Strasburg’s Return and a Thumbnail Guide to the Majors’ Most Improved Rotations

The 2020 season couldn’t have been much fun for the Nationals or Stephen Strasburg. In the wake of their World Series victory over the Astros, the team sputtered out of the gate, while Strasburg, the MVP of that World Series and a newly-minted $245 million man via his opt-out and re-signing in December 2019, was limited to two starts before undergoing late August surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel neuritis.

On Tuesday, Strasburg took the mound for his first Grapefruit League appearance — against the Astros, coincidentally, albeit a much different team from the one he faced in the World Series, with Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel the only starters in both games. The 32-year-old righty threw 38 pitches, had good command of a fastball that reportedly sat at 93 mph and ranged from 91 to 93 (he averaged 93.9 mph in 2019, via Statcast), and retired five out of the six batters he faced. He struck out four, including Correa looking at a high fastball to end the first, Kyle Tucker looking at a fastball in the second, and Gurriel check-swinging at a low curveball.

These descriptions come from the Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty and will have to do, as there was no television or Trackman for the game. The Nationals’ Twitter account did celebrate Strasmas by posting a press box-level video of the four strikeouts:

Dougherty additionally reported that Strasburg’s fastball topped out at 93 mph during the first inning and sat 91–92 according to the stadium gun, and that Strasburg “spiked a handful of changeups in front of the plate and couldn’t quite spot it,” which the pitcher himself later attributed to “throwing into a straight crosswind” and to the general tendency for the pitch to take longer to hone every spring. Strasburg was pleased with his fastball command, though:

As with Shohei Ohtani and David Price — the astute reader may be detecting a theme to my recent work — Strasburg’s outing was just the latest of many hurdles cleared after a notable absence, offering reasons to exhale after months of concern and anticipation and reasons to hope that things are back to normal (at least on the mound if not [broad gesture at everything] beyond it). The real proof of that won’t come for weeks or months, but a promising start is a promising start.

With Strasburg’s return on track, the Nationals project to have one of the majors’ top rotations, and one of its most improved relative to last year. That makes sense qualitatively and has quantitative grounding as well, particularly given the scarcity of four-win pitchers on the free-agent market or elsewhere. Strasburg averaged 4.2 WAR from 2012 to ’19 and ranked seventh among all pitchers in WAR during that span (33.2) despite reaching the 30-start threshold just three times and qualifying for the ERA title (162 innings) just four times. He topped out at 5.9 WAR in 175.1 innings in 2017 and had nearly as strong a season (5.6 WAR) in 209 innings in ’19.

Without Strasburg, the Nationals’ rotation slipped from second in the NL in WAR in 2019 (22.0) to 12th (3.0); within all of MLB, their ranking slipped from fifth to 23rd. By ERA, their NL rank slid from eighth (4.28) to 13th (5.09), and by FIP they fell from third (4.14) to tied for 13th (5.02). The slide wasn’t all on Strasburg: The FIPs of Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez both increased by more than a full run, and Patrick Corbin’s rose by two-thirds of a run. With Joe Ross opting out of the season due to health concerns, the team couldn’t come up with anything close to a reliable fifth starter (a description that has only intermittently applied to Ross himself), as both Austin Voth and Erick Fedde were tarred and feathered, with FIPs in the mid-6.00 range. Pair that with an offense that got above-average production from just three spots (Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and the catching tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes), and you’ve got a recipe for a 26–34 season and an offseason that started early even given the expanded field.

But in 2021, Strasburg is back, Sánchez is gone, Jon Lester is here (now minus one of his parathyroid gland), and Scherzer and Corbin are presumably better rested after throwing over 200 innings between the regular season and postseason in 2019. The unit projects to rank fifth in the majors in WAR via our Depth Charts at 15.1 WAR, about two wins below a closely bunched top tier that includes the Padres, Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees, who range from 17.3 to 16.9.

