    Remember; in a little reported move, the Nats called up Purke so they could 60-day D/L him; there’s an open spot on the roster right now!

    Wtf? Maybe the plan is to call all these guys up 9/1 and see what they can do in September.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 9:57 am

  12. @clark17 – You hit it right on the head with your comment about Gio’s NLDS Game 5. You give an “ace” a 6-run lead in a game like that and it should be OVER. He ought to leave in the 7th or 8th up 6(or more) to 1 or 2. Big lead, no need to worry about a bullpen meltdown. Gio also wasn’t great in Game 1 of that series, either. Like Strasburg, I wonder if he doen’t lack the mental makeup to be a big game pitcher. After all, he was at his best on two going-nowhere Oaklnd squads and in the 2012 regular season when the Nats were just happy to be where they are.

    @TB – That game score list kind of proves my point. One 8-inning, 2-hitter is the best that the “once in a decade” pitching talent has been able to put up in his first 98 career starts.

    bdrube

    1 Aug 14 at 10:01 am

  13. Clark: my Strasburg prediction is eventually this: Nats will give him one-year arb deals all the way out, but Boras will take him to FA without thinking about an extension. Meanwhile 2016 may be the last year of the nats current “Window” so they’ll be competitive enough so that they can’t think about moving him mid-season; offer him the Q.O, he declines, Nats get a supp 1st round pick and Strasburg signs a completely idiotic 6yr/$175M deal with the Dodgers. And he very well may fourish there, closer to home, in SoCal, in a huge pitcher’s park pitching a ton of his games in pitchers parks on the road as well (SD, SF), and he won’t be the “Ace” but probably the 3rd starter and everyone will talk about the best rotation in the game’s history, blah blah. But he’ll eventually settle down to being what he is now; a very good arm who isn’t worth $25M/year to the Nats franchise.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 10:03 am

  14. This conversation is why I would never *never* give a huge contract to a pitcher. They get hurt far more often than a hitter and then who knows how they’ll be after. Like Rizzo, I’d draft only pitchers in early rounds and use up the cheap parts of their careers and then give ‘em a qualifying offer or trade them when it became time for a l/t contract. While I think it was the correct move [for Stras] for the Nats to shut him down in ’12, now I think we should just use up these guys while we can and then spit them out. Just like NFL running backs.

    I would also never pay relievers a big contract. They are too sporadic even when they don’t get hurt. Bring in young fireballers and use them up or convert them to starters like the Cards.

    The big bucks should go to the hitters – I would do everything possible to lock up Harper, Desmond, Rendon, and Ramos now. Sure, guys get hurt, but as we see with Zimm, we can move him to 1B or LF… can’t quite do that with Strasburg.

    Andrew R

    1 Aug 14 at 10:07 am

  15. Bdrube; yeah looking at that game score analysis … his 3rd best ever game was 7ip, 0 runs, 4hits. Uh, hasn’t Roark done that like 4 times this year? Maybe without the Ks of course, but still. Fister’s last start: 7ip, 3 hits 1 walk. Its the same result.

    Heres something interesting: Fister has 10 Quality Starts in 14 outings. Those 4 non QS were his initial awful outing, two outins where he got pulled in the 6th despite having given up 1 and 2 runs respectively, and a 6ip/4run outing. He’s had exactly one blow up all year and has kept his team in the game EVERY time out. Roark’s basically tehy same; his last two outings have both been 7ip, 3 hits. You just can’t ask for much more than that from your #4 and #5 starters.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 10:21 am

  16. AndrewR: agree. agreee. And I think Rizzo agrees too by looking at the way he acquires his pitchers and the contracts he’s handed out.

    Which means we need to be prepared for an overhaul. Stras FA after 2017, Zimmermann after 2016, Fister after 2016, Gio after 2016 (though he has cheap optoins that you have to think we’ll take even if he’s just mediocre given the market for starting pitching). You hope that those three guys are replaced like for like with our best minor league arms by then (Giolito and Cole) with some likely unknown acquired (maybe grabbing an arb-case from Oakland while they look save cash) and filling in the cracks with 5th starters from candidates like Treinen, Jordan, Voth, Fedde maybe even.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 10:42 am

  17. The fact that Fister and Roark are called the 4th and 5th starters is almost a joke at this point. Fister was a great offseason trade for Rizzo. As for Roark (to quote George Costanza), “that’s like discovering plutonium… BY ACCIDENT!” I won’t knock Zimmermann, either. He’s been solid. But Stras and Gio are very disappointing.

