Nationals Baseball: Strasburg - the bellweather

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Strasburg - the bellweather

In the past few weeks, we've tackled what to do with the post-2015 FA class (my conclusions for review : sign ZNN, let Fister walk, offer Ian a fair deal but for no more than 6 years) But there is also an upcoming post 2016 draft class that needs to be dealt with and if you are serious about signing them talks would normally begin now. The biggest of the names in that class is Stephen Strasburg and signing (or not signing) him sends a message to the fans on the direction of this franchise now and in the future.

Signing Strasburg long term feels like no sure thing. The consensus "generational" talent has turned into a very good pitcher, certainly top of a rotation worthy, but has not developed into a special player. At least it doesn't feel like he has. What do the stats say?

Strasburg threw 215 innings last year (14th in majors) and put up an ERA of 3.14 (25th). He tied for the NL lead in strikeouts with 242 and he ended up with 14 wins, good enough for T25th in the majors. (exactly the same number as everyone's "ace" Jordan Zimmermann). Without any digging, you see a guy who is a legit #1 type.

If we go a bit further we see a WHIP that was 17th in the majors, a xFIP (kind of like ERA taking out errors and bad timing) that was 13th in the majors. Nothing derailing the initial supposition. Let's keep going into stats that might show he was lucky last year.

BABIP : .315 slightly on the high side both overall and for him. Should drop.

HR/FB : 13.1%  Same as BABIP.

LOB% : 74.8%  Pretty much on target

GB% : 45.9% Down from last year but better than the average pitcher. Though this is the stat that arguably corresponds least with performance. 

K%-BB% : 22.9%  4th best in majors - not a fluke either similar to other years.

No surprise, but nothing here says last year was a fluke. In fact, it says we should probably expect a slight improvement in ERA/Wins if all goes to plan. So what's the problem?

Well, with that last stat, K%-BB%, you start to get a feel for why people are disappointed in Strasburg. That last stat screams "as good as anyone not named Kershaw" as the other names up there are a who's who of guys who would challenge for Top 5 spots; Sale, Price, Kluber, King Felix, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Greinke; but Strasburg doesn't put himself in the top 5 instead settling in the Top 20. Or does he?

In the past 3 years it can be easily argued that only a handful of pitchers have really outpitched Strasburg.  Kershaw, King Felix, Scherzer, Price, Wainwright. Maybe Sale. Not ZNN - not over the three. Based on "on the field" results, he should be thought of at least as a Top 10 guy. But while every year Strasburg succeeds in the battle versus hitters, every year Strasburg fails miserably in the perception battle.
  • In 2012 he was great, but wasn't the best on the team (Gio had his best year) and there was the whole shutdown thing. 
  • In 2013 he was very good, but while bad luck was taking him to an 8-9 record (13th lowest run support) and the team was missing the playoffs, Kershaw was entrenching himself as the best pitcher of this generation and the two new hot pitchers that came around were both in his division (Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez). 
  • In 2014 he was arguably great again, but again was not the best pitcher on his team (this time ZNN would take a step up) and he'd spend most of the season struggling to get his win record to match his performance. He was 8-10 as late as Aug 8th before winning 6 of his last 9.
I truly believe in another world with just a ball bounce here or there we wouldn't be talking about this. Strasburg would be a top tier pitcher and that would be all there is to it.

Of course, the feelings about Strasburg are not completely crazy. There does always seem to be something about Strasburg that shouldn't be. This year he oddly couldn't finish batters off if they battled back to an even count. In the past some though he might be rattled by what happened behind him (I showed that wasn't the case in 2014 - but haven't looked at past years.) He's spent time learning new pitches that haven't seem to benefit him on the mound. He's "complained" about heat or the mound or what have you. These things though would probably be ignored or certainly downplayed if we had a different view of Strasburg. Instead they are used to confirm thoughts we already had. "He's not an ace. Here's why." 

Still, I don't want to make it seem like Strasburg is a no doubt about it re-sign. Along with the issues I just pointed out his fastball speed is declining. Right now it's not an issue because his fastball was so fast to begin with (97.6 average in 2010) but it's gone down every year. If it doesn't stabilize he'll eventually run into bigger issues. Sure that probably wouldn't be for a few more years but I'd expect his next contract would be a LONG term one so definitely by the end of that. However, there are far more things right with Strasburg than wrong.

The other thing to note is that Strasburg is still young.  Over two years younger than ZNN, younger than most of the names above. Additionally, Sale, Bumgarner and Harvey are all younger but within a year (ok within 380 days). Only Jose Fernandez stands out as noticeably younger.

Put it all together and you have a Top 10 pitcher who is young has been healthy the past 3 seasons.  Much like Zimmermann he hasn't been worked that hard, and he doesn't work himself that hard (pitches per inning is low). I don't see an issue here. You basically can take what I said about ZNN and replace "consistency" with "some potential still left" and knock the age down.

I say you sign him. You wrap up ZNN and you wrap up Strasburg and you let them and Roark or Giolito or whoever carry the team for at least the next 3-4 seasons. Not only do you sign him but you sign him now because I don't believe he's likely to put up a worse season and he may in fact put up a better one. What could now be 7/180 (eating up one arb year) could become 7/200+ after a 2.50  ERA 20 win ish season.

