Nationals Baseball: What samatta with Strasburg?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What samatta with Strasburg?

No one has pitched particularly well this season for the Nats. Not ZNN. Not Gio. Not Roark or Jordan. But it's still early and bad games happen to good pitchers every year. It may just be a touch of bad luck that both Gio and ZNN both had one of their 5 or so bad games in their first 3 outings. Jordan and Roark, well who knows about them? Could be the same bad luck or it could be that they aren't all that good to begin with (I know where I lean).

Strasburg though is different. He's had 4 starts so far with one mediocre outing and two certified stinkers. Strasburg started 30 games last year. If you use Game Score (a rough way of ranking game performance based on various things) these 2014 games would have ranked 21st, 28th and 29th last year. In other words he's thrown out a whole lotta bad in a short period of time. The million dollar question is why?

Of course the problem with trying to diagnose the problem this early is that you have enough variation in stats that things can change dramatically in one start. Broad, macro level ideas are just coming into focus while micro-details still are fuzzy. Add to that there are thousands of ways to attack pitching data. Is his velocity down? Is his location off? Is one particular pitch less effective? Is it a certain type of batter that's causing the problem? Is it a certain type of situation?

Is it both velocity and location for a certain type of pitch to a certain type of batter in a certain type of situation?

Gah - so teasing out information that's meaningful just from data points is hard at this point.  Here's what I feel ok with saying.
  • There really hasn't been a change in overall mix of pitches thrown... factoring in the slider. 
  • He is missing more bats (contact rate both in and out of the zone are way down) - but he's missing for two reasons; his strikeout rate is up 14.1 K/9 vs his career 10.6(good), his walk rate is up 3.9 BB/9 vs career 2.6 (bad). The bad here is worse than the good.
  • His velocity is down but he's still very fast. 
What this tells the novice pitch stat analyzer is that it's not his stuff. Even with the very mild (and still early in the year) velocity drop, it's still fast enough to strike people out and he's doing just that. Instead it's the location. He's wild and that's causing him to get hit.  If that's the case then we should see a difference in location of pitches thrown, especially the pitches he's getting hit hard by.  Righties are killing his fastball for example. What do we see there?

Last year (thanks to F/X by Texas Leaguers)

You're looking from the catcher's POV.  There's a distinct grouping a little bit on the outer half of the plate when throwing low. (up high it mattered less) This year?

Way less data but you can see he's missing that outer half of the plate spotting he had last year. What about the curve? That's getting hit hard too.  Last year

He was in the zone alot but mostly nailing low and away off the plate. This year

It's not getting off the plate enough.

Now I can't say anything for certain. Look at the number of pitches we're dealing with for this year.  It's tiny. Plus I don't even know if the above include last nights game. (I think so) But given the things I feel good about saying - this makes sense and honestly it's nothing special in terms of analysis. He's wilder than he's ever been so far this year. That means he's not hitting his spots. Part of that is leading to more walks. Part of that is leading to balls left over the plate.

This is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out why he's wilder and fixing that. Good luck with that one, McCatty.


Anonymous said...

Could this be due to his "minor" arm surgery he had in the off-season. After all is any surgery "minor"? Could be impacting his stamina or not, just a theory that FP put forward last night.

NatsVA said...

Strasburg is the most frustrating pitcher the Nats have had in their nine year history. Stink it up, pitch mediocre, pitch like a Cy Young winner, stink it up even worse. What makes him so frustrating is obviously the potential that you occasionally see to be the best pitcher in baseball. But sadly this comes only a few times a season. His average ERA for the past three seasons including this season is 4.05. It's only three starts this season, but what has he shown that tells us this wildly inconsistent pattern won't continue?

So what do the Nats do if this keeps up over the next few starts? Send him down for a bit? Do you even send Stephen Strasburg to Syracuse?

EmDash said...

I'd be concerned about his health, but the odd thing is that it's not just him - within the last 7 starts, all but two (Strasburg's previous start, and Zimmermann's most recent) have had the same hallmark of poor command and ineffective breaking pitches. Every starter in the Atlanta series was unable to hit the corners and throwing right down the middle. I don't know what could cause something like that - if it's just a fluke awful couple of games, or something to be more concerned about.

Chaz R said...

That's very helpful Harper. I tend to think Stras will make the necessary adjustments to get back on track. Better to have this happen now, than later in the season.

Unknown said...

It could be that like the team as a whole, his perceived talent is overrated and this is who he is.

cass said...


But all of the starters have had terrible starts, Gio and Zimmermann included. Why are you singling out Strasburg?

