Nationals Baseball: Strasburg - last year revisited

Friday, February 15, 2013

Strasburg - last year revisited

Remember how last year we all thought Strasburg was just kind of off?  I don't think we give him the credit he deserves because last year was pretty awesome.

You know how many times a player in his first 3 seasons has put up 150+ innings where they struck out at least 10 per 9 innings and had a K/BB ratio of over 3?  7.  Seven times ever in the history of baseball.

Ok yes that is arbitrary number picking and the high strikeout totals certainly favor pitchers in the last 20 years* but still that's impressive, right? And it's not just a "first few seasons thing" His K/BB of 4.10 would have been 5th in the NL if he pitched enough innings to qualify.  He would have led the league in K/9.  He would have been around 25th in the league in BB/9.

You might be thinking "Ok that's good, probably very good, but we didn't expect this guy to be very good we expected him to be great"  First I'd say "That was great, you idiot".  Then I'd note that he didn't get lucky or pitch well (for him) in 2012. Last year was the wildest he's pitched in his admittedly brief career (but also wilder than his last college year). He had a .311 BABIP against him and an 11.5% HR/FB rate, which are both on the higher side of the expected ranges.  Things were probably working against him a little bit. And remember, this is all from a guy who was pitching his first full(-ish) season coming back from Tommy John. 

Strasburg is special. At age 23 in his first full season in the bigs, he came back from surgery, arguably had a little bit of bad luck, arguably didn't pitch to his capabilities, and still put up a season where if he pitched a full load of innings he would have been a Top 5 most valuable pitcher in the majors. It seems very likely that next year he'll improve in some way, healthier, more experience, better luck, and even a slight improvement in one of these would mean the Nationals would get one of the Top 3 pitcher seasons in the league.  If it all comes together, we'd be getting into the historic.

Other things may not work out for the Nats.  Maybe Danny is hurt.  Maybe Gio gets suspended or the whole thing effects him.  Maybe LaRoche does come back to Earth. But Strasburg and Bryce will work out and if things go as well as they could, hell, alone they could carry the Nats to the playoffs.

*4 of the non-Strasburgs were since 1995 : Nomo, Lincecum x2, Prior. The other two were Gooden's 1984 season and Dick Radatz '67 year (when he was 27)


Positively Half St. said...

I agree that it was a great year. I would also remind the many that still say shutting him down hurt the Nationals in the playoffs that the Nats were a strike away from the NLCS twice. But for Storen's bad day, the Nats would have moved on without Strasburg. His absence was not a factor.

Harper said...

+1/2 St - "probably a non-factor" but it's the fact it's not "definitely a non-factor" that bothers people. (of course it can never be definitely - you just don't know.)

cass said...

People are saying that Strasburg's season last year was anything other than spectacular?

Complete lsit of all players who have put up a season of 150+ IP with a higher K% than Strasburg's 2012: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, Curt Schilling, Dwight Gooden, Nolan Ryan, Hideo Nomo.

I'm pretty sure Strasburg is at the top of all the projections this year. A Cy Young award would not be unexpected.

cass said...

No, it was definitely a non-factor. Strasburg's replacement, Ross Detwiler, pitched just as well as Strasburg could have and the Nats won the game.

On the other hand, holding Strasburg back during the regular season might have cost the Nats a few games and meant the Braves winning the division.

Just because the popular opinion is that Strasburg's shutdown kept the Nats from going further in the playoffs does not mean it is not provably wrong. Unfortunately, many provably incorrect opinions are thought to be true by most people.

cass said...

Just to back this up further:

Edwin Jackson had just had a good game against the Cardinals and definitely was the #4 pitcher. He would have pitched over Detwiler had Strasburg pitched in the NLDS.

Gio Gonzalez had a better year and has a longer histroy of being durable than Strasburg. Gio was definitely going to pitch games 1 and 5 even if Strasburg was still in the rotation. Under no circumstances would Strasburg have pitched more than one game in the NLDS, and Detwiler would have pitched none.

I really, really hate that more people haven't thought about this more, but there's nothing you can do about the popular opinion. Everyone who says that shutting down Strasburg hurt the Nats playoff chances is wrong.

Harper said...

cass - oh definitely. The general feeling I got was the mediocre finish led people to think it was just a good year then looking back they correct it to "very good", since Gio had a great season himself and ZNN had a lower ERA. The lack of the last few starts hurt too. I think if he had put in 200 IP the counting stats would have been undeniable.

As for a complete non-factor... you just can't say it for sure unless you are simply sticking Strasburg in Detwiler's Game 4 rotation spot (which I don't think happens) and that games goes pretty much the exactly the same way (which who the hell knows - maybe Strasburg gets a hit, then the pitching to Suzuki is different, then maybe Bryce gets up with men on.....)

