Stephen Strasburg has actually been much better this year than you think
On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg will face the Braves in Atlanta, fresh off the first complete-game shutout of his major league career. This past Sunday, the 25-year-old righthander thoroughly dominated the hapless Phillies, striking out 10, yielding just four hits and one walk and preventing any runner from reaching second base. He needed only 99 pitches, and went to a three-ball count four times. His 10-pitch battle with Darin Ruf, which ended in a strikeout, was the only time Strasburg needed more than six pitches against a single batter. Those 10 pitches were more pitches than he threw in the first, third, eighth or ninth innings, and as many as he threw in the fourth and seventh. Only twice did he need more than 11 pitches in an inning, throwing 16 in the second and 18 in the sixth.
Given his final pitch count, Strasburg’s performance qualifies as a “Maddux,” to use the evocative term coined by blogger Jason Lukehart for any pitcher who twirls a nine-inning complete-game shutout in fewer than 100 pitches. Its namesake, four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, accomplished the feat 13 times, the most of the pitch count era (1988 onward). Eight pitchers have pulled off the feat this year, including fellow National Jordan Zimmermann:
Even with the shutout, Strasburg’s season might be considered a dud if judged simply on the old-school basis of wins and losses, because he has just a 6-9 record. That antiquated accounting system should be cast aside not only in general, but specifically in this case, because it does not reflect his receiving an NL-worst 2.9 runs per game of offensive support, and conceals what has otherwise been a strong season, if not one that has lived up to preseason predictions of a Cy Young-winning campaign.
Thus far, Strasburg has pitched to a lower ERA than last year, and even after adjusting for unearned runs — for which a pitcher does bear significant responsibility, ancient accounting again to the contrary — has done a slightly better job of run prevention. Though he’s striking out fewer hitters per nine, he’s also surrendering fewer hits, walks and homers, throwing fewer pitches per plate appearance and going deeper into games. Thanks to better defensive support via a 50-point drop in batting average on balls in play (from .316 to .266), Strasburg is yielding one full hit fewer per nine innings, a bit of good fortune that helps to offset his lower strikeout rate. Because of the decreases in hits and walks — and thus batters faced — the drop of his strikeout rate isn’t quite as sharp as those per-nine rate stats suggest. He’s striking out 26.2 percent of all hitters this year, compared to 30.2 percent last year. Because he’s thrown more innings per start, he’s already equaled last year’s Wins Above Replacement total of 3.0.
In short, he’s been every bit as effective as Zimmermann, whose stats constitute the last line of the table below, but who has received 4.4 runs per game en route to a 14-6 record and a spot on the All-Star team, while Strasburg stayed home. Here’s how Strasburg stacks up the last two seasons and how he compares to Zimmermann this year:
Even having served a stint on the disabled list due to an oblique injury, Strasburg is 13 innings away from topping last year’s output of 159 1/3 innings, a total that was suppressed by his controversial late-season shutdown. No doubt there are critics of that decision who continue to relish both his lack of good fortune and that of the Nationals, who dared think beyond the season at hand. Despite a recent five-game winning streak and one of the league’s easier remaining schedules, Washington still has long odds to claim a wild-card spot; the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds have them at just 1.6 percent entering play on Friday.
As a result, this season is more likely to wind up as a failure for the Nats than a triumph. But Strasburg isn’t the one responsible for the offense’s nosedive from the league’s fifth-best to third-worst in terms of scoring, nor is he to blame for the mismanagement of injuries that kept Washington without some of its biggest bats for far too long. The blame for the team’s underachievement shouldn’t be laid at his feet.