Stephen Strasburg: This Could Be the Year

Success is often best measured relative to expectations. I am a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan. Rich Kotite is one of the few coaches in Eagle history to finish with a career record over .500; Chip Kelly is another. I watched Kotite coach; he very well might have been the single worst head coach, in any sport, whom I have ever had the pleasure to watch. While most coaches are hired to take over foundering or rebuilding clubs, Kotite had taken over Buddy Ryan’s exceedingly young and talented club, coming off of three consecutive playoff appearances. He torched it in record time, then had a dire run with the Jets.

In an offbeat kind of way, Stephen Strasburg is a baseball equivalent of Rich Kotite. Though he has compiled a 54-37 record and 3.09 ERA — and produced a scintillating 901/192 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in 776.2 career innings — most would agree that he has failed to accomplish as much as expectations would have suggested. Kotite went nowhere with a young, three-time playoff Eagles’ team that he inherited from the fired Buddy Ryan; Strasburg, meanwhile, has only received Cy Young Award votes in one season, finishing ninth in the 2014 balloting, to cherry-pick one piece of data.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is quite likely the year that Strasburg’s perfect storm could engulf the National League. And the timing would be quite fortuitous, given the amount of cash a fully actualized Strasburg could command on the free market, as he enters free agency following the 2016 season.

Coming out of high school, Strasburg was a heavy-set, if talented, young hurler who had some maturing to do. He received only middling interest from pro clubs, so it was an easy decision for him to accept a scholarship offer to San Diego State, not exactly the typical baseball factory.

I first laid eyes on Strasburg in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a summer circuit which basically serves as the junior varsity to the nearby Cape Cod League. That’s right… Stephen Strasburg was not enough of a “guy” to go to the Cape following his freshman college season. Everything changed that summer in the NECBL.

His body was improving, on its way to the classic pitcher’s frame that we see today. And oh, the raw stuff. He now was a fire-breathing, mid-to-upper-90s-throwing monster with a power curveball and a developing feel for a changeup. I was the Assistant Scouting Director for the Brewers at that time, and was keeping tabs on future draft classes, not just the immediately upcoming one. In the summer of 2007, Strasburg jumped to the head of the class on my 2009 list — and, I’m certain, on many of my colleagues’ lists, as well.

Fast forward to the 2009 draft, when I had moved on to the Seattle Mariners, the proud owners of the #2 pick in the draft, thanks to a last-series sweep of the Nationals at the end of the 2008 season. We scouted Strasburg, now a Scott Boras client, hard, but ultimately knew it was a futile endeavor. Barring something completely unforeseen, we would never have a shot at the hurler who might have gone first among all pitchers selected during the draft era.

Strasburg’s road to the big leagues was a quick one; he made only 20 minor league starts, and a handful of those were of the injury rehab variety. Like many young flamethrowers, he was temporarily diverted by Tommy John surgery. Unlike most, he came back arguably better than ever. Fortunately for him, his injury occurred after his major-league arrival, allowing him to accumulate service time during his rehab, not delaying his eventual massive free-agent payday.

Per inning, his ability to maximize strikeouts and minimize walks is about as good as it gets: a 10.44 K/9 and 2.22 BB/9 certainly work for me. What then, has prevented him from ascending to the very top rung of MLB hurlers? Volume of innings pitched is one factor, but not the biggest one. If you have read my previous work here, you’re aware that I often focus on pitchers’ contact-management ability. Today is no exception.

To get a better feel for what Strasburg has already accomplished, and where he might be headed, let’s examine his plate appearance outcome frequency and relative production allowed by BIP type information. First, the frequency data:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequencies, 2015
Metric % REL PCT
K 29.6% 147 96
BB 5.0% 67 12
POP 4.9% 168 88
FLY 29.4% 98 45
LD 23.4% 111 89
GB 42.2% 92 27

First, Strasburg’s K/BB excellence jumps right off of the page. Possessing a K rate in the 96th percentile and a BB rate in the 12th certainly gives him significant margin for error with regard to contact management. His K rate percentile rank has always been that good, drifting within a narrow band between 95 and 99 over the last four seasons. The BB rate improvement is a more recent development; it was actually slightly worse than league average until 2014, when his BB rate percentile rank plunged to 21.

The one clear negative aspect of Strasburg’s frequency profile is his high liner-rate allowed, in the 89th percentile. Generally, liner rates fluctuate more than those of other BIP types, though there are some hitters and pitchers who display true talent, or lack thereof, in this area. Unfortunately, high liner rates have been a calling card of Strasburg’s over the years: he posted marks of 92 and 63 in this area in 2012 and 2014. When hitters manage to make contact, it tends to be of the squared-up variety.

On the positive side, one has to like that high pop-up rate (88 percentile rank). Pop-up rates do correlate fairly strongly from year to year, and though this marks his third straight year with an average or better pop-up rate, his previous high was a 55 percentile rank. If this sticks, it is a major breakthrough, an addition of more automatic outs in addition to the scads of strikeouts he generates.

Strasburg has never developed a clear fly-ball or ground-ball tendency in his still young career. In 2013, he drifted toward the grounder side (81 percentile rank), though that was the one year he allowed a much lower than average liner rate. He might not need to specialize in one or the other to reach his prodigious ceiling, however: just cut those liners to a manageable level and maintain the newly found pop-up tendency, and that’s plenty good enough.

