Stephen Strasburg’s game has improved in almost every area — except luck

With the starting pitchers turning in solid performances and the offense clicking, the Post Sports Live crew looks at whether the Nationals' road trip to San Francisco and St. Louis will be a good barometer for the team's status as a contender. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Of all pitchers to be overlooked and underrated this year, perhaps the last candidate you’d suspect would be Stephen Strasburg, the most heralded pitching prospect of his generation. But disguised under old-fashioned stats such as won-lost record (6-4) and ERA (2.99), newer baseball metrics say that the Nationals right-hander is having one of the best seasons in the game.

After beating the Giants on Monday, Strasburg ranks second in MLB in Fielding Independent Pitching, first in xFIP (FIP adjusted for a normal percentage of flyballs resulting in homers) and third in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with 2.6. The only other pitcher ranked in the top five of all three is Felix Hernandez of Seattle ,whose 8-1 record and low ERA attracts tons of attention.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Strasburg is also No. 1 in strikeouts per nine innings (11.13) and percentage of batters fanned (29.5 percent), and he is tied with Tampa Bay’s David Price for the best whiff-minus-walk percentage (a gap of 24.3 percent). He’s been durable, tied for first in starts, and is also second in SIERA (skill-interactive ERA, the stat for those who find FIP and xFIP “just so 2011.”)

Want more? Strasburg not only leads the National League in strikeouts, but if he keeps fanning men at his current rate, he’ll end the year with 270 strikeouts provided he starts 35 games, which he is on pace to do if he starts every fifth day the rest of the season.

Here is a partial list of notable pitchers who never had 270 strikeouts in a season: Hernandez (high of 232), Max Scherzer (240), Zack Grienke (242), Mark Prior (245), Clayton Kershaw (248), CC Sabathia (251), Don Drysdale (251), Bert Blyleven (258), Johan Santana (265), Tim Lincecum (265), Kerry Wood (266) and (drum roll) a pitcher Strasburg was often compared to: Justin Verlander (269).

The Post Sports Live crew debates where Ryan Zimmerman should play once Bryce Harper returns from injury – third base or left field? (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Just above 270, as potential targets for this or future seasons, are: Bob Gibson (274), Dwight Gooden (276), Yu Darvish (277), Tom Seaver (289) and Roger Clemens (292).

How can such a season be widely overlooked, especially because Strasburg is frequently criticized for not having a season like, well, the one he is actually having?

Because Strasburg has been baseball’s unluckiest pitcher this year. Balls batted into play tend to find holes in the defense in a manner that is fairly random. Over time, the batting average against almost every pitcher on “balls in play” is about .290. Pitchers with great “stuff” and high strikeout rates, such as Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Strasburg, usually have BABIPs (batting average on balls in play) that are lower than .290 because contact against them is often timid or weak.

This year Strasburg’s BABIP is .354 , the worst of any starting pitcher with enough innings to qualify. Will that bad luck continue? No. Or not for long. In ’12 and ’13 combined, Strasburg’s BABIP was (yup) .289.

Strasburg is, however, bedeviled by one element of the game: His defense has been awful behind him this year, and his performance at preventing runs after errors has been poor. He has allowed 10 unearned runs. Over his career Strasburg has a reputation for being easily rattled by mistakes — his own or others. Anecdotally, that seems to have improved this year. But the jury’s still out on poise.

The overall analysis of Strasburg this season is that he’s polishing almost every area of his game. In the past, he was poor at holding runners. This year, under Manager Matt Williams, the Nats have become the second-best team in baseball at preventing stolen bases. Only the Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina have done better. With improved moves to first base, Strasburg is part of that pattern, permitting four steals in six tries.

The big right-hander may no longer have the hottest fastball of any starting pitcher as he did as a rookie before Tommy John surgery. But he’s still in the top 10 and has compensated by improving his control so that he’s now 21st in baseball in lowest percentage of hitters walked.

Strasburg still has areas to improve. He fans so many hitters that he uses lots of pitches and averages just 6.24 innings a start. His curve and change-up (statistically the most effective change-up in ’14), are just too hard to hit to “pitch to contact.” Also, he has not pitched as well in “high leverage” situations. That may be a coincident statistic: His stuff may not be quite as good from the stretch, so jams can snowball on him.

Now on pace for approximately 218 innings, Strasburg has never before assumed a workhorse role, but Williams has adjusted the rotation to maximize Strasburg’s starts and “develop him as an ace.” How will Strasburg hold up? He left Monday’s game after 88 pitches mostly because the Nats had a 9-1 lead and partly because he had a tight muscle in his side.

His next two starts will probably be against two of the Nats’ main rivals, the Cardinals, against whom he has done well, and the Braves, who have given him trouble (3-5, 3.86 ERA in 13 starts).

Those games will be the next checkpoints on Strasburg’s progress toward being a genuine ace as well as a rough approximation of the dominating pitcher the sport has always expected he would become.

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