Stephen Strasburg is a Postseason God

In 2012, Stephen Strasburg didn’t pitch for Washington in the postseason after being shut down due to injury concerns. He did make his playoff debut in 2014, and in one start gave up two runs in five innings while striking out just two with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. It wasn’t a great start to his postseason career, but since that outing, Strasburg has been incredible. He made two starts against the Cubs in the NLDS in 2017. He went seven innings in the first one, striking out 10 and walking just one while giving up two unearned runs in a loss. In an elimination game later that series, Strasburg again went seven innings, this time striking out 12 against two walk and no runs in a Nationals victory. That 2017 NLDS gave everyone a taste of what Strasburg could do in the playoffs, and this year, he’s putting together one of the greatest postseason runs of all time with a chance to keep the Nationals title hopes alive tonight.

Strasburg first appeared this postseason in a season-saving relief outing in the Wild Card game in which his three shutout innings kept Washington within range before the offense could make a comeback and advance to the NLDS. Against the Dodgers in the next round, he struck out 10 batters in six innings with no walks and just one run to keep the Nationals from going down 0-2 in the five-game series. Then, in his only blip of the postseason, Strasburg gave up three runs in the first two innings of the deciding game against the Dodgers, but he allowed no runs over the next four as the Nationals won in 10 innings. He shut down the Cardinals with 12 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings in the third contest of a four-game NLCS sweep. Finally, in the second game of the World Series, Strasburg outdueled Justin Verlander and threw 114 pitches in six difficult innings to hold the Astros to two runs.

In this year’s postseason, Strasburg has thrown 28 innings, struck out 40 batters, and walked just two, one of which was intentional. He’s given up six runs, but just three have been earned. Strasburg’s 1.96 ERA lines up neatly with his 1.93 FIP while his ERA- and FIP- match up at 43. The ERA- and FIP- are useful when comparing pitchers across eras, as run-scoring environments throughout baseball history have not always been consistent. Both figures are excellent for Strasburg, but that FIP- is one of the greatest postseason totals ever. For pitchers with at least three starts and 25 innings in a single postseason, Strasburg’s mark of 43 is the fourth-best in history.

Best Single-Season Postseason Pitching Peformance
Player Year IP FIP FIP-
Bob Gibson 1968 27 0.72 30
Cliff Lee 2010 35.2 1.42 32
Josh Beckett 2007 30 1.64 39
Stephen Strasburg 2019 28 1.96 43
Curt Schilling 2001 48.1 1.97 44
Randy Johnson 2001 41.1 1.98 44
Cliff Lee 2009 40.1 1.91 44
Bobo Newsom 1940 26 1.99 45
Adam Wainwright 2013 35 1.73 46
Danny Jackson 1985 25 1.92 48
Christy Mathewson 1905 27 1.41 49
John Lackey 2013 26 1.93 50
Roger Clemens 2000 28 2.35 50
Pitchers with at least 25 IP and three starts

Creating an innings limit makes it more difficult for pitchers with fewer rounds of playoffs to make the list, but that didn’t prevent Gibson’s masterful performance in 1968 from coming out on top. Lee was incredible for the Rangers in a losing cause back in 2010 (and the Phillies in 2009) while Beckett helped the Red Sox to a title more than a decade ago. Of the pitchers on that list, the two highest innings were teammates, as Johnson and Schilling dominated on the way to a championship for Arizona in 2001.

Straburg’s ERA- isn’t quite as impressive considering his mark of 43 ranks 28th all-time out of the 155 seasons meeting the criteria. What is incredibly impressive is Strasburg’s great totals in both ERA and FIP. Of the 155 individual playoff seasons, only 58 have both an ERA- and FIP- at 75 or below. Here’s how those 58 seasons look by ERA- and FIP-.

To even make it up on that graph, a pitcher has to have pitched a truly great postseason. The lower left quadrant represents the best of the best, and that’s where Strasburg resides. Only seven pitchers before this year have put up both an ERA- and a FIP- below 50 in one postseason. Strasburg has a chance to become the eighth with another great game tonight. Even if we simply average ERA and FIP, Strasburg still looks very good.

Best Single-Season Postseason Pitching Peformance
Christy Mathewson 1905 27 0 1.41 0.71 0 49 24.5
Josh Beckett 2007 30 1.2 1.64 1.42 26 39 32.5
Curt Schilling 2001 48.1 1.12 1.97 1.55 25 44 34.5
Danny Jackson 1985 25 1.04 1.92 1.48 25 48 36.5
Waite Hoyt 1921 27 0 2.99 1.50 0 73 36.5
Bobo Newsom 1940 26 1.38 1.99 1.69 30 45 37.5
John Smoltz 1996 38 0.95 2.46 1.71 22 56 39
Randy Johnson 2001 41.1 1.52 1.98 1.75 34 44 39
Mike Mussina 1997 29 1.24 2.35 1.80 28 52 40
Cliff Lee 2009 40.1 1.56 1.91 1.74 37 44 40.5
Stan Coveleski 1920 27 0.67 2.38 1.53 17 65 41
Bob Gibson 1967 27 1 1.65 1.33 30 53 41.5
George Earnshaw 1930 25 0.72 3.34 2.03 15 69 42
Bob Gibson 1968 27 1.67 0.72 1.20 56 30 43
Stephen Strasburg 2019 28 1.93 1.96 1.95 43 43 43
Lew Burdette 1957 27 0.67 2.42 1.55 19 69 44
Steve Avery 1991 29.1 1.53 2.11 1.82 40 54 47
Hippo Vaughn 1918 27 1 1.64 1.32 35 60 47.5
Cliff Lee 2010 35.2 2.78 1.42 2.10 63 32 47.5
Orel Hershiser 1995 35.1 1.53 3.07 2.30 32 66 49
Orel Hershiser 1988 42.2 1.05 2.32 1.69 32 68 50
Greg Maddux 1996 37 1.7 2.66 2.18 40 60 50
Pitchers with at least 25 IP and three starts

Strasburg sits at 28 innings right now, but with another good start, he’ll have more than all but four of the players ahead of him in the table above. Most of those gains remove the pre-division era pitchers, as getting more than 30 innings in just the World Series is extremely difficult, but pitching this many good innings at the end of a long season in the most pressure-packed situation against a couple of the best offenses in baseball history is incredibly impressive.

As for how Strasburg will fare tonight, there’s little reason to think he won’t be just as effective as he’s been all year with the caveat that anything can happen in one game. Last week, Strasburg pitched with roughly the same strategy he used all season. He went to the sinker and curve a little bit more when behind in the count and he used his change a little bit more when he got ahead, but he mixed his four pitches pretty close to equally just as he has all year. Strasburg rarely left his change in the middle of the plate, but a middle-middle offering to Alex Bregman scored the only runs Strasburg gave up.

We saw Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton get worse and better, respectively, after seeing Houston twice in a short period, so there’s little reason to think that last week’s outing will have a great effect on this one. Any pitcher going out in Game 6 of the World Series is pitching for history, but Strasburg has a chance to cement himself among the all-time greats when it comes to a single-season postseason performance.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

“As for how Strasburg will fare tonight, there was little reason to think he wouldn’t be just as effective as he’s been all year. But then I wrote this article, and Strasburg taking the loss is now the inevitable outcome of Game 6.”

3 years ago
Reply to  Ryan21

Why Craig, why?

Hey, every once in a blue moon the SI Jynx gets beaten. Why can’t it happen to the Fan Graphys Jynx?

3 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Strasburg stronger than the Fan Graphs curse.