Frequencies only tell us so much, however. To get a better line on Strasburg’s contact-management ability, we have to gauge the authority he has allowed. His relative production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data serves as a strong proxy for his authority management:

Relative Production Allowed by BIP Type
Metric AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.192 0.615 121 130
LD 0.625 1.042 98 97
FLY + LD 0.473 0.892 115 115
GB 0.313 0.357 153 97
ALL BIP 0.339 0.540 113 102
ALL PA 0.233 0.271 0.370 77 71 3.46 3.07 2.81 2.79

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation. One quick note here: I have presented this type of analysis many times, but only recently have I begun to show fly ball and line drive line items both separately and combined.

Based on the raw production numbers, Strasburg allowed more than average damage on fly balls and liners combined (.473 AVG-.892 SLG, 115 Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores), and on the ground (.313 AVG-.357 SLG, 153 Unadjusted Contact Score). Clearly, Strasburg was very unlucky on the ground last year: after adjustment for context, his grounder Adjusted Contact Score is actually a tad better than average, at 97.

On all BIP types combined, context reduces his well worse than average Unadjusted Contact Score of 113 to a near average 102. Let’s take a step back into his past here. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, Strasburg’s Adjusted Contact Scores were 113, 98 and 115, respectively. The one better-than-average mark in that group was solely due to a dramatically low (7 percentile rank) liner rate. Strasburg has clearly demonstrated a pattern of below-average contact management over the years.

In that regard, 2015 represents a breakthrough, and it’s largely due to the development of his pop-up tendency. It made him an average contact manager, and with such exceptional K-BB upside, that’s really all he needs to be. Adding back the Ks and BBs makes him a significantly better-than-average pitcher, with a 2.79 “tru” ERA, much better than his actual mark (3.46) and closely in line with his FIP (2.81). Though he still has some work to do on the quantity side, this places him fairly high on the quality spectrum among NL starters, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Madison Bumgarner.

And how good could he be if can lick his high liner rate problem? Both his K and BB rates were over a full standard deviation better than league average last season. This gives him a 81.2 K/BB Contact Score multiplier, which applied to his Contact Score, gives a strong estimate of his true-talent ERA moving forward. An average contact score of 100 means that he’s an 81 “tru” ERA- guy; that is exactly his career ERA- to date. Maintenance of his newfound pop-up tendency combined with a reduction of his liner rate to the average range can move him into the 90-95 Contact Score area, with upside above that, moving him into the Cy Young discussion.

Stephen Strasburg, very quietly, has honed four above-average pitches, his four and two-seam fastballs, along with his curve and changeup. None are the overwhelming knockout offerings that a couple of them once were, but this diverse repertoire makes him quite a difficult pitcher against whom to game plan. His career swinging-strike rate is 11.3%, and his 2015 mark was almost exactly that, at 11.2%. He may never truly match the steep expectations placed upon him at the beginning of his career, but the stars do appear to be coming into alignment for a clear step up in class. That has a chance to make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball a year from today.

We hoped you liked reading Stephen Strasburg: This Could Be the Year by Tony Blengino!

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willl
Member
willl

It’s funny that being merely the 14th best pitcher in baseball over the past 4 years can be considered a disappointment.

And yet, he has been. Being a fan of the Nationals, I’ve watched him enough, and there’s just something missing with Strasburg. He’s such a pleasure to watch, as he’s genuinely better than all but maybe 3 other pitchers, but he lacks the mental fortitude that the likes of Scherzer, Kershaw and even Zimmermann possess, and as a result it’s what has made him much more comparable to Zimmermann than to Kershaw.

JCCfromDC
Member
Member
JCCfromDC

Funny, I’m a Nats fan and I think that if the “hothouse flower” reputation had any arguable standing in his first couple of years it hasn’t really been true for a while. But the narrative is set and is very hard to shake. He’s like the anti-Zimmermann in that regard with many Nats fans: if JZ toughed his way through an outing, it further underscored what a “bulldog” he was. When Stras does it, no one notices. Or they praise him in the post-game chatter – but by the next start have forgotten it again. Conversely when JZ melts down in adversity (and it happened a fair amount of times last season, no one notices. Because JZ is perceived as unflappable, it must not have been his fault. Because Strasburg is perceived as (for lack of a better term) flappable, it’s always his fault for not “rising up” and “having his teammates back.”

It’s like Ryan Zimmerman once noted about Strasburg: “He’s the worst best pitcher I’ve ever seen.” Zim meant it as a slam at the critics, not Strasburg.

willl
Member
willl

A pretty simple way to measure “toughness” or the ability to battle through starts is IP/start. Even if we ignore Stras’ shortened 2012 season, and just look at the last 3 seasons, he’s one of the worst at getting the most out of his starts.

He averages 6.03 IP/start

Other comparable SPs (top 20) fared quite a bit better:
Zimmermann: 6.33
Arrieta: 6.40
Bumgarner: 6.70
Verlander: 6.48

It seems to suggest Strasburg doesn’t as often persevere through adversity.

Gfuzz
Member
Gfuzz

And we’re sure that this doesn’t have more to do with the way his pitch counts have been managed due to injuries? One of the years you’re referencing was subsequent to TJ surgery and last year he was bouncing on and off the DL all year, including at least a couple of very early exits due to injury.

willl
Member
willl

No, Strasburg underwent TJ in 2010. He returned for a short spell in 2011, then pitched with some limitations in 2012.

In 2013, he was essentially given free reign. Then Nats manager Davey Johnson was even quoted as saying, “I think Strasburg is going to be elated that he has no restrictions.” This is why I intentionally only looked at from 2013 onward.

Paul22
Member
Paul22

Expectations were much higher for him. Injuries have hurt. He might have a contract year in him but I would be wary about signing him to Price or Greinke years and dollars