    @bdrube, remember all those Cardinals players after Game 5 who talked so much trash about the Nats choking and Gio looking scared on the mound? Made my blood boil when I read it… but they were right. Gio is up by 6 runs, and he’s arguing balls and strikes with the umpire. That is the very opposite of clutch. Like you said, up 6-0 we should have gotten 7 or 8 innings out of our starter.

    Honestly, we’re getting ahead of ourselves even talking about playoffs right now (cue Jim Mora). I’m not convinced yet that this team has the grit to get there.

    clark17

    1 Aug 14 at 10:44 am

  18. @clark17 – Yep, they are lucky to be in such a crappy division. If the Braves starting pitchers were all healthy the Nats would be down about 10 games again (hey, yet another argument for not giving pitchers big, long term contracts!). And we are even “luckier” that Jose Fernandez went down or we might just be starting UP at the Marlins.

    bdrube

    1 Aug 14 at 11:02 am

  19. Playoff rotation: I’ll worry about that when/if the Nats are 7 games up with 6 to play.

    I also think that this team is mentally tougher than most fans seem to think. At least the Nats’ impressive run through a tough schedule (several good teams, mostly on the road) over the past few weeks has muted the “OMG it’s 2013 all over again” chatter. They’ve shaken off a never ending series of injuries to be right there for the best record in the NL. They beat the Giants in SF when the Giants were the hottest team in baseball, and took two series from a Brewers team that is one of the best in the league. All while staying neck and neck with a Braves team that had perhaps the easiest schedule run in years. These guys are mentally weak? Yeah, right.

    Predicting doom is easy, and has the added benefit that (unless your team wins the WS) sooner or later you will be “proved correct.” The Nats are a good, solid, not perfect team.

    John C.

    1 Aug 14 at 11:22 am

  20. Nats playoff odds: i think there’s a reason cool standings is so bullish on them. Best run differential in the NL. They’ve been “unlucky” to the tune of 3 games versus pythagorean record while the Braves have been “lucky” to the tuen of one game. Those 3 unlucky games are basically seen in their 3-games-under-.500 record in one-run games and 5 games under .500 in extra inning games; those should be coin flip scenarios. Which tells me the Nats should start getting more of these 1run/extra inning wins on average.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that they lost a game this week holding a 6 run lead, and they lost a game where their opponent’s starter left in the 3rd inning. Those are bad losses obviously.

    But message taken; it is far too early to talk about playoffs.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 12:55 pm

  21. I’ll take the other side of the Strasburg argument. While Todd correctly stated that he isn’t in the conversation for best SP in baseball, I think the disappointment that he didn’t get to that level can color people’s views over what he actually has done. Which has been to be a very good pitcher, and since he was home grown, he has done it at very little cost. Sure, he has flaws: he appears to rattle at times, and this year especially, he has been prone to the big inning/long ball. But don’t completely disregard that outside of those letdowns he usually is putting up 5 IPs of 0 runs and 7 Ks. otherwise his ERA would be 4.5, not 3.5.

    I think that he has been the best SP in franchise history. JZimm has been very good too: more consistent at slightly lower performance levels (in virtually everything but wins). Stras appears headed towards a Grienke-like career – valued in the industry and paid a lot of money, but never really embraced by the mainstream media nor fans because he always seems to fall just short of what people expect from him. But if you could somehow remove all of those previous expectations and just evaluate his performance, I think people would be happy with him. But he is such a hot button to so many Nats fans; if you just read blogs and especially comments about him (not necessarily this thread), you’d think he was Jason Marquis.

    As for playoffs, I think that they should certainly have him in the rotation. Gio is the guy that I’d bump (for performance, but he’d also look good as a multi inning guy out of the pen), but I cannot really disregard the idea that MW will probably bump Roark for the reasons stated.