I really feel like the main source of people's problems with Strasburg is expectations. Anything less than a Cy Young winner will be disappointing.


I'll note that his release point looks normal, so no health concern there. I am concerned about velocity - his first and fourth starts this year have been the worst and second worst fastball velocity of his career. But mostly it's location - he's leaving too many breaking balls hanging and throwing fastballs down the middle.

Eric said...

"I'd be concerned about his health, but the odd thing is that it's not just him - within the last 7 starts, all but two (Strasburg's previous start, and Zimmermann's most recent) have had the same hallmark of poor command and ineffective breaking pitches. Every starter in the Atlanta series was unable to hit the corners and throwing right down the middle. I don't know what could cause something like that"

It is truly weird. Almost so weird as to seem...intentional...but no team would ever do that, right? ;)

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...

I do think at times that Stras forgets how good his fastball is. A couple of those RBI hits last night were off breaking balls. Davey said last year - Throw the fastball and let everything else work off of that.

I still feel like location will come for all of the Nats pitchers. Also, I think getting Fister back will help. For whatever reason the Nats rotation does better with a veteran calming influence in it (Edwin Jackson and Haren when they were going good). Time will tell.

cass said...

Also, going back to the basic numbers, I'll note that Strasburg has an xFIP of 2.65, a full half run better than last year's 3.15 and even a little better than 2012's 2.81.

His BB% is up to 9.1% from last year's 7.7%, but his K% is way up to 33.3% from last year's 26.1%. The difference in runs is entirely due to BABIP (.396!!) and HR/FB (16.7% vs last year's 11.6%).

There's no way he's good enough to maintain that strikeout rate but also keep getting lit up like this. He'll be fine.

Bjd1207 said...

@cass - then I guess we need to see if "fine" is in line with our expectations, as you've pointed out previously.

While it may be too much to expect a 10+ strikeout performance every time, no pitcher can be considered a team's legitimate ace with a history like the past 4 starts for Stras. Aces get a bad game forgiven, they don't get 3 bad out of 4 forgiven, then there's a problem. Stras was certainly drafted, developed, and billed as an ace. He's not performing as such

Bote Man said...

I decided to go to last night's game at the last minute, scored some great seats behind home plate, a little bit to the 3B side.

To my completely untrained eye Strasburg's delivery looked OK to me. He did seem to be missing low and away to LHB, but for all I know that was his intent.

I apply Needham's Razor: the batters will tell you how the pitcher is doing, and brother did the batter's speak with authority last night.

I've been to very few games, but you can really see the pitcher's delivery so much better in person. I noted his grip when he broke off a few curverballs and they just didn't seem to be fooling them, except for that one I saw on the game recap in a bar later on that got smoked.

When the balls were put in play in the air they were really hit pretty hard. I noted at least 2, if not more, that sailed to the left of a helpless Danny Espinosa off RHB. Is this just the luck of the game? Undesired pitch location? Poor defensive positioning? (Thanks fer nuttin, Weidemaier!!)

The defense didn't do Strasburg any favors, though. When the balls were put in play they looked like a bunch of Little Leaguers out there. Embarrassing.

Anyway, you can blame me for going to this stinker last night. I'll take one for our team and cross my fingers that this is an outlier.

Bote Man said...

Also, there's a guy on BBTF who eschews the K/9 and BB/9 stats in favor of K/BB ratio. I don't recall his reasoning behind it, but when you think about it those are 2 of the major outcomes of a plate appearance and trend toward "good pitcher" or "bad pitcher". Food for thought.

Harper said...

Anon - Certainly possible. Tough for us to say anything for sure.

NatsVA - Can't argue but a lot of that is the fact they've had so many crappy pitchers. Hard for Simontacchi or Armas Jr to be frustrating.

You can't just average like that though. you're giving the same weight to 4 games this year to 30 in each of the past two. His ERA is around 3.20 the past 3 years counting that.

Send him to Syrpacuse? Maybe. If he's this bad for 2-3 more starts, I don't see how you can keep putting him out there.

ED - yeah I don't know. I can't imagine there is some sort of team wide location issue. Gotta guess it's nothing.

ChazR - I think so to. Or maybe "hope so". No a start too early for that.

Unknown - a 6.00 ERA pitcher? Hardly. You'd be ignoring basically everything he's done in his career up to this point. Now a #10-#20 MLB pitcher rather than the #1-#3 initially thought? That's certainly possible.

cass - I think expectations play a huge part in the usual complaints but now we're moving into legit issues.

