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:
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:
|Metric||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||FIP||TRU ERA|
|FLY + LD||0.473||0.892||115||115|
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.