Of course you may disagree. It's a hell of a lot of money, especially presumably signing ZNN as well, but understand this, as far as free agent pitchers go, it's going to be difficult to find two guys on the market who have as much going for them and importantly, are as young, as Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. Those guys tend to get locked up because their talent and age combination is rare. I would recommend the Nats do the same.

However I'm not going to kill the Nats if they end up signing one and not the other. I don't like it as much, but perhaps they have strong feelings toward one and lukewarm feelings toward the other. Pitcher contracts are the biggest gambles understanding how often they get injured and how that can derail them for years. They could gamble on not signing one and bet that Giolito becomes an impact starter (one of the best bets in minor league pitching currently) and that Cole/Fedde/Ross/? becomes a good starter. Use that extra money to keep Bryce or get more offense or something. It's a plan that may fit better with the imagined salary ceiling we expect they have. 

The issue comes if they don't sign either. Again if you ranked "sure things" on the FA starting pitching market in the past decade these two guys would rank very high. If they don't sign either - well I can't see them signing anyone ever. Giolito becomes a star? Great - don't buy a jersey though because he's out the door. Rotation falls apart because of injury or lack of development? Hope you like Haren/Jackson esque one year value deals. It sets a disturbing precedent that says the Nats' fortunes at any one point hinges entirely on being able to develop a top rotation from scratch. It took a lot of things to get the Nats to have the rotation that they had for the past 3 seasons. ZNN developed slowly, while their #1 pick Stras developed fast so they set-up at the same time. Gio blossomed. Detwiler was a surprise in 2012, Roark in 2014. Dombrowski went insane for a day.  It's doubtful things will come together so nicely to form a good 3-4 year window again.

An interesting alternative would be dealing Strasburg. He has value before this season with 2 years under control.  But I'm doubtful the Nats can afford to do that this year and with Gio declining and Fister gone, they almost certainly can't next year;  ZNN or no ZNN. Of course that is a plan though. Sign ZNN trade Stras try to bounce back in 2017 or trade ZNN, trade Stras try to be a force in 2017 and beyond.  These are plans but they should be plans for teams like the Rays, right? Certainly that last one, right?

The Nats don't have to sign ZNN. They don't have to sign Strasburg. There are plans that can work with either of them gone. But is there a plan that works with both of them gone and no similar FA types in their place? I just don't see it.


cass said...

They need to sign them both. Still believe that. You don't let pitchers like these get away. Not at this point in their careers.

The Lerners are obligated to sign them, really. They have our money. Do it.

I got no stats to add. You've covered that. It's not hard. They're both elite pitchers. Not guaranteed - nothing is - but as good a bet as you can possibly make.

Harper said...

I suppose you could trade Strasburg if say... you sign ZNN and Giolito AND someone else look really good in 2015. (or you could trade ZNN right now or Stras right now HOPING for the above to happen but those are crazy gambles.)

Or I suppose you could let them both walk and sign Sherzer and ?

The offense is in a flux point - Werth will decline, LaRoche is gone, surprising Span will be gone along with Desmond. It could be made up by Bryce improvements and healthy Zimm/Ramos but it's cloudy. Pitching is clear - keep these pitchers - keep them healthy - the SP will be fine.

JE34 said...

Top flight starting pitching is too hard to find, and ZNN and Stras are too good. Gotta sign em both. Show us you care, Lerners!

Maybe it's the sweating that's holding Strasburg back. Sign ZNN, Stras, and a guy to fan Stras with a giant leaf between innings.

blovy8 said...

If they can sign Zimmermann for a Lesterish deal, there's no way they'd be able to afford Strasburg. Boras will not be seeking a "fair" extension. My feeling is that something historic would have to happen (or Strasburg evince some new love for this area and franchise), and that would mean the Lerners rather than Rizzo would be the targets for that idea in the next two years. I don't see Boras instigating something like that on his own at this point, given the nice target that Kershaw has set up for ace annual value and the tender age he'll be with all the big markets in play for the six months he'll drag things out to - I think the odds of the Nats paying Strasburg 30 million a year are something along the lines of this club winning the next three world series.

cass said...

The Nats aren't some small market team. If other teams can afford these players, so can the Nats.

I just have no patience with arguments that we can't afford to give out some big contracts. Go take a look at the top ten wealthiest counties in the USA. Something like half of them are in the DC metro area. We can afford a couple pitchers.

Wally said...

I love both guys, but I don't think I'd sign both. I think the Dodgers and NYY are the only teams with two SP contracts >$100m. Maybe I missed somebody, but with rare exceptions, payrolls can't do that and field quality lineups. And since position players are less injury prone, I think I'd rather find three or four position guys to tie up like that, with 1 horse to lead the rotation. And lo and behold, we have two prime candidates in Rendon and Harper.

It would be great to sign either JZ or Stras and turn the other into another core line up guy. Realistically, that means signing JZ because (a) only Stras (with two control years) could fetch a quality young position player, and (b) Stras is going to cost more.

The truth is, this should have been addressed last winter, when both had multiple years of control left. I think it was a major misread of the market, and I'll bet this is why Minnitti was fired. Well, that is just speculation but it sure does feel like a mistake at this point. My guess is that they don't sign either.

Jay said...

I agree they should sign them both. The Lerner's are the 2nd wealthiest owners in baseball behind the Dodgers. So far they have signed Ryan Zimmerman to an extension. That's it. If they let Nn, strasburg, and fister all walk. Plus Desmond. I may have to become a Cardinals fan.