Eric - 1919!

Jay - His fastball is getting hit though, more than anything. Fister back will certainly help because it means less must win games for everyone.

cass - I thought about the luck issue and all you say is true but I'll admit that BB% rate worries me. you have to consider that the BABIP and the HR/FB are higher because he's getting hit harder. LOB% is a bit more "luck" based but again you can say he gets nervous & pitches badly.

Still should revert, but how much is the question

BJD1207 - I'd say give it one more game but that's about all I can give. This could all be coincidence but it's hit the believability wall.

Chaz R said...

Does anyone think this new found inability to consistently hit his spots is due to the off season surgery?

Eric said...

"Eric - 1919! "

Ha! True enough, but I was being even more fantastical and indulging the idea that teams would do this for what is ultimately the opposite effect: throw off the scouts/batters for the purposes of future match ups.

I also had this weird idea that "control issues" have been used to mask intentional beanings. This mostly came to mind during Gio's start in ATL.

But, again, I consider these to be paranoid flights of fancy that I post simply to stave off a sense of impending doom ;)

Eric said...

Chaz, I'm sure surgery recovery doesn't help anything. Look at how much of a mess of things it's made for RZim to rework his mechanics. Or, even how much it affects pitchers if they get an extra day or two of rest (prone to overthrowing).

Stras' re-found ability to fully extend his elbow has to at least make him *think* differently about what he can do with his mechanics, even if they don't physically change much. Given that we're talking about a much, much more refined task than throwing across the diamond, it seems possible that simply thinking about mechanics differently might throw you off a bit. If he's dealing with any physical changes, intentional or otherwise...

And, on top of all that, if he's still regaining strength and/or stamina, that could play a role, too.

cass said...

Bote Man:

I believe K/BF (K%) and BB/BF (BB%) are more accurate and significant than K/9 and BB/9 since it removes batted ball results from the equation. What you care about is how often a pitcher strikes someone out, not how many of his ours are strikeouts.

I've also read that K-BB correlates better with performance than K/BB. The idea is that a 10/5 K/BB is much better than a 5/2.5 K/BB. K% is the single most important pitching stat. followed by BB% I believe. Well, HR% is important too, but there's tons and tons of noise in it so only significant over long samples.


I understand what you mean about what he'll revert too, but that's why I brought up xFIP. His xFIP isn't just good, it's fantastic. Sure, his strikeouts will probably regress, but so will his walks, home runs, and BABIP.

I watched the game on TV and Miami had a great center-field camera. His stuff didn't look as good as usual, but that was probably mostly due to his breaking balls either being left up or thrown too far outside of the strike zone and taken for balls. It was a bad start, yes, but the numbers say that he'll be fine. Trust DIPS.

Worst case scenario would be a case like Edwin Jackson whose ERA is regularly worse than his FIP. But we have no history to show that. I'd say much of this is that Stanton just happens to own Strasburg (I know - SSS) and he just had a bad start. Yes, the balls were well-hit and not weak contact that flukily found holes. But I think we should just wait. Trust in the K's.

blovy8 said...

Strasburg has been trying to hold runners better this year, maybe having so MANY runners is taxing that adjustment. As great as his stuff is though, being able to execute your pitches properly is also a talent. Notwithstanding his slight velocity drop, maybe adding a slider has messed up the dynamic of his pitching pattern for the worse.

Donald said...

Not to be a conspiracy theorist or anything, but particularly in Atlanta, I had the sense that they almost knew what we were going to throw. FP speculated that Clippard might even be tipping his pitches but it was affecting everyone.

But what's curious to me is that this year, there are a dozen hi-def cameras in the park, including a CF one looking right at the plate. Is there any chance that some teams have figured out how to use that to steal signs? Or set up their own camera that blends in? If I could steal signs, I wouldn't do it all game long for fear of being too obvious. And I wouldn't want to wait until later in the game when I could be in too big a hole to take advantage. The Nats have been getting tagged consistently in the first inning.

I'm sure it's purely coincidence. FP also said last night that if a pitcher can't get his secondary pitches over, the batter can sit on the fast ball which is what they were doing to Strasburg, and probably the rest of the Nats in Atlanta. It's much more probable to be due to lousy command, but...

Nattydread said...

Strasburg has over and over shown glimpses of the generational talent he has been hyped to be. What he hasn't shown is the ability to consistently live up to his skill set . It is a mental talent and he hasn't developed it fully. Yet. I'm rooting for the man.

