Armchair Evaluation – Nationals Starting Pitcher Stephen Strasburg

Last Tuesday evening I was fortunate enough to appear on the Ball Hogs Radio Podcast to discuss some of the early trends with the Washington Nationals so far this season.  During the interview one of the hosts asked me about Stephen Strasburg and why he has struggled thus far in 2013.  I quickly pointed out that aside from the win-loss record, most of his statistics are still consistent with last season and things should correct themselves in short order.  Then the conversation quickly shifted to the value, or lack thereof, of the wins statistic.

Satisfied with my answer and confident his win total will improve in the coming weeks, I still began to ponder the question a bit deeper –  although his numbers are still impressive, why does Strasburg lack the aura of an Ace thus far in 2013.  With this question in mind, I decided to analyze Strasburg’s start Saturday afternoon at home against the Chicago Cubs to scrutinize one of the most talented starting pitchers in baseball and observe his overall development now 53 starts into his career.

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Saturday’s start was truly one of the more uneven outings you will ever witness, as Strasburg dominated the mediocre Cubs lineup through the first four innings, allowing only one hit and no walks against seven strikeouts while throwing only 53 pitches.  Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes to 10 of the first 13 batters he faced, often with his fastball which he was commanding well, then putting them on the defensive as he overwhelmed them with his curveball and changeup.  Quite simply, Strasburg had no-hit quality stuff through the 4th inning. 

However, in the 5th inning everything changed as Strasburg retired the first two batters before a Ryan Zimmerman throwing error unnerved the young pitcher.  After the error, Strasburg labored the rest of the inning, throwing 42 pitches and allowing four runs on four hits and two walks before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning.  His final statistics on Saturday consisted of five innings pitched, allowing four unearned runs due to the error, five hits and two walks against seven strikeouts.

Overall, Strasburg threw 95 pitches, 64 strikes and 31 balls, and by my numbers, he threw 62 fastballs (65.3%), 19 curveballs (20%), and 14 changeups (14.7%).  In addition, Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 21 batters he faced, induced nine pure swings-and-misses (9.5%) from Chicago hitters, and forced four groundball outs against only two fly outs for the game.  Strasburg’s velocity was also impressive, as he averaged 97.18mph on his four-seam fastball, topping out at 99.92mph, up from a 2013 season average of 96.39mph. (Thanks BrooksBaseball.net)

This start perfectly encompasses both the current strengths and weaknesses of Stephen Strasburg at this still relatively early point in his career.  When he is in rhythm as we saw through the first four innings, there might not be a more dominating starting pitcher than Stephen Strasburg, with his powerful high-90s fastball, nasty curveball, demoralizing changeup, and ability to throw all three pitches consistently for strikes. 

On the other hand, before we can properly label him an Ace, he needs to do a better job keeping his composure and picking up his defense behind him, as he has already allowed 8 unearned runs thus far in 2013.  For comparisons sake, the entire rest of the Nationals pitching staff has allowed 11 unearned runs all season.  Some of these results can be attributed to bad luck and should normalize during the rest of the season, but his inability to minimize difficult situations is something he needs to improve as he matures.

Finally, thus far in his relatively short career, Strasburg has never thrown a pitch in the 8th inning or later of a ballgame, a glaring weakness on his resume after 53 career major league starts.  Some of this is explainable because of the cautious way the Nationals have handled Strasburg so far, but his inability to limit his pitch count and pitch deeper into games is perhaps his final obstacle to becoming a truly elite, Ace-caliber starter. 

For the time being, we must remember Strasburg is still 24-years-old, with only 300.2 total innings of major league experience, and is still developing as a pitcher.  Considering his electric, jaw-dropping stuff, notable college pedigree including being the #1 pick in the MLB draft, and rapid rise through the minor leagues, everyone assumed Strasburg would be an Ace in the majors from day one.  As of today however, we should recognize that at this point in his career, Strasburg more accurately resembles an elite #2 starting pitcher, with the potential to dominate like an Ace and throw a no-hitter each time he takes the mound.  

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