Correction: A previous version of this column said the Boston Americans won the World Series in 1904.
In a sense, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are the Washington Nationals. “Follow the money” is a simple method, but it works. In 2015 and 2016, respectively, those two pitchers signed contracts worth a combined $385 million. Their pay is guaranteed. The Nats’ results aren’t. The degree to which those two hurlers are healthy and able to pitch their best in September pennant races and October playoffs will frame the franchise’s immediate future for three years and perhaps as many as five.
How good is Scherzer? And how good is Strasburg when he isn’t hurt?
This ain’t no darn stats column. But when it comes to these guys, we need a couple of tools. Give me one paragraph, please.
Advanced metrics have tried for years to understand “the underlying skill level of the pitcher” once you eliminate the ability of his defense, the element of batted-ball luck and normalize the ratio of flyballs that become home runs. Two of the most widely used such stats within the game are Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA). FIP largely ignores balls hit in play; SIERA tries to incorporate them. Every elite pitcher shows up near the top in both.
Over the last five years, here are the top three in FIP and SIERA among pitchers who have appeared in every season: Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. In that order. On both lists.
That’s why the Nats paid them $385 million. That’s why the Nats can win a World Series, with all the usual sane caveats, in the next three years, when both are certain to be in D.C., or the next five if Strasburg doesn’t use his opt-out clause after the 2019 or 2020 seasons. After all, teams have been winning Series with crucial one-two pitching punches from the 1903 Boston Americans — Cy Young and Bill Dinneen — to the 2016 Chicago Cubs — Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
Oh, you can get to the World Series without a pair of aces. You can even do it without one. Current Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux built a Texas Rangers starting staff that reached both the 2010 and 2011 Series with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis as “aces,” plus contributions from Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Scott Feldman, Alexi Ogando, Tommy Hunter and your Uncle Frank from Fargo.
I wouldn’t put it entirely past Maddux to win a pennant with either Scherzer or Strasburg, but not both, if he got the best out of Tanner Roark (eighth-best ERA in MLB since he arrived in 2013), Gio Gonzalez (17th in MLB in FIP since he became a Nat) and impressive 23-year-old Joe Ross.
But that’s not how the Nats want to do it. Every team constructs its future with a best-case scenario. Then you work backward as harsh reality dictates. And best-case for D.C. is for Scherzer to stay healthy — in the past five years he is 89-34 while Kershaw is 79-32 — and for Strasburg to figure out how not to get maimed.
Because Scherzer’s seven months of problems with a stress fracture of the knuckle on his ring finger may, knock on wood, be solved, the focus will be on Strasburg. If the Nats could cryogenically freeze him and thaw him out on Labor Day, they probably would.
With hindsight, it has become clear that the only time anybody does much damage to Strasburg is when he is about to reveal an injury. His performance deteriorates for a few starts, then the underlying cause is discovered and he goes on the disabled list. From June 23, 2015, when he came off the DL, until Aug. 1, 2016, he had 33 starts — a typical full season’s worth.
The Nats went 29-4 in those games. Strasburg was 23-3 with a 2.30 ERA.
You forgot, right? Everybody forgets everything good Strasburg does. They just remember when his back throbs or his forearm is in pain and it’s muttered that the problem is really in his head; then, usually, the doctors find out he is actually hurt and we all mutter, “Sorry, Stras, guess you really were injured.”
For example, that 23-3 streak was followed by three starts with 19 runs in 11⅔ innings. Bingo: forearm injury immediately appears, he is out for the season.
Since last season, Strasburg has taken three measures to try to increase his durability. First, he claims, vows and swears in spring training that he will start “listening to my arm more” in season and cut back on his exhausting between-starts throwing sessions. He is an obsessive perfectionist and punishes himself for real or imagined faults with extra labor between starts. Unfortunately, he never asks his forearm, elbow, shoulder or back for permission. Will he obey himself?
Second, Strasburg is also an obsessive perfectionist about weightlifting. Look out, here he comes, huge barbells in either hand, doing deep-bend lunges down a hallway. Oh, there he goes, around the bend and out of sight. Don’t worry, he’ll be back — and back and back again — doing more lunges.