In an attempt to compare last year’s actual rotation performance with this year’s projections and highlight potential improvements and falloffs on a team-wide level, I threw the aforementioned Depth Charts projections (as of Tuesday) into a spreadsheet with last year’s totals and rates. Because we’ve got only 60 games from last year to work with, I prorated those WAR totals, albeit on a per-inning basis rather than simply multiplying by 2.7. Here’s how it shakes out:

Rotation 2021 Projections vs. 2020 Performance
Team 2021 IP 2021 WAR 2020 IP 2020 WAR WAR Dif
BOS 837 11.0 246.0 0.5 9.3
WSN 890 15.1 298.0 2.5 7.6
DET 826 9.7 237.3 0.9 6.6
TOR 829 12.2 255.3 1.8 6.4
ATL 818 12.6 251.7 2.0 6.1
TEX 797 10.4 287.3 1.9 5.1
ARI 870 10.3 291.3 1.9 4.6
PIT 806 7.4 283.0 1.2 4.0
KCR 887 10.3 275.7 2.3 2.9
CHW 886 13.4 287.7 3.6 2.3
NYM 896 17.0 278.3 4.7 1.9
STL 886 11.5 279.7 3.1 1.7
LAD 863 17.1 276.3 5.0 1.5
LAA 873 11.1 270.7 3.1 1.1
NYY 889 16.9 295.3 5.3 0.9
COL 846 10.1 320.3 4.1 -0.7
MIA 848 10.0 273.3 3.6 -1.2
SDP 872 17.3 286.0 6.1 -1.3
TBR 811 10.3 258.0 3.7 -1.3
OAK 828 10.6 307.0 4.7 -2.1
SFG 828 10.5 279.7 4.3 -2.2
HOU 850 10.6 312.7 4.9 -2.7
BAL 795 5.9 267.0 3.0 -3.0
SEA 856 11.2 304.0 5.1 -3.2
MIL 809 12.3 288.7 6.3 -5.4
PHI 875 13.0 311.0 7.0 -6.7
MIN 851 11.8 282.3 6.3 -7.2
CHC 864 8.2 325.0 5.8 -7.2
CLE 841 11.1 349.7 7.9 -7.9
CIN 831 13.2 311.3 8.2 -8.7

The projections are the product of two different systems — Steamer and ZiPS — which have an unavoidably noticeable gravitational field that pulls players and thus teams towards the center due to regression. The projections also contain our manual estimates for how many innings each starter will throw. As such, this has several hundred assumptions built into it, most of which won’t be exactly right and some of which may be far off, but here we are. By this methodology, the Nationals’ rotation projects to improve by the full-season equivalent of 7.2 WAR over last year’s performance, the majors’ second-largest gain.

The team with the largest projected gain is the Red Sox, but where the Nationals appear to be a top-five corps, Boston’s bunch merely projects to rank 17th — a rebound from the team’s dead-stinking-last ranking last season, but a modest one. Without Eduardo Rodriguez or Chris Sale, the team’s starters were flat out dreadful, so part of their improvement comes with returning them to the fold, albeit in conservative fashion, with 152 innings for Rodriguez, who missed the season due to COVID-19-related endocarditis, and 86 innings for Sale, who’s working his way back from Tommy John surgery and isn’t likely to return before June or July. The addition of Garrett Richards and the clearing out of the deadwood that took more than half of last year’s 60 starts is part of the improvement as well. Anyway, the Sox should at least be competitive again with this upgraded lot; they’re projected for 84 wins, with a 32.7% chance at making the playoffs.

Elsewhere among the top five gainers, for the Tigers, blue-chippers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, both of whom got their feet wet last year, still rate as top prospects (Nos. 32 and 22 on this year’s Top 100 list, respectively) and figure to take their lumps, but not to the degree that they did last year. The bigger boost comes from a more serviceable projection for Michael Fulmer than last year’s ungodly 8.78 ERA and 6.91 FIP, which he turned in over the course of 10 shortened starts while working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

The fourth-largest projected gain belongs to the Blue Jays, whose standing here is riding upon reasonable bouncebacks by Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark, and Ross Stripling, all of whom had a lot of ugly ERAs and FIPs starring large numbers like 6, 7, and 9. In fifth are the Braves, who have added Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, will get Mike Soroka back from an Achilles tear that limited him to three starts, and should receive substantial work from Ian Anderson, who sparkled in 51 innings split between the regular season and postseason.

