Diagnostic Testing: Stephen Strasburg

By August 25, 2014MLB

Analysis by Michael Clifford

It was the best of times, it was the Twitter of times.

I love Twitter. It’s a way to spread my work (however limited the spread may be), it’s a way to connect with fellow fans or writers, and it’s a way to discuss ideas. It’s also a way for some people to revise history.

Yesterday, Stephen Strasburg had his worst home start of the year (by Bill James’s Game Score), giving up five earned through four innings, bringing his season’s ERA up to 3.59 for the season. It was at that point that Twitter went into partial meltdown.

I think there are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding Strasburg’s season, so let’s clear a few up.

This Bomb Of A Season Was Not Predictable

Strasburg, if the season were to end today, would end up with his worst ERA (3.59), FIP (3.14), and WHIP (1.20) of his young career. There wasn’t much to indicate that this would be the case, so let’s go through some numbers:

  • From 2010-2013, Strasburg was third in baseball in FIP (min. 75 starts) at 2.79, trailing just Clayton Kershaw (2.70) and Cliff Lee (2.78). This led to Strasburg being seventh in baseball over that stretch in ERA (2.96) behind the two guys mentioned, Jered Weaver, Johnny Cueto, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez.
  • From 2010-2013, Strasburg was fourth in baseball in WHIP (min. 75 starts) at 1.07, behind Kershaw, Lee, and Weaver.
  • From 2010-2013, Strasburg was second in baseball in K/9 (min. 400 IP) at 10.44 K/9, behind only Yu Darvish.

Which of those numbers would indicate a 25-year-old pitcher blowing up in 2014?

Let’s look at some more recent history:

  • Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Strasburg was seventh in FIP (min. 50 starts) at 3.03, trailing Kershaw, Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, Lee, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer. He had a better FIP than guys like Zack Greinke, Darvish, Madison Bumgarner, and Cole Hamels.
  • Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Strasburg was sixth in baseball among regular starters (min. 50 starts) in WHIP, behind Kershaw, Lee, Weaver, Bumgarner, and Matt Cain. He had a better WHIP than names like Price, Sale, Scherzer, Hernandez, Wainwright, and Hamels.
  • Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Strasburg was third in baseball among regular starters (min. 50 starts) in K/9 at 10.2, trailing only Darvish and Scherzer.

In fact, that only real indicator that Strasburg hasn’t ranked among the elite over the 2012-2013 campaigns was K/BB, as he was just 13th in baseball in that regard. Considering how elite he was everywhere else, and that 13th out of 80 pitchers is about the top 15-percent of the league, I don’t think it was really a strong indicator.

Should there be some preseason “Don’t draft Strasburg because he’ll be worse than Lance Lynn” articles I missed, feel free to send them my way. I don’t remember seeing any, and I can’t find any. There’s a reason why 72 fantasy “experts” ranked Strasburg inside the top-15 starting pitchers this year, it’s because he’s pretty fucking good.

What’s Gone Wrong

Now that we’ve established those saying “of course” are revising history worse than Kim Jong-un, it’s time to look at what’s actually the problem.

Batted Ball Rates

The short answer is that there’s some bad luck going on. Here’s a look at Strasburg’s 2014 season compared with his 2012 season, his worst season outside of this year:

     2012       2014
GB% 44.2 45.2
FB% 33.1 31.4
LD% 22.7 23.4
H/9 7.7 8.8
HR/9 0.8 1.1
BB/9 2.7 2.1
K/BB 4.1 5.05
BABIP .311 .328

The big takeaway is that his batted-ball rates are pretty much identical. There’s nothing that got significantly better or worse, so it’s curious that his hit rate has grown 12.5-percent and his home run rate by 27.3-percent. If he were somehow getting worse as a pitcher, some sort of aberration in his batted ball rates would be a place to start. There are none.

Velocity Drop

Strasburg has seen his velocity drop over his career, but it’s not a flashing red sign like some might expect. Here are Strasburg’s average fast ball velocity rates over the last few years:

       2012        2013       2014
        95.7        95.3       94.6

So Strasburg has dropped 1.1 MPH on his fast ball over the last couple of seasons. It’s not like it’s a terrible mark, though. In fact, among qualified pitchers, he’s tied for fifth in baseball, with better velocity than Jeff Samardzija, Chris Archer, and David Price.

Also, it’s not like a velocity drop is unnatural for a pitcher settling in to his career. Justin Verlander had a similar drop-off from 2010-2012 and 2012 was one of the best seasons of his career. King Felix did as well, from 2010-2012, and he’s probably the second-best pitcher in baseball today. Some were freaking out over David Price’s velocity drop from 95.5 in 2012 to 93.2 this year – which is twice as severe as Strasburg’s – and he’s a top-5 fantasy starting pitcher on the season.


His ISO against heat maps have changed dramatically, as hitters are tomahawking that middle-up pitch well (source: Brooks Baseball):

strasburg ISO against 2014

Also, the down-and-in pitch to rightys is getting crushed, something that hadn’t happened before this season:

ISO against vs RHH (2010-2013)

ISO against vs RHH (2010-2013)

ISO against vs RHH (2014)

ISO against vs RHH (2014)

There’s a chance that Strasburg hasn’t adjusted to the league as the league has adjusted to him. Over a span of four years, going down-and-in turned MLB right-handed hitters into Yunel Escobar circa 2014; going down-and-in this year has turned MLB hitters into Sammy Sosa circa 2001.

Let’s not forget what Strasburg was for a few years: One of the best, and most consistent, pitchers in baseball. There hasn’t been a change batted ball rates, there hasn’t been much velocity drop (certainly not enough to be concerned), and there’s nothing to indicate that this season is more than a blip, an adjustment year.

Strasburg might not figure it out this season, but that will make him a good value at the draft table in 2015

*As always, thanks to Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball for their resources

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