    But enjoy Stras. He’s only around for two more years. He’ll want that big ($150m) deal that the Nats won’t (and shouldn’t) give him, so he’s gone. They may even decide to restock earlier and trade him as soon as this offseason, too, and I predict that he will be missed.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 12:55 pm

  22. Wally: completely fair counter points. No arguments here. I completely admit i’m having a hard time going from calling Strasburg one of the best pitchers in the game (it wasn’t too long ago that people were posing hypothetical questions about who was “the best” in the game and Strasburg was being selected over Kershaw, despite Kershaw being the same age and clearly accomplishing more). There’s nothing wrong with being one of the top 20 arms in the game, which even with all his faults I still think he is.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 1:02 pm

  23. Top 20 SPs? I agree that he is in that conversation, but not necessarily a slam dunk. I just did a quick look at Fangraphs, and 18-22 in WAR are Sanchez, Greinke, Hamels, Sonny Gray and Lackey. So I agree that he is in their class, but people could reasonably disagree which one they liked better (btw, Phil Hughes with the 5th best pitcher WAR? What rock have I been under?). In addition to the draft hype, Stras suffers from being our first really good guy. Back when we were the ‘Natinals’, he was the first guy that could even get in that kind of conversation. RZim was a nice player that nobody heard of outside DC, but it wasn’t like he was hitting 50 HRs. Stras came up and was electric. We wanted that every time, and he isn’t that guy. Takes a while to reset expectations; for me, too.

    But they probably do need to consider flipping him this offseason. I kind of agree that it doesn’t make sense to give out these massive pitcher deals, but I don’t think that they should just let everyone walk and take a comp pick, and restock from the farm. They are young enough, with some interesting pieces on the farm, that they should be able to retool on the fly. But they have to keep some of these guys in the rotation. I’d vote to extend either Fister or JZimm if they could do it for 5 years or less. I assume that Stras either won’t be willing to talk, or would want a 7 yr deal, so I’d think about trading him now, while they should be able to get a lot. He’s better than Samardzjia, and look what he brought back. Would LAD give up Seager and Urias? I think that might be possible. Would hedge on Desi leaving, too. I know, hard to think about that right now.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 1:46 pm

  24. I’ll continue to claim he’s a top 20 pitcher, if not better, despite everthing we’ve said.. Here’s some statistical proof behind my thinking:
    – 2014: he’s 11th in FIP, 4th in xFIP among all qualified starters in the league despite being 7-9. But that’s just one season.
    – Expanding the range to include 2011-2014, he’s 15th in the majors in ERA, 5th in FIP, 2nd in xFIP (behind Kershaw), 2nd in SIERA (again behind kershaw), 2nd in K/9 (behind Darvish), 23rd in fWAR (an accumulator stat where he loses points b/c he missed lots of 2011, shutdown in 2012).

    Those 2nd places in advanced stats are why he continues to be held in such high regard and compared to Kershaw. But he’s only 31-25 in that timeframe amazingly, less than half the wins of Kershaw or Scherzer by way of example.

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 2:03 pm

  25. I’d put him in there, but I am a Stras guy. I was just trying to acknowledge that there could be some who wouldn’t. To them, the argument is that he will always score well on the rate stats and ‘fancy stats’ like FIP, but he lacks that ineffable ‘gamer’ quality that shows up in wins and other areas, like avoiding the big innings. I am not a wins guy at all, but for me, I can’t give him the full benefit of his rate stats until he starts regularly throwing 200+ innings.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 2:40 pm

  26. He’s 18th in IP right now! :-) He’s averaging just about 6 and a third per start, should get 10-11 more starts. So he’s on pace for 200 innings. That’s a start!

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 2:44 pm

  27. Agreed!

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 2:59 pm

  28. @Wally – Z-nn has made it pretty clear that he’s not offering any hometown discounts, and I’ll bet he signs a six or seven year deal elsewhere. As for Fister, even five years is risky given that he will be 32 the first year of the new contract. They tried to extend those guys for what was likey an additional three or four years beyond their current team control (ala Gio) and both chose to risk blowing out their arms over these two remaining seasons of team control in order to get to their big free agent paydays.

