Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 Season Review: Stephen Strasburg

There is no bigger enigma on the Nationals roster, perhaps even in baseball, than Stephen Strasburg. The former first overall pick has overpowering stuff that translates into dominate outings, only for Strasburg to follow those outings up with a clunker of a performance. He has battled various injuries from the serious, Tommy John surgery, to the ambiguous, tightness in his back. Strasburg’s 2015 will likely go down as a disappointment to most Nationals fans based on his early struggles. However, that may not be an accurate assessment of his season.

Without peeking, take a second to guess Strasburg’s ending ERA. Remember all those horrible outings in the first of the year, all of those starts cut short due to ineffectiveness and injury? Does a 3.46 ERA sound right? It probably doesn’t but that’s where Strasburg ended the year, a full half a run better than the league average starting pitcher. Granted, Nationals fans probably aren’t happy with an above average output from Strasburg. They expect, and often times demand, an ace. Well, measuring by FIP, an advanced stat that strips out batted ball luck, Strasburg was ace like as he notched a 2.81 FIP.

That’s a large discrepancy. Usually, such a big difference between ERA and FIP can be attributed to bad luck. But that’s not necessarily the case with Strasburg. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) in 2015 was only slightly higher than league average at .311. In fact, Strasburg has 4 seasons of BABIPs over .300 (where the league average tends to sit year over year). What that indicates is something that Nationals fans probably already know: Strasburg gives up hard contact. For that reason, Strasburg’s FIP may very well always be lower than his ERA. His huge strike out numbers will always reflect positively by FIP, but if he continues to give up hard contact when he can’t force a strikeout, his ERA will continue to be inflated.

Getting back to 2015 specifically, though, is really a tale of two halves. Due to the various ailments during the year, Strasburg started only 23 games and pitched only 127 innings. Those innings were split almost nearly in half between the first half of the year and second: 61 innings in the first half and 66 in the second. And those two halves couldn’t have been more different. Over the first half of the season, Strasburg was quite possibly the worst starter in the majors. Over the second, however, he was arguably the best.

Let’s start with the ugly first half. For some, the analysis needn’t go any further than Strasburg’s 5.16 ERA. That’s an ERA that is painful to look at and, digging deeper, that was no fluke of a first half. Strasburg fully earned that ERA. His strikeout rate dropped to 23%, slightly above league average but easily his lowest strikeout rate of his career had that been maintained over the full season. On top of that, his walk rate jumped to nearly 7%. At first glance, his BABIP allowed of .355 screams regression and bad luck, except his line drive rate allowed spiked to 25% and was closer to 30% over the first couple months of the season. Strasburg allowed a hard hit rate during the first half of the year of 30%. Strasburg was struggling to strike people out and was getting hit hard.

There was something different about Strasburg’s individual pitches as well. The swinging strike rate on his three most used offerings, his fastball, curveball, and change up, all dropped significantly. His power change up, possibly Strasburg’s best pitch, saw the biggest drop of 13 percentage points as the whiff rate was down to only 15%. The fastball and curveball didn’t fare any better as batters hit an impressive .306 and .283 against those offerings, respectively. Strasburg’s velocity was still high at 95-96 MPH on his fastball, but it wasn’t fooling anyone during the first half of the season.

After some time on the DL, though, Strasburg returned to the mound in the second half of the season as a whole new pitcher. Remember that impressive second half from Jake Arrieta that earned him the Cy Young? Well, Strasburg’s half season was almost as impressive as he posted a microscopic 1.90 ERA. His strikeout rate gained the ground it had lost, and then some, jumping to 37%. The walk rate mirrored that, dropping to 3%. Strasburg was no longer getting hit hard, with his line drive rate falling to 20% and the hard hit rate down to 27%. That resulted in a batting average allowed of only .177. The individual pitches returned to their impressive norms as the swinging strike rates on each of his pitches improved, especially that change up which got whiffs over 28% of the time during the second half of the season. Not only was Strasburg striking people out at a high clip again, he was no longer being hit hard.

Of course, this has sort of been the MO for Strasburg during his time as a National; moments of brilliance followed by disappointment. His struggles in the first half of 2015 can’t be thrown out, of course, but he was clearly struggling with some health issues and those results should probably be discounted when compared to the rest of his career.

Nationals’ fans will probably continue to doubt Strasburg until he puts up a season that forces them to reconsider. Based on the second half of the season, that breakout year might be 2016. Don’t take my word for it, FanGraphs and ESPN baseball analyst Eno Sarris recently examined how to identify Cy Young winners in advance. Over the last 5 years, the Cy Young winners have averaged an age of 28 years old. In the season leading up to their Cy Young year, the award winners have seen a noticeable improvement in both their walk rates and strike out rates. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly where Strasburg improved in the second half of 2015, not only on his first half but on his career marks as well. On top of that, Strasburg will turn 28 during the 2016 season. For those reasons, Sarris tabbed Strasburg as his bet for breakout Cy Young candidate in 2016.

Doubt that analysis if you want. But from my from my viewpoint, the one thing standing in Strasburg’s way is health. Don’t forget about another National who was only a few years removed from being the top draft pick, struggled with injury, and was written off by some (most) as being overrated. Bryce Harper was able to put it all together once he was healthy. Strasburg has the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in the game. If he’s healthy, he just may prove that in 2016.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman
Danny Espinosa
Yunel Escobar
Bryce Harper
Michael A Taylor
Jayson Werth
Gio Gonzalez
Max Scherzer
Tanner Roark
Joe Ross

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