As a rookie in 2010, Stephen Strasburg turned in an amazing 68 innings of baseball. He struck out 33% of the batters he faced, posted a 2.91 ERA, and recorded an even better 2.08 FIP. Alas, it wasn’t to last: his season was felled by an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Seven years later, he’s putting up his best numbers since that debut season. This season, if nothing else, has underscored a point that’s often ignored: Stephen Strasburg has already had a pretty good career.
Often, we focus on the negative — or, at the very least, allow our enthusiasm to create expectations that are unlikely to be fulfilled by reality. In the case of Strasburg, a highly touted former No. 1 pick, there’s been plenty of room for such expectations — or there has been for me, at least. In my head, I’m often overly critical of Strasburg, because he’s an injury risk. He’s only tossed 200 innings in a season once, and he only reached 180 innings in one other season. And yet, in his last outing, he passed the 1,000 innings pitched mark for his career. He’s one of just 1,219 pitchers who have done so, out of 9,366 players who have pitched throughout history. That’s just 13% total to have reached 1,000 IP, and Strasburg is among them. Not bad for a guy who’s always injured.
When Strasburg put up 2.5 WAR in those 68 innings back in 2010, you’d be forgiven if you thought a string of five-win seasons were about to follow. He’s never quite gotten there. His best was a 4.5 WAR in 2014. He might have gotten there last year, as he compiled 3.9 WAR in 147.2 IP. But alas, elbow trouble limited his contributions once again. But while he’s never reached the 5 WAR threshold in any given season, he’s tallied at least three wins in five straight seasons, and he’s working on his sixth this season. That sort of consistency is hard to pull off. For instance, the only other pitchers who tallied at least 3 WAR in each season from 2012 to 2016 were Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. And while those six pitchers averaged 1,060 IP across those five seasons, Strasburg tossed just 832.1 IP, making him far, far more efficient in his consistency.
For his career, Strasburg is now up to 25.1 WAR. This ranks him 417th all time (again, out of 9,366) and 251st out of 6,111 in the Integrated Era (1947-present). He’s basically had Trevor Hoffman’s career, except Strasburg has to face the same batters two, three, and sometimes four times an outing, whereas Hoffman sometimes wouldn’t even need to face four batters in an outing.
Plenty of very good pitchers didn’t make it to 25 WAR: Ron Darling, Denny McLain, Johnny Sain, Ralph Terry, and Kerry Wood to name a few. And Strasburg has accumulated some non-WAR achievements that also speak to his talent. This season, for example, he’s become one of just 51 pitchers all time to strike out 10 or more batters in 30-plus games. Pitchers like Kevin Brown, Ron Guidry, Walter Johnson and Greg Maddux never reached that mark. His 1,173 strikeouts already rank him 361st all time; that’s more than Dizzy Dean, Dock Ellis, Don Newcombe, or Brandon Webb.
We could probably do this with more stats. The bottom line is that, now, at 25-plus WAR, Strasburg has had a good career. And this season is shaping up to be his best yet. The only National League pitcher who has been better is his teammate Max Scherzer, and only Chris Sale and Chris Archer have been better in the American League.
Strasburg has been great at limiting home runs, having allowed just 0.67 per every nine innings. It’s the best mark of his career, and one of the best in baseball this season — ninth best, to be precise. Statcast indicates that Strasburg has allowed a lower percentage of 95-plus mph exit velocity batted balls this season. He’s also getting the highest percentage of ground balls since the 2013 season, and he’s allowing line drives at his lowest rate since ’13, as well. His IFFB% is also the second-best mark of his career, his highest since 2015. While he isn’t setting career bests in terms of walk and strikeout rates, he is getting weaker contact, and that has been a recipe for success.
This is probably related to the fact that, while batters have the same swing rate against Strasburg as last season, he is getting far more swings out of the strike zone, and far fewer in it. While it’s close, his out-of-zone swing rate is currently a career best. Add it all up, and you have a pitcher who is capable of getting swings and misses whenever he wants, but who is getting better at where to place his pitches. Observe:
That’s 2016 on the left, 2017 on the right. It doesn’t look like a huge difference, right? But you can see less dark blue in the corners, and we see that the Swing% in the three horizontal middle squares of the strike zone has dropped from 25.2% to 24.3%. That one percentage point difference may not seem like a lot, but given how few opportunities hitters have to really square up Strasburg, getting hitters to redistribute those swings out of the middle is noteworthy.
Stephen Strasburg has been maligned by injuries his entire career. But he’s persevered. When he takes the mound, you can expect a good performance, even if he doesn’t log 35 starts per season. He’s blown past the estimate that Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright made in the 2013 THT Annual that a pitcher would average 650 innings between his first and second Tommy John surgeries. He’s at 936.1 since his surgery and still going strong. Obviously, he could turn up with elbow problems sometime soon, and see his season go up in smoke yet again. But if he does, we can at least appreciate the fact that Strasburg has had a good career, and has escaped “cautionary tale” territory. Heading into his start tonight, Strasburg’s 65 ERA- is easily the best mark of his career, and his 65 FIP- is best since that ill-fated rookie campaign. And if he can stay healthy, he may just make his age-28 season his best season yet.