    My bet is the plan is for Cole and Giolito to step into their shoes after next season (with Giolito being held back a couple of months in 2016 to set back his arbitration and free agency clocks). Meanwhile, there is the combo of Taylors Jordan and Hill plus Treinen and possibly Voth to fill in as necessary. Then they have Fedde, who if all goes well could be ready to replace Strasburg the following year. If Giolito does mature into a true ace and Roark continues to pitch like a legitimate No. 2 or even just a No. 3, the Nats could have an even stronger rotation after most of the current crew has departed.

    I also think trading Strasburg now would be selling low. Maybe if he “bounces back” and has a great season next year they’ll pull the trigger since they’ll likely be in rebuilding mode for 2016 anyway, but right now because of public perception of Stras as a “bust” they might have difficulty getting the proper return for what we still consider a Top 20 arm.

    bdrube

    1 Aug 14 at 3:01 pm

  29. There is no argument that Stras is a good pitcher. And he strikes a lot of guys out. But… 6 innings per start taxes the bullpen too much. He lets up too many early runs (saving himself perhaps?), putting the team behind early. And his velocity is down.

    This good not great Stras seems to be the result of taking all measures to keep him healthy. Maybe other pitchers get hurt more by going into the 8th or by pushing for higher velocity. So, do we want to ride Stras to be great for a few years then risk injury or manage his pitching as we do now.

    Again, I was in the measured approach in 2012 but after seeing all these great pitchers go down with injury, I’m in the “use em up” boat now. I just really want to see Stras kicking butt again.

    Andrew

    1 Aug 14 at 3:04 pm

  30. bdrube – to replace them all internally, all of what you describe needs to work out. Maybe it will, hopefully it will, it just doesn’t often seem that it does with prospects. For me, I’d like to filter in 1 a year for a few years until they are turned over. Maybe Cole next year (for Stras, in my hypothetical), and then Gio or Fedde (or whomever you get for Stras) for JZ then next year. With Jordan and Treinen as depth/fill in starters.

    I hear you about JZimm, that seems right. But we just don’t know what Rizzo actually offered. He strikes me as guy that is always looking for below market deals, and I agree with you, JZimm isn’t giving him that. But 5/$110m seems market in AAV, maybe light in years. Would JZ bite on that? I’d hope that they at least try that one. If he wants to hold out for 6 years or longer, then I’d be ok letting him go for a comp pick.

    But while Fister is older, I think he might be worth a 5 year deal because (a) he is very athletic, (b) he doesn’t rely on velocity for his effectiveness, and (c) he has reasonably low mileage. This will sound crazy because he just got hurt again, but he reminds me a lot of Cliff Lee, who was very effective up to his recent injury at just short of 36. I think Fister will age well, and I think he probably signs a 5/$85m deal. I think that would be good value, and stability for the rotation. I like letting the kids break in without a lot of pressure to carry the team.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 3:21 pm

  31. Also, I don’t think trading Stras now would be selling low. I think that the fancy stats grade him highly, and teams use their own versions of it, so that they would place a pretty high value on his rate stats, which Todd showed to be very high. If my perception is wrong, then of course they shouldn’t trade him.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 3:24 pm

  32. Everyone take a good, long look at the very average haul that the Rays got for Price. Then take a deep breath. The Nats wouldn’t get that much for Strasburg. Take another deep breath. Never say never, but I can’t see the Nats trading him, at least not this off season. They’d be selling low, and they don’t have a high-impact replacement for him yet.

    There’s still a chance that Stras figures it out. How good that chance is, I don’t know. I still think he’s trying to be too fine this year, which accounts for the decreased velocity while trying to pinpoint pitches and for the higher walk rate. I had hoped that MW would be able to instill a little swagger in him, but his swagger level seems to have decreased. Teams used to fear him; now they know how to get in his head.

    However they figure in a potential playoff rotation, the seasons that Roark and Fister have had have been huge, both in terms of the results they have achieved, and in taking some of the pressure off Stras and Gio.

    Two more months to get it all figured out!

    (Don’t get me started about the bench . . .)