On the other hand, Koufax never had the baggage that SS has had to carry. It's gotta be hard!

Anonymous said...

Donald: If the Braves were stealing signs by video, how did they transmit them to the batter in the split second between the pitcher's nod and the delivery?

Donald said...

Probably far fetched but teams have been stealing signs as long as the game's been played. It used to be a guy in the score board with binoculars. With video, you have a guy on the radio to the dugout. As soon as a sign is flashed, he relays that in and someone touches his hat for a fastball away, etc. There's definitely time. I'm just skeptical about how possible it would be. I would guess that the video feeds for replay are on some time delay, but I don't know.

Anonymous said...

It would definitely violate the "no communication equipment in the dugout except the bullpen phone" rule, but I guess if you're stealing signs, you probably don't care about following that rule.

Dan said...

Braves fan here again, and I have a quick question after watching the Braves and Phils. Would you guys rather have Ben Revere than Denard Span? Personally, from what I've seen, Revere is the better hitter, although he has zero power.

blovy8 said...

Now that teams have an employee checking replays, it's not a stretch to believe there's also a system for trasmitting signs.

blovy8 said...

More trolling, right Dan? Gio Gonzalez has more power than Revere. The guy's all legs, but I suppose if you're saving your pennies 2 million is ok for that production. Span is better than that guy even if his head never clears.

Dan said...

I'm not intending to troll, in fact, I don't even know what that means. I just like talking baseball and seeing what the perception of my team is from rival teams. I just thought I'd ask about Revere/Span since the Twins let both their CF leadoff types go before last season. Funny how they both ended up in the NL East. I know the Braves showed some interest in Span as well, but not Revere it seems.

Harper said...

blovy8 / Dan - Aaron Hicks?

Span. Span is a better hitter (thought don't confuse that with a good one) Having 0 power matters and Revere makes Span look like Trout. Seriously Span had 28 2B last year - an ok number. Revere has had 31 2B FOR HIS CAREER. I'm mean it's crazy his lack of power. Neither get on well so the .20 or so points Revere might hit better in average doesn't make up for the massive drop in power (from a pretty low point).

Also Span is a better fielder (Revere's good fielding numbers came in RF). Revere's only got age on his side but given his stats so far I don't see a breakout coming. I see a slow slide by Span into obscurity. maybe a year or two as a starter left, then a few years as a 4th OF D replacement. Revere might bomb out of the league before Span.

It sounds like I'm praising Span but I'm not - he's only a passable D first CF. It's just that Revere is that bad.

Clip&Store said...

Span is the better overall baseball player

Dan said...

Thanks, Harper. But looking at Hicks' stats (still relatively small sample), he looks even worse than Revere and Span. I guess he's just young and still developing.

Natty said...

"Not to be a conspiracy theorist or anything, but particularly in Atlanta, I had the sense that they almost knew what we were going to throw. FP speculated that Clippard might even be tipping his pitches but it was affecting everyone."

Even if the Braves were doing this… there's a simple solution: change up your signs.

JWLumley said...

Denard Span is not good. I think the Nats are actually a better team with Harper in CF and McMoorsen in LF. Although, I would add that I also do not think Nate McLouth or Tyler Moore are very good either. Thus far, McLouth has looked more like the Nate McLouth who played for the Braves than the one who played for the Orioles.

With regards to Strasburg, I think he's mentally weak, which is rare in the MLB. Most guys have to struggle so hard to get there that those who lack mental toughness wash out in the minors, but Strasburg's talent is so off the charts that he didn't have to. If you watch a lot of his melt down innings, they involve an error behind him or a close pitch that was called a ball instead of strike. His stuff is filthy and he should be a lot better than he is.

Finally, Gio and NN it's one bad outing, Gio was great in his other two outings, but Roark and Jordan are just regressing to the mean. Roark is not a good pitcher and probably doesn't even belong in the big leagues. The Nats made some big decisions based on an extremely SSS. Jordan could be passable, but I still don't understand why Detwiler is in the bullpen. It makes as much sense as batting Span in the leadoff spot or hitting Harper anywhere lower than fifth.

Anonymous said...

JWLumley hit the nail on the head. Strasburg has always seemed a little soft to me. Not only mentally, but maybe after his TJ surgery he hasn't had the confidence in his arm. Go back and look at his first start vs. the Pirates. Sure, he's maybe had a few better ones since then, but physically he's not the same guy.

He doesn't need to go to the minors. He needs to shadow JZ for a while to hopefully pick up some of the nasty that Jordan brings to the mound.

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