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.
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?