    KW

    1 Aug 14 at 3:36 pm

  33. I want to address the perception that somehow Strasburg isn’t going deep enough into games. He’s averaging 6.26 (just about 6 and a third) innings per outing. ONly guy on the Nats rotation doing better is Roark at 6.39. They’re ranked 33rd and 43rd among all qualified starters in IP/start, both at least in the upper-half of the league.

    But lets be honest here. There’s only 6 guys in the league who average more than 7ip/start. There’s only 15 guys averaging at least 6 2/3s per start.

    We’re far from Joel Hanrahan territory (aka, 100 pitches, 5 innings, 3 runs allowed, bullpen drain).

    Todd Boss

    1 Aug 14 at 4:03 pm

  34. I’ll stand down on the trading Stras talk because I like him and would like him to stay (was just suggesting a way to turn over the rotation without taking a big hit), but can’t resist one last comment. You can’t just look at the Price return in the abstract, you have to take contract into account. Price is making $13m this year and expected to get $20m next year. That is not only a big dollar cost to measure against performance, it eliminates a bunch of teams as possible trade partners. Stras is making $4m this year and, as we have said, doesn’t score well in the areas that arbitration still rewards. So does he make $7m and $11m the next two years? Maybe that’s light but he is still very affordable. So I think the better comparison is Samardzjia or even better, Lackey. Look what a 35 yr old with worse numbers brought back because he has a $500k option next year. Due to baseball’s extremely team friendly system, Stras is very valuable for two more years.

    Wally

    1 Aug 14 at 4:39 pm

  35. Todd, bittersweet moment that you’ve flipped your position on Strasburg; I have to say I was surprised that you were defending him up till recently. Expected you to draw the conclusion sooner. This is what bias and wishful thinking do to all of us.

    I think sabermetrics guys don’t believe in shutdown inning ERAs (just like they don’t believe in RISP BA). But I do think this is an issue for Strasburg and may reflect the lack of mental makeup. When he gets the lead, he starts taking chances with blowing hitters away with heaters, and gets hit. The run support explanation you provided is also interesting.

    The main stat that you had used to defend him is FIP. I do have my suspicion though – I think FIPs that doesn’t take into account ground / flyout %s are at best incomplete.

    Agree with most (if not all) qualitative points made by others (even those in support of Stras). However, not entirely convinced that trading him now will be underselling – that depends on your expectation of his lifetime performance.

    I think his best days are behind him: (a) his fb speed is more likely to decrease than increase; (b) mental makeup is unlikely to improve – don’t want to get into Freudian speculations, but I think superstars like Strasburg feed off success, but can’t deal with mediocrity or adversity. Stras, he is already in that vicious cycle.

    A last thought that I personally wish I didn’t have: when are we going to start having a similar discussion about Harper, if we haven’t already? I know you think he’s the best hitter in the team, but I doubt he has done anything to deserve it, other than via reputation and hype. A comparison of Harper against Trout and Strasburg is informative. My hypothesis is that Kershaw is to Strasburg just as Trout is to Harper. Hype, mental makeup, underachievement, early career injury, short-lived brilliance are key words here. I hope time will tell that I’m wrong.

    JC

    2 Aug 14 at 1:25 am

  36. If you measure Strasburg and Harper against Kershaw and Trout, you are pretty much doomed to disappointment. It’s ridiculous. “If he’s not one of the best players in baseball he SUCKS!”

    There are many, many HoFers (much less solid, “Hall of the Very Good” level players) who struggled early and went on to have long, excellent careers. Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays. Etc. Particularly for Harper, the rush to judgment is absurd. If you go to B-R and check “most similar players by ages” you will find a stack of HoF comps. I’m not saying that Harper or Strasburg are HoF players – that would be stupid. But to write them off – ESPECIALLY Harper – at this point is at least as stupid as proclaiming them HoF players.

    John C.

    2 Aug 14 at 10:18 am

  37. I agree John. I think Harper is fantastic. I think he is in a bad mental state this year with MW as manager and with his extreme bent toward the vets last night.

    On the ALR “triple” last night, ALR wasn’t running until the ball dropped. He was almost thrown out at first after it dropped. If that was Harper there would have been pitchforks. With ALR there isn’t even a whimper.

