Forgotten Due to Hype: Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg*All stats were gathered before gameplay on June 29th, 2014

Stephen Strasburg has finally evolved into the ace that scouts and fans predicted he would become; however now that he’s made the transformation, nobody seems to be paying attention. When the right hander was selected 1st overall out of San Diego State, scouts were seeing Cy Young awards galore. He was easily the most hyped pitcher in the history of the draft which lead some to wonder if he would skip the Minor Leagues entirely. As we all know, none of that happened, and Strasburg was dealt a serious blow in 2010 when he tore his UCL, requiring season ending Tommy John surgery.

In 2014 however, Strasburg is pitching at an elite level but isn’t seeing the same results in other statistical categories. Click the read more tag at the bottom to see why you shouldn’t be panicking (for now) about the Nationals pitcher.

*For the following graphs, I’ve only included the last 3 years of his career as those have been the only seasons in which he threw more than 100 innings.

While Strasburg’s ERA currently sits at 3.70, don’t let that figure fool you as the peripherals all look incredible. So far in 2014, Strasburg’s FIP is 2.76, while his xFIP sits at 2.62. Both of these marks are well above what is considered excellent, and show us that Strasburg has been a great pitcher all year. Essentially what this means, is that he’s been unlucky, and may have suffered from subpar defense. Both of these statistics point to his ERA coming down for the rest of the season, so you shouldn’t worry about the fact that his is closer to four than it is to three.

In addition to his outstanding FIP/xFIP, Strasburg’s SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) also points to the fact that his ERA doesn’t accurately reflect just how good he’s been this year. In 2014, he owns a SIERA of 2.69; the lowest of his last three seasons. The only other starting pitchers that have a lower SIERA than he does are Felix Hernandez, David Price and Masahiro Tanaka; and of that group, only Strasburg and Price have an ERA higher than 3.6. They are also the two with the highest BAbip’s, which is no coincidence (something I’ll talk about later in this article).

Moving on, let’s take a look at Strasburg’s SwSt% in 2014. The median SwSt% for qualified starters this season is 8.9%, while Strasburg’s sits at 12%. Not only is this the best rate of his career, but it also ranks him 5th in MLB, behind Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, Ervin Santana and Tyson Ross. His high SwSt% has also helped him in the strikeout department as he’s 6th in MLB for total K’s, and currently leads all starters in K/9. Missing bats is clearly not a problem for Strasburg, which begs the question, what is? Everything I’ve showed so far points to the fact that he’s an elite pitcher, but for some reason he doesn’t have the ERA to reflect it. Obviously ERA is not the end-all-be-all statistic of the pitching world, but fantasy owners everywhere know just how important it is, and must surely be wondering what the reasons for this spike have been.

The problem for Strasburg this year has been BAbip. While MLB average rests around .300, his 2014 BAbip is very high at .356, compared to his career rate of .302. Simply put, Strasburg has been very unlucky, (something that his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all suggested), which has also lead to a career low in LOB%. When a pitcher has a high BAbip, it’s common to see their LOB% suffer as well; which makes perfect sense if you think about it. If hitters are getting on base at a higher than normal rate, it stands to reason that some of those hits would come in situations with runners on base; leading to a lower LOB%.

While all the stats for 2014 point to a huge reduction in Strasburg’s ERA, I’m going to suggest that you refrain from jumping up and down with excitement. For 2014, and even 2015, it looks like Strasburg will remain an ace, and someone you should target for your fantasy team, but I’m concerned about what the future holds for him.

Since breaking into the league in 2010, Strasburg’s fastball velocity has been decreasing steadily, and is showing no signs of slowing down. After looking at this graph, and with all the data we have at our disposal, it’s hard not to worry about what type of pitcher he’ll be over the next five seasons. In late May, writer Charles Heuring highlighted Verlander’s diminishing fastball velocity, and it bears a striking resemblance to that of Strasburg’s. While his FB velocity of 97.6 MPH was higher than anything Verlander ever possessed, the slope of both graphs are not trending well. What’s particularly troublesome is just how much Strasburg’s fastball velocity has decreased from only last season. As it stands, he’s already lost .9 MPH from his age 24 season to his 25th. This is certainly something to keep track of as the season progresses as it could continue to drop over the next 3 months. For context Verlander’s worst season drop-off was 1.2 MPH (His age 31 season), and Lincecum’s was 1.8 MPH (His age 28 season). While it’s expected for pitchers to lose fastball velocity over the course of their careers, it’s odd that it’s happening so soon for Strasburg. There are some pitchers, Felix Hernandez for example, who have been able to adapt to their reduced velocity without missing a beat, but there are far more who never change and become mediocre pitchers as a result. It’s too early to tell how Strasburg’s career will progress, and as of this moment there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to adapt.

My prognosis for Strasburg in the immediate future is great. All of his peripherals look amazing, and he’s pitching some of the best baseball of his career. However it may not be long before we look back at his 2012-2014 stretch and put the “what if” tag on the young righty. With any luck, Strasburg can figure out a way to maintain his FB velocity for a few more seasons, but with all the data from recent pitchers, that seems unlikely. For those fantasy owners out there, don’t worry about him at all and stick with him for the rest of the season. He has 6 wins and 12 quality starts thus far, and with the ERA projecting to come down soon, Strasburg will start becoming the fantasy ace you need for a deep playoff run.