This winter, Strasburg concluded that maybe he had overdone the weightlifting over the years, creating a 6-foot-4, 240-pound NFL-worthy physique that is bigger than Bryce Harper’s. Maybe the Strasburg power plant is so big that it eventually rips some of the gears and levers. So Starsburg tweaked his conditioning program: He ran long distances . . . obsessively . . . on the beach . . . “watching the surfers” . . . mile after mile, frequently five or six miles at a time. “It was fun.”
Can’t we just get this guy to binge-watch old seasons of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones?” Maybe, someday, his knees will rebel. But at 28, perhaps just hitting his pitching prime, he looks leaner, less hulked up than in the past.
Finally, Strasburg is now pitching exclusively from the stretch, even when the only people near the bases are umpires. The official company line is that this helps Strasburg be “more consistent” with his delivery and not fall off the mound to the left sometimes. Also, Maddux’s brother, Greg, thought that pitching from the stretch was so essential that he never practiced at all from his windup when he threw between starts. To Greg, games were usually decided with men on base. With nobody on base, just throw it where the most they can get is a single.
All this may be true. But just eight months ago, Strasburg’s record in 2016 — using both a windup and stretch — was 15-1; he was going to win the NL Cy Young Award, not Scherzer. Why would you change anything about that?
The consistency idea may be valid, but the Nats’ deeper concern may be in figuring out, in every aspect of Strasburg’s existence — from side sessions to conditioning programs to throwing mechanics — how to keep this force of nature from missing starts, especially late in the season when it matters most. The past two seasons, he has averaged only 138 innings and his ERA has inflated to 3.53 by bad starts just before his next injury surfaced. You don’t pay $175 million for that.
Luckily, as Opening Day approaches, I have seen the future. At the same age, some of the pitchers Strasburg most resembles statistically are David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jered Weaver. In their next three seasons, Price went 15-12, 18-5 and 17-9, Cueto 20-9, 11-13 and 18-5 and Weaver 18-8, 20-5 and 11-8.
Now, isn’t that going to be fun to watch?
Scherzer’s “most similar” at age 32 include Roy Halladay, who went 17-10, 21-10 and 19-6 his next three years, and Mike Mussina, who was 17-11, 18-10 and 17-8. Just combine seasons like that for Scherzer and Strasburg and . . .
Oh, sorry, there are other comparables, too. Scherzer is like Johan Santana, Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt — all washed up or fading fast at 32. And Strasburg resembles two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, whose best was behind him by Strasburg’s age.
The safest way to invest your payroll money in baseball is to put it in proven hitters. They tend to duplicate results year after year. But the history of baseball gags on the long list of top hitting teams that never won titles.
The most flamboyant high-risk, high-reward way to invest those same dollars is in overpowering pitchers with high-strikeout stuff who can dominate even the best batting orders in October. That was a lesson Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo saw up close when he was an executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 when they won a World Series because of two monster pitchers, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who averaged 10.6 and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, respectively, in their careers.
The reason the sky is the limit these days for the Nats is, more than any other one factor, because they have Scherzer and Strasburg at the top of their rotation. Remember, the year Harper won MVP, the Nats only went 83-79. The three years they won 95 or more games, Harper averaged 20 homers and 59 RBI and hit .261.
The reason that disappointment also looms is because pitchers are mysteries, even to themselves. Strasburg missed the 2012 and 2016 postseasons and, although it was kept secret, Scherzer was pitching hurt last year against the Dodgers.
The Nats have two more years when they know for certain they still have Harper and 2016 MVP runner-up Daniel Murphy in the lineup. They have three more years when they know they will have Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark and Ross in their rotation, as well as Anthony Rendon still aboard, plus free agent additions.
The time is certainly now for the Nats. But if it helps calm nerves, both Scherzer and Strasburg might still be around, and effective, for five seasons. Strasburg has opt-outs, but he is also a contentment-first homebody who loves the places he knows. And which know and appreciate him.
You’d be surprised what can be built if two such cornerstones don’t crack.
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