    We need to take cues from Harp playing with his hair on fire, put him in the 3 spot in the lineup and maybe centerfield. Let’s make him the example for the team rather than the pariah.

    Andrew

    2 Aug 14 at 11:05 am

  38. (Scrap first “last night”) in my post. Sorry!

    Andrew

    2 Aug 14 at 11:16 am

  39. John C – the question at hand is: what is our expectation for Strasburg? Todd used to write about how Strasburg is one of the best pitchers, which I agreed in 2010, less so in Sep 2012, and even less so by May 2013. The expectation, clearly, had been that he would be an ace, or a Cy Young at some point. Whether that expectation was ill-founded is a separate question. But we expected him to be one of the best.

    I’m not saying that Stras/Harp are not performing as solid players now – they are, but that’s beside the point. I’m also not saying that they suck just because they are not the best. I’m saying that they underachieved with respect to expectation so far, and will likely continue to do so. But underachievement is worse than sucking in baseball – contracts are negotiated based on what people expected of you, not based on what you actually achieved. Players are allowed to suck if they are paid low; but even crummy players are not allowed to underachieve.

    Will you be satisfied if Strasburg pitches like a solid #3 player for the rest of his career like he has pitched in the past few years? The answer, I would hope, is “no”; because he is expected to be much more.

    This is why I disagree with you and think that the comparison with Kershaw / Trout is appropriate. We expected Kershaw and Trout to be star players, and they delivered year after year. We expected Strasburg to be a star player as well; but other than occasional brilliance he generally choked and looked bad (e.g., saying that pitches were called from the dugout).

    Like I said, “Hype, mental makeup, underachievement, early career injury, short-lived brilliance are key words here.” Harper is 2 years behind Strasburg, so I’ll give him another 1.5 years before writing him off as one of the best. But nothing about him looks that promising right now. I can’t remember a player who died more times on the basepaths.

    JC

    2 Aug 14 at 11:27 am

  40. I’ve become a bit of a hater when it comes to Harper, so I never thought I’d start a sentence this way, but I think the Strasburg/Harper comparison isn’t fair to Harper. It’s not the years of service, but their ages that matter: early 20s versus mid 20s is a gulf in terms of development. The direct comparison of Harper to Trout is fair game, though.

    Watching Bryce Harper is fascinating to me, because he’s become a surprisingly polarizing figure for being so young. I’ve written this before and Todd has strongly disagreed with me: Bryce Harper is *not* the best power hitter on this team, because of the considerable gulf between potential and achievement. No doubt Harper has amazing potential, and it seemed to immediately manifest into achievement his rookie year, but he has been a disappointment since then. He was lost at the plate even before he got hurt this year, and he’s still lost up there. He’s an absolute liability on the base paths. And I am sick and tired of apologists blaming Matt Williams (of whom I am no particular fan) for Harper’s dumb decisions. Some people even blamed MW’s idiotic aggressive base running mantra for Harper’s head first slide that caused his injury. Horsesh*t. Harper makes bad decisions often, and he should own them: from splitting his head open by slamming his own bat against a wall to running face first into a wall in a situation that didn’t call for it. Had Trout done any of that? And I’m not singling out Harper here. I’m furious every time Zimmerman slides face first going for extra bases, because how many trips to the DL does it take before you modify your actions to benefit your team? And why openly campaign for Denard Span’s job? Whatever you may think of that trade, Span is on this team now and very popular in the clubhouse. Why tell the media that you want his job? Why tell the media that your manager’s lineup sucks, even if you were baited by a reporter and even if it’s true? And the way Harper is hitting, why should he be batting higher than 6th anyway? So he can fan in the 9th with a RISP, like he did last night? FWIW, I think Harper needs to shut up, bat wherever he’s slotted in the lineup, focus on his game, stay healthy, and make better decisions.

