Sunday, November 30, 2014

In Defense of Strasburg

I’ll be honest. I’m a Strasburg apologist. I was at his electric first game and think he is a victim of his own hype. While it feels like most Washington fans won’t be happy with Strasburg until he puts up a Kershaw type of year, I think 2014 marks a big turning point for Strasburg as a major league pitcher.

There is a school of thought (backed up by solid research), that all a pitcher can control are strikeouts and walks. Once the ball hits the bat, it’s all luck and physics and few pitchers have the ability to induce weak contact year in and year out (there is a caveat for groundball pitchers who can and do induce groundballs on a consistent basis). By this metric, Strasburg is elite. He has always been a strikeout pitcher, and 2014 was no exception. His strikeouts per nine innings pitched rate of 10.13 ranked 5th in the majors in 2014. His biggest improvement came in limiting his walks. While he never had an astronomical walk rate like some big armed young pitchers, he put up a 1.8 walks per nine innings in 2014, easily his best mark (excluding his injury shortened 2011 season). To put those numbers in context for you, I sorted through all starting pitchers in 2014 who pitched enough innings to quality for the ERA title. From those, I pulled all starting pitchers who walked less than 2 batters per nine and struck out over 9.5 batters per nine. That list gets you a whopping 4 pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, David Price, and Stephen Strasburg (i.e. reigning NL Cy Young, reigning AL Cy Young, former Cy Young winner, and Stephen Strasburg). That is pretty elite company.

Strasburg's peripheral stats have been surprisingly consistent over his career. In 2014, he did induce more swings at pitches outside of the zone than the last few years. He didn’t up his strike outs much with this change (it’s difficult to strike out more people than he already does) but that would indicate to me that he is doing a better job setting up his pitches to fool batters into swinging outside the zone, presumably limiting hard contact. Oddly, though, that doesn’t show up in his 2014 results. In fact, his BABIP in 2014 was .315, notably higher than the MLB average of .295. What really hurt him in 2014, though, was the long ball. Historically he only allowed about 0.8 home runs per nine innings, right around league average. In 2014, though, he gave up a much higher number of long balls (a career high 23) at a rate of 0.96 per inning. Both of those rates are typically out of the control of the pitcher and we would expect them to regress to league average over the long haul. So, while his 3.14 ERA in 2014 was 25th best in the majors already, had he gotten league average batted ball luck, he would have done much better. His 2014 FIP of 2.94 bumps him up to 13th best in the league. By xFIP, which calculates his FIP at a league average rate of homeruns, he was 3rd best in the league at 2.56. 

Strasburg came into the league lighting up the radar gun, hitting 100 in most every game. He still throws his fastball around 60% of the time, but his average speed is down from 97 in his first year to 95. Although there was some concern early in the year about this velocity, he has actually been sitting around 95 since his Tommy John surgery, so I don’t think we have a Justin Verlander situation just yet. Strasburg’s offspeed pitches are some of the best in the league, with his changeup being nearly unhittable. Against the curve, batters hit only .215 and slugged .313. Versus the change up, they fared even worse, hitting .155 with a slugging of .226. He really started to utilize his changeup more in 2014, throwing it 20% of the time. While it’s easy to say he should throw his off speed pitches more (in fact, 44 of the 65 extra base hits he allowed in 2014 were off the fastball), it’s not so easy to know that the extra curves and change ups would perform as well as they did as hitters would adjust and start expecting the offspeed.

One criticism levied against Strasburg is that he self implodes, folds under pressure. There are obviously a lot of ways to define that, but I took a look at how Strasburg pitched with the bases empty versus runners in scoring position in 2014. He pitched almost identically in both situations. With the bases empty, hitters put up a .234/.275/.375 triple slash versus .230/.294/.352 with runners in scoring position. Now, those are some small sample sizes, looking at just 2014, and on the average pitchers perform slightly worse with runners on due to the holes created by the shifted defenders. At least in 2014, though, it doesn’t appear that Strasburg cracked under the pressure of runners in scoring position. 

One area that Strasburg still struggles in, though, is controlling the running game. It was actually one of the major items that the Nationals brass stressed to Strasburg during his time in the minors. He experimented with a new stretch move this year in hopes of cutting down on the steals. That didn’t really work as runners were successful stealing against him at about the same clip in 2014. 

Based on these numbers, I think Strasburg is set up for a monster 2015. His higher than average BABIP and HR/9 hid a top 10 2014 performance, and those are numbers that seem likely to regress back to league average in 2015. I think he is really learning how to pitch a game rather than relying on his blazing fastball and wipe out off speed pitches to fool batters on their own. It is something that takes a while for young pitchers to learn, especially ones who had such dominant stuff in college and zipped through the minors at a faster than average pace. As Strasburg learns to control his stuff, he is only going to get that much harder to hit.

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