At the other end of the spectrum, the projections say that Ohio’s monopoly on elite starting pitching is about to end. Cincinnati and Cleveland not only produced the two leagues’ Cy Young winners (Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber) but also led their respective leagues in starting pitching WAR. The Reds, who lost Bauer to free agency, nonetheless project to rank seventh overall, albeit with significant regression from Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle plus hopes for a rebound from Wade Miley and a smooth transition to the rotation for Michael Lorenzen. Cleveland, which traded Mike Clevinger late in the year, comes in at 16th due to heavy regression projected for Bieber (it’s tough to maintain a 1.63 ERA and 2.08 FIP!) and Zach Plesac and some growing pains for Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill, though the team’s track record for turning out starting pitching above and beyond projections may mitigate that.

Dropping off only slightly less, and ranking 28th in our overall rotation projections, is the Cubs, who dealt away Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish, replaced the fading Lester with the fading Jake Arrieta, and generally project poorly because their rotation alternatives don’t miss many bats, though the team’s strong defense and the continued ability of Kyle Hendricks to outpitch his peripherals should help. Tied with the Cubs are the Twins, who nonetheless project for 12th overall, down from an impressive fifth in the majors in 2020 WAR. Losing Jake Odorizzi via free agency isn’t such a big deal given how little he had to do with that due to injuries; their drop here owes mainly to regression from Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda, plus uninspiring projections from newcomers J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker.

Ranking fifth in terms of projected dropoffs is the Phillies, who placed third in the majors in rotation WAR yet somehow missed the playoffs and nonetheless still project to rank eighth. Honestly, this one’s probably not much to worry about given that the most substantial loss to their corps was Arrieta, though they could have stood a better upgrade than the returned-from-Japan edition of Matt Moore.

Whither the Padres, who added Darvish and Blake Snell and project to have the majors’ top rotation? They’re doomed by this methodology because they actually didn’t have much room to improve, ranking sixth in the majors in rotation WAR due in part to strong performances by the departed Zach Davies (now a Cub) and the injured Clevinger. The other factor keeping them in the middle of the pack here is the low likelihood that Dinelson Lamet can maintain last year’s 2.09 ERA and 2.48 FIP, though some of that is offset by expected improvement from Chris Paddack.

Likewise, the Dodgers project to have the majors’ second-best rotation thanks to the addition of Bauer to an already strong corps, but it’s worth noting that they only placed 11th last year. As I noted in Tuesday’s piece on the return of Price, they reined in their starters, particularly postseason stud Walker Buehler (36.2 innings). Los Angeles ranked just 21st in innings, with no Dodger making more than 10 starts — and two that did, Dustin May and Julio Urías, averaging less than five innings per turn — or qualifying for the ERA title. Worth noting is the impact of the Dodgers’ defense, which contributed to the majors’ largest ERA-FIP gap among rotations, -0.82 runs.

I could go on for hundreds if not thousands more words in this context, but I’ll save that for the writers who have the Starting Pitching Positional Power Rankings, which will run later this month. A couple more teams do bear mention, but first, a table showing the year-to-year ERA and FIP changes, which I left out of the table above because it was a bit much to digest.