    As I said, it’s too early to call Harper a “disappointment” in the way that Strasburg seems to be. He’s still young enough that we need to give him a couple more seasons before we get to that point. Thus far, though, his on-the-field accomplishments are underwhelming, and his attitude is troubling.

    clark17

    2 Aug 14 at 2:02 pm

  41. Clearly I respectfully disagree Clark.

    There are a lot of base running gaffes of late on the team. Williams seems to be providing cover for the mistakes rather than coaching through them. We all know harp is young and over aggressive. MW was supposed to come in and mold Bryce. Instead they seem to hate each other. An enormous 21yr old talent needs coaching as pitchers adjust to him. Talent alone can’t hit papelbon.

    Andrew

    2 Aug 14 at 2:18 pm

  42. Agree with Clark fully, agree with Andrew too. I don’t think your views are that different.

    But this article is about Strasburg, so my apologies for the digression. I’m sure Todd will write up something about Harper at some point to agree / disagree with us.

    Another point about Strasburg – I don’t think he pitches well against the Braves. Certainly not this year, certainly not last year at Turner field. Drama like not being able to hit Atlanta batters or getting a heat stroke didn’t help.

    JC

    2 Aug 14 at 2:57 pm

  43. Yeah, and then he goes out and does that . . . and reminds us why our expectations are so high!

    KW

    3 Aug 14 at 4:39 pm

  44. Amazing performance and just what was needed today.

    Andrew

    3 Aug 14 at 4:41 pm

  45. Wally

    3 Aug 14 at 5:03 pm

  46. Maybe Stras read this thread and got motivated to show us up :)

    clark17

    3 Aug 14 at 5:09 pm

  47. OK, so obviously we need a Stras thread every fifth day!

    Now time to start the one on Gio . . .

    KW

    3 Aug 14 at 5:19 pm

  48. Thank goodness. If he can keep pitching like that down the stretch, the Nats ought to take the division comfortably.

    In other news, McOut developed a severe case of acute suckitus, and Souza has FINALLY been called up. Now if they’d just dump Hairston for Tyler Moore I’d have no more complaints, roster-wise anyway. :)

    bdrube

    3 Aug 14 at 7:38 pm

  49. JC et al; let me be more clear about what I think about Strasburg: I have adjusted my expectations of him downwards, but not nearly as far as you think. Calling Strasburg a “#3 starter” is ludicrus; he’s still among the best 15-20 pitchers in the game. What that means is that he’s still an “Ace,” but won’t be mentioned in the “best in the game” conversation any longer (or at least until something changes). Kershaw IS the best pitcher in the game right now and there’s not really anyone close (not even Felix). There’s absolutely an “inner circle” of guys who are getting it done at an amazingly high level (Wainwright, Kershaw, Darvish 3 quick names coming to mind) and Strasburg doesn’t fall into that conversation either.

    Loved yesterday’s performance; we were talking about his best “game score” games and suddenly he puts up one.

    Todd Boss

    4 Aug 14 at 9:09 am

  50. 2 quick thoughts on Harper; if he was playing “by the rules” he’d be starting his first pro season in short-A after finishing 3 years of college ball. He hasn’t even turned 22 and he’s finishing his 3rd season in the majors. That’s a historic, amazing accomplishment no matter how “good” you think he is.

    Harper’s lost in 2014. No more questioning it. Early in the season I absolutely criticized his positioning in the batting order. Now? Its less defensible. His OPS is down 140 points from last year; that’s a pretty precipitous drop.

    cclark: here’s the simple proof behind my saying that “Bryce Harper is the best power hitter on the team.” Here’s fangraphs stats going back to his debut season, cumulative, sorted by Isolated power (ISO). Harper #1, LaRoche #2, Zimmerman #3. It is a far closer leaderboard now than it was at the beginning of the season when I was calling out Harper’s batting order positioning, again thanks to Harper’s awful 2014.

    Todd Boss

    4 Aug 14 at 9:16 am

  51. fyi

    http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/50175/why-stephen-strasburg-isnt-yet-an-ace

    This is the Schoenfield article well timed with this Strasburg post. He has different but also highly illuminating numbers.

    Todd Boss

    4 Aug 14 at 1:20 pm

  52. Follow up on Strasburg’s excellent sunday outing: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/WAS/WAS201408030.shtml

    3rd best game score performance in his career.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 14 at 8:33 am

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