Nationals Baseball: Strasburg's coming

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Strasburg's coming

Probably.

Today is probably the biggest day - he threw a real 75 yesterday (well actually a real 66 - then another 9 in the pen because A ball isn't exactly a challenge for a guy who could be a #1 in a major league rotation) and felt good. All signs say he could be back this weekend. Feel normal today and I don't see that plan being derailed. Then the real review begins as we watch him for a start or two in the majors as he's forced to go all out for 100 pitches a couple times in a row. That's something we never saw post-recovery last year because he just slid from injury into the post-season. We've verified that about a month is enough to get him back to where everyone thinks he can keep pitching. Now we just have to see that they are right.

Gio Night!

Gio has had his best season for the Nats since his first year here. Why is that? How did someone seemingly declining through age at a slow and steady pace turn things around? Has he turned things around?

The second is a real question because if you look at the first fancy stats we generally look at, FIP and xFIP* and BABIP, it looks like Gio is skating along. The FIP stats suggest a "true ERA" of closer to 4.00 and the BABIP is extremely low and the lowest of Gio's career. This all suggest some extended amount of luck.

Part of that is true. Gio has been lucky. However what that means has changed over the course of the year

Month  ERA  FIP  xFIP  BABIP
Apr 1.62  3.82  4.41  .258
May 4.37  5.85  5.08  .297
June 2.53  3.29  3.85  .221
July 2.14  3.30  3.89  .193

To start the year Gio pitched ok but got very lucky and got great results. In May, Gio pitched terribly but got lucky and looked passable. In June Gio pitched well and got maybe a little lucky. In July Gio pitched well again and his luck again kicked in.

So in the first two months of the year Gio pitched ok to terrible but got SO lucky that he looked fine. Since then, while he's still seen luck drive his ERA down, he's pitched quite well.

Now I keep saying he's lucky but if Gio is generating a lot of ground balls and soft contact - well that could explain a lot and that's on him, not luck.  We'll compare to last year. Ground ball rate? It's down. It's actually the lowest it's been for a few years. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Gio's always been naturally a flyball pitcher and the attempt to become a GB pitcher a couple years ago may not have suited him. His HR/FB rate is a little low, but it always has been. Gio has been a flyball pitcher who's been able to keep the balls in the park. There was thoughts when he came over from Oakland that it was park based but nope it's him. What does this mean? It means that the xFIP up there - which tries to normalize HRs - is probably more off than the FIP which doesn't. Except for May, that's good for Gio.

Soft contract is up a little and hard contact down. about 3 percent for both. That isn't nothing. But there is something else here that I found a bit interesting. Guys are pulling the ball more than ever against Gio and hitting the ball to the opposite filed a lot less. This generally isn't a good sign. It means guys are getting around on your pitches more and probably making more contact in general (K rate, swinging strike rates and contact rates suggest that's true a little bit) but there could be some deep thinking going on here. RHB are now pulling almost 7% more balls than they used to up to almost 46%. They are also hitting over 6% fewer balls to the opposite field. LHB are pulling more balls as well (about 3%) but are hitting more to the opposite field as well - more than 5% more.

What is the overall picture to what's going on here? Gio is getting A LOT more balls hit to the Rendon - Turner - Bryce side of the field than the Murphy - Zimm - Werth Statue park in right.  By my quick and dirty calculations he's gone from having like 36% of batted balls going to the "good side" and 29% to the "bad side" to 44% to the good and 25% to the bad. In other words, he's getting more batters to hit the ball where he wants them to toward the better fielders. (One would think)

What's the end conclusion? Well Gio is getting a bit lucky, it's hard to suggest otherwise.  Guys who walk people like Gio does and strike out people like Gio does don't usually flirt with 2.00 ERAs But he is pitching better. He's gone back to being a FB pitcher which is fine for him because he doesn't give up a ton of homers. He's getting more favorable contact, getting fewer hard hits and more soft ones. And maybe just as important, he's driving batters to hit balls to the guys on the field most likely to turn those balls into outs. All in all I can see a pitcher who is throwing, especially in the last two months, like a guy with a low to mid 3.00 ERA should.

I know your natural instinct is to say "So he's a 3.40 ERA guy. Great. So a #3 type maybe, probably a #4" but remember. We WILDLY overrate how good pitchers should be by their rotation spot.  A 3.40 ERA is good enough for TENTH in the NL in qualified pitchers. I won't say Gio is pitching like we'd want a #1 to pitch, but he could be some teams #1 and he's certainly pitching like a #2.

Can this continue in the playoffs? I'm not sure. You want a guy like Max who can impose his will on the other team not just get them to hit it to a certain side or in the air and hope they don't hit it too hard. Playoff teams usually can hit it hard enough. However there are far worse pitchers to throw out there, including 2016 Gio. If he can keep this up for another two months, I'll want to see if he can GB to SS and lazy FB a team to death in the NLDS. 

*These are different ways to pull out luck from the ERA. Things like HR rate and BABIP tend to bounce around for pitchers and a run of luck (bad or good) with these can make your ERA really not represent the talent behind the throws. This tries to normalize those values and see how a pitcher would do then. It's imperfect, because it doesn't take into account a guys personal ability to keep these things down (which does exist) and things like home park, but it's good for a quick look at how much luck a pitcher may be skating on. A BIG gap (say 1.5 runs) and a history of BABIPs that go against what a pitcher is doing now? You'd be wise to start with "He's been affected by luck" and then use a deeper dive to try to prove otherwise.

13 comments:

G Cracka X said...

Excellent post, thanks for the Gio Deep Dive, Harper!

PotomacFan said...