Rotation 2021 ERA/FIP Projections vs. 2020 Performance
Team 2021 ERA 2021 FIP 2020 ERA 2020 FIP ERA Dif FIP Dif
NYM 3.70 3.82 5.37 4.21 -1.67 -0.39
DET 4.76 4.80 6.37 5.53 -1.61 -0.73
ATL 4.10 4.11 5.51 4.98 -1.41 -0.87
WSN 4.27 4.23 5.38 5.17 -1.11 -0.94
LAA 4.51 4.59 5.52 4.78 -1.01 -0.19
SFG 4.25 4.22 4.99 4.18 -0.74 0.04
BOS 4.64 4.48 5.34 5.50 -0.70 -1.02
TEX 4.83 4.81 5.32 5.06 -0.49 -0.25
ARI 4.62 4.61 5.04 5.12 -0.42 -0.51
OAK 4.30 4.51 4.49 4.27 -0.19 0.24
TOR 4.40 4.46 4.55 4.90 -0.15 -0.44
NYY 4.10 4.15 4.24 4.19 -0.14 -0.04
KCR 4.64 4.66 4.70 4.91 -0.06 -0.25
MIA 4.27 4.38 4.31 4.48 -0.04 -0.10
PIT 4.75 4.76 4.74 5.29 0.01 -0.53
SEA 4.44 4.58 4.41 4.29 0.03 0.29
MIL 4.24 4.24 4.18 3.69 0.06 0.55
HOU 4.34 4.50 4.26 4.25 0.08 0.25
BAL 5.26 5.41 5.09 5.06 0.17 0.35
SDP 3.68 3.75 3.46 3.71 0.22 0.04
PHI 4.37 4.38 4.08 3.75 0.29 0.63
STL 4.19 4.35 3.86 4.55 0.33 -0.20
LAD 3.67 3.82 3.29 4.11 0.38 -0.29
COL 5.22 4.84 4.83 4.88 0.39 -0.04
CHW 4.27 4.42 3.85 4.61 0.42 -0.19
TBR 4.32 4.39 3.77 4.25 0.55 0.14
CIN 4.29 4.32 3.50 3.47 0.79 0.85
CHC 4.72 4.74 3.77 4.02 0.95 0.72
MIN 4.49 4.51 3.54 3.75 0.95 0.76
CLE 4.53 4.52 3.17 3.64 1.36 0.88

I’m presenting this as ranked by the largest ERA decreases to highlight the expected gains for the Mets, who owned a honking 1.16-run differential between their ERA (5.37) and FIP (4.21), which wasn’t just the majors’ largest in 2020 but the largest for any team season in our splits, which for this go back to 1974. Much of that owed to a defense that ranked 27th in defensive efficiency (.668) and 22nd in DRS (-22 runs). The addition of Francisco Lindor and the subtraction of Robinson Canó should help, though — stop me if you’ve heard this one — their third base and outfield defense remain concerns. Nonetheless, the additions of Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker, plus the departure of Matz and the returns of Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard help push the team to third in our rotation projections (of course, having projected WAR leader Jacob deGrom helps a wee bit there too). Also notably high in the rankings via this look, though more modestly improved via FIP and WAR, are the Angels via the return of Ohtani and the additions of José Quintana and Alex Cobb.

The caveats attached to this type of look aren’t insubstantial, and not just because these projections hate your favorite team; they don’t, but it’s not always easy to see through the system’s quirks and limitations. At this date, clubs have yet to reckon fully with the inevitable injuries that force late-spring decisions as to who will start the year on the sidelines or in the minors/alternate sites. The bubble wrap is off previously injured pitchers like Strasburg, but we’ll soon see which ones can withstand the regular work.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Jasper Franciscomember
1 year ago

The Padres look pretty mediocre here after their wild off-season.

1 year ago

They are projected for the best WAR, best FIP, and second best ERA in 2021. Huh?

1 year ago

You have a wild definition of mediocre

1 year ago

Did you not read the article? The part where he specifically addressed the Padres??

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago

I think he looked at the top on the second table and saw the Mets then went all the way down to the Padres and saw a similar Era. He then said to himself “Wow they are not much better than the METS!” So clearly he is not a regular reader of this site.

Jason Bmember
1 year ago

“Jasper Francisco” is Trevor Bauer’s new online identity