Opening day is rapidly approaching and Davey Johnson has named his starter. Perhaps there was some doubt about the matter, with Gio Gonzalez worthy of consideration, but in the end the nod went to Stephen Strasburg. It’s only fitting that we open the analytical portion of this blog with Strasburg, and we’ll discuss three topics: workload, performance and adjustments.
Workload: Managing expectations
As noted by Adam Kilgore, Strasburg wants to work deeper into games, saying, “You look at some of the top pitchers in the game, they go at least 110 every time out.”
A more accurate statement would’ve been: “You look at Justin Verlander, the top pitcher in the game, and he goes at least 110 most of the time.” In this era of baseball, 110-pitch starts are not the norm, even for the top pitchers, outside of Verlander.
Percentage of 110-pitch* starts in a single season 2009-2012, minimum 20 starts
*sometimes PITCHf/x misses a pitch, so it is possible we are under-counting a bit — not by much, if at all
That’s six seasons out of 498 checking in at more than 62 percent. There are just 14 seasons with a 50 percent mark or higher. Verlander is the only repeat offender on the leaderboard, sticking out like the pitching freak he is.
Since 2009, 175 pitchers have made least 40 total starts. For this group, the median 110-pitch start percentage is around 12 percent. Thirty percent puts someone inside the top 20.
Percentage of 110-pitch* starts 2009-2012, minimum 40 starts
Strasburg checks in at 4 percent, tied with Vin Mazzaro for 147th place. The Mazzaro/Strasburg comparison stops there. Still, let’s set some realistic, yet ambitious, expectations. If Strasburg makes 10 starts of 110 pitches or more this season, it will be noteworthy.
Patience is in order — Verlander was 26 when he first became an elite workhorse, while Weaver carried his load at age 28. Strasburg is 24.
Performance: Elite company
Even if Strasburg can’t be considered an inning eater yet, there’s no doubt he’s expected to perform at an elite level. In a blog post about the challenge of comparing projection systems, Tom Tango compiles some projections and compares Strasburg to the other elite pitchers.
Tango compared projected ERAs from the top three non-Strasburg pitchers to Strasburg’s projection. All but three systems estimated Strasburg’s 2013 ERA to be lower than the combined ERA of the other three. The “other” three varied a bit from system to system. Check out Tango’s blog to get all the gory details.
The percentages are Strasburg’s projected ERA relative to the “other” top 3. Values of less than 100 percent indicate Strasburg is projected to beat the top 3.
93% Bill James
98% Bloomberg Sports
101% Mitchel Lictman
106% Ron Shandler
115% Clay Davenport
Lictman projects Strasburg’s ERA to be 2.67 and Shandler has him at 2.93. Davenport’s estimate of 3.46 sounds high, but consider he has the top 3 at 3.03. Pencil him in for a top 5 ERA.
Adjustments: Front-door change-ups
Two of Strasburg’s last three Grapefruit League starts were covered by MLB.tv. Let’s go back to the March 6 outing when he struck out six Phillies in less than four innings of work.
The victims: Michael Young, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Lance Nix, John Mayberry and Nix once more for good measure.
Starting off the plate and coming back in through the front door is a favorite pattern for two-seam fastballs, but pitchers are generally loathe to throw their off-speed pitch inside when working against the platoon advantage.
There was some discussion on Twitter about this, including one note about Strasburg not throwing lefties inside change-ups in 2012. A quick check of the numbers confirmed it.
Catcher’s view; pitches away from left-handed hitters are on the left, inside on the right. (Source)
The chart is available at the source in a “normalized” form as well. It shows that Strasburg is less likely than the average right-handed pitcher to go inside with a change-up against left-handed batters. He really likes to start it over the plate and let it move down and away, which is a common approach.
Now he’s trying something new. We don’t have strike zone data for these spring games, so we’ll use good old-fashioned screen grabs to illustrate the quartet of third strikes Strasburg unleashed in the early innings on March 6.
All four pitches were strike three; one looking, the rest swinging. All were change-ups that came through the front door.
No. 1: Utley swinging, 1st inning – dropped out of the zone like a rock
No. 2: Howard swinging, 2nd inning – higher in the zone but had nasty movement
No. 3: Nix looking, 2nd inning – fooled him once
No. 4: Nix swinging, 4th inning – fooled him twice
Those last two are my favorite.
We’ll return to adjustments another time. Perhaps the most fascinating issue we’ll explore will be Strasburg’s desire to tighten up the movement on his sinker. We’ll need a good dose of 2013 PITCHf/x data to tackle that.