Well, if nothing else, Gio is taking less time between pitches this year. Probably a result of his overall success, rather than a reason for that success. Makes it a lot more bearable to watch him pitch.

Jay said...

I find it interesting that Strasburg evidently feels like he has been ready for a while and the Nats wanted to be conservative and take it slow.

Jon Quimby said...

Thanks for the research into this post Harper. I learn something new with nearly every post.

I got a chance to say "Hi" to Rizzo the other day as he was fist bumping his way through the concourse and I regret not asking him if he reads this blog. Next time...

Harper said...

Jay - Sure but I can't imagine any player saying the opposite so take it with a grain of salt.

JQ - Ha! I'd put a lot of money on "No". Not that a team shouldn't have someone keeping an eye on some blogs to see if they bring up something they miss, but to me that doesn't seem like the GMs job. Feels more like an unpaid intern role

Jon Quimby said...

Probably, but you never know what people do in their spare time.

ssln said...

Just a couple of weeks ago, you were telling us that you thought Stras could be done for the season. You based that theory on what happened last year and his injury this year seemed to be similar--at least to you. We don't yet know if you will be correct in the long run. But Stras threw 75 pitches last night and he never got that far last year.
Gio was in decline over the last couple of years. No argument there. This year he is having a great year--near all star year if he didn't pitch on the same team as Max and Stras. You call it all luck and analyze it from every angle with fancy stats.
Here is what you don't seem to understand. Hall of Fame players often had one bad year during the prime of their career. No one understands why it occurred but it just did. They got off to a bad start and things just went south from there.
Sometimes, a player on the down side of his career catches magic in a bottle. Maybe it luck or maybe they discovered something that year which made them great one last time.
But even though i am talking about two sides of a coin-one bad and one good, you tend to see one similarity. The guy having the bad year doesn't magically turn it around in the post season. Think of Bryce last year as an example. By the same token, the guy having luck as you describe it doesn't magically lose that luck in the post season. In some strange way the luck of the baseball gods seems to extend the whole year into the playoffs.
So why don't you take a deep breath and then exhale. Take things the way they are. Gio has found the fountain of youth for this year and whether it is luck or a mechanical change, it is working and is likely to keep working as long as the Nats are playing ball this year. Next year is a whole different matter.
I have become convinced that you spend so much time conjuring up monsters and maybes that you don't have time to enjoy this year> Think about giving it a rest for a while.
Turner, Harp, Werth and Stras will be back this year. Why don't you write an upbeat article about what a healthy and rested Nats team might do in the playoffs against a to be determined Central Division champion.

ssln said...

Harper,

I guess that was just "more good luck" tonight. I need some more stats showing tonight was another mirage.

Anonymous said...

I had been a Gio doubter for at least two seasons leading up to this one, but like you am reluctantly -- still, with a healthy skepticism -- converting to, sigh, a believer. Had largely the same doubts about Zimm, btw (and with varying degrees of gloom: Werth, Taylor, Goodwin, Difo). Both players have performed well above expectations. Partly, this reflects luck, no question. But as I (used to) say on the tennis court, you gotta be close to be lucky. Gio is doing a lot of little things right. Zimm, too. In fact, so many things have come together this season -- including the revamped bullpen -- that you have to think the Nats have caught that indefinable psychic wave, called "mo". They don't need to run the table this last quarter of the season. But it feels like they might. It's too early to get ramped up, but as of now it feels good, very good for the playoffs.

Harper said...

ss1n - I feel like maybe you didn't read what I wrote. Has Gio been a little lucky? Yeah. Has he pitched well though? Yeah, like a #2 starter. Will he be good in the playoffs? Don't know but if he's this good all year long I'd like to see him pitch.

If that's too negative for you - I mean I guess I can write about Murphy and Max every time.

On Strasburg we're in unknown territory here. He SHOULD be fine. They seem pretty sure and there isn't any reason to doubt them. This is close enough to last year to say "Hey they thought he was good to go last year so what are they - wrong twice?" But at the same time - who knows? I think most likely he's fine and would be surprised if when he comes back (either this weekend or next start after) he gets injured right away

JE34 said...

A healthy dose of concern for Strasburg is eminently reasonable. He's thrown >3000 pitches in a season exactly once.

As for luck - Gio pitched great, AND was very fortunate (the two are not mutually exclusive) in the 6th inning, when Murphy speared the hard shot that would have tied the game (props to the coaching staff that does the fielder positioning!). That's been the story for years with Gio... 3rd time through the order, the balls get hit harder, and he tends to get behind in counts more, where his fastball gets more hittable. This year he's not unraveling mentally, and he's escaping more of those jams with fly ball outs and some good fortune like Murphy's catch.

Winning a game with Wieters/Taylor/Stevenson/P as your bottom four hitters is pretty nice.

John C. said...

Gio is actually remarkably consistent. He's compensated (as good pitchers do) for diminished velocity by increasing the effectiveness of his changeup and being more careful with his location. While his peripherals tend to be consistent, his results from season to season are all over the place, and we create narratives about them. His BABIP is silly high, and so results are bad (2015, 2016); he is mentally weak, unravels in the clutch! His BABIP is below his career average, and so his results are better? He's turned the corner/is stronger mentally!

Meh. I leave psychoanalysis to the pros. Gio is a guy who has basically put up 3+ fWAR a season for eight years running. He's been an incredible bargain for the Nats, both in his initial acquisition costs and in his contract extension. Even as many fans regard him as the pitcher they wish the Nats would trade/dump. This year Gio has been lucky in terms of BABIP, and unlucky in terms of run support/bullpen woes. I'm just glad that he's on the team.

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