I'm not saying it matters in any important way, just admitting that you can never know. You just can't. You could argue the same thing in "what if the Nats started Lombo instead of Danny" or hell "what if they started DeRosa instead of Bryce". Doesn't mean the Nats likely win, it just changes things up so things could be different. Likely worse, but only for certain different, and since the outcome we know was bad, they cling to that latter part, rather than the former

Donald said...

@cass -- while I don't pin the Nats loss in the playoffs to Strasburg's absence in the least, I'm not sure I agree with your analysis. I think it's fairly likely Strasburg would have pitched in game 1. He was their #1 all year while he was in there. Despite overall performances, I think he'd have gone first. I might be wrong, but I don't think it's so cut and dried. And if he did pitch the first game, then everything would be different in some unmeasurable way. You can't assume Gio's performance in game 2 would have matched his actual performance in game 1 and so on.

cass said...

Look, obviously, any little change in the order of the rotation or lineup or what not might have changed everything. Butterfly in the Amazon and all that.

But the relevant analysis is how good the team was. We don't know how good Strasburg would have been if they let him pitchin the playoffs, but his performance was dropping off. His last game was pretty bad.

So I think it's a legitimate question whether he would have done better than the perosn who replaced him, which I maintain is Detwiler. Detwiler did great.

And, anyway, the burden of proof is on the people who said that the Nats should have treated Strasburg differently than they had treated Zimmermann the year before. There's just nothing there.

Ah well. Hopefully all the talk will die down once Strasburg's won a Cy Young and a World Series MVP. Hopefully this year.

blovy8 said...

All I want is for the other NL teams to swing at his stuff like the Pirates did in his first start.
That was a young man against toddlers. Even so, he gave up two runs which is enough to lose a playoff game certainly.

The only thing I'd add to the mix is that Detwiler would have been a good guy to have in the bullpen. Even so, the emphasis was so much on right handed matchups, it's hard to see the impact of his bullpen innings coupled with a Strasburg start changing things much if the other guys were as ineffective. The "momentum" in that series wasn't all that important. If you believe he pitches games 1/5, I could see it, but you're probably looking at a LOT more innings than the guy's ever pitched and coming off a major injury. There really wasn't enough history on the guy to make a different judgement about how far to safely go with him apart from the boilerplate 160 inning theory seemed they used for Zimmermann. I still like to point out how the gradual buildup and leaving innings for the postseason worked out for the Braves with Medlen. It's easy to imagine a similar fate befalling the Nats.
If you pitch him less innings in the regular season, you risk losing the division, and facing the coinflip wildcard game with some infield fly rule, Kozma hitting a homer off a pitch that bounces, or other Cardinal blessing against you, or you leave Strasburg for the divisional series at best, butting up and over his innings limit in the postseason and taking 100 pitches to get through 4 innings in Game 3. Just because they won by 4 games doesn't mean there was a really good time to skip a few starts and KNOW you were going to win. Start him in May and the spring training is messed up, he's probably still throwing someplace, and you'd be assuming you had a good start. Hard to see that being a good idea with all the injuries, lousy Det and Wang starts, and crappy OF depth until Harper came up. And Gio's better-than-advertised year didn't show up in any projections I ever saw.

I think this shutdown stuff won't go away. Even if the Nats win a WS or even multiple ones - there will be those who believe it would have started with 2012 if only they'd found a way to pitch Strasburg in the playoffs.

Harper said...

Gah - if my super awesome readers can turn a column not about the shutdown into a discussion about the shutdown, what hope does America have? What hope?

Donald said...

What's interesting to me is that for all we try to compare line-ups and benches across the league, and argue who has the deeper bench, etc. it really is possible for 1 or 2 players to carry a team. Posey almost certainly carries the Giants. But how common is that?

Does the team with one or two extra special players have an edge over a more well rounded team? Which would you rather have? Certainly having both, which is possible for the Nats is best of all, but it's interesting. When you see a super star traded for multiple prospects, it seems like the GM is opting for the deeper team, but a lot of times that's due to money. And you also see cases where teams go all in to get one terrific player and let go a lot of the supporting cast.

Anonymous said...

Anybody can win or loss in the post season. It is simply too short and it can come down to a play or two. This is a meaningless discussion.

blovy8 said...

I think part of it is a small sample issue. The premier pitchers have thrown a lot more innings, so you can make better projections. Until he pitches a full season, the durability issue, deserved or not, will come up, and it's not helped by how the Nats have babied the guy. I don't think he'll be throwing 200 regular season innings, but if his rates stay as they should, 200 K's are going to get some notice. I would guess a fair estimate would be 17-6, 2.75 ERA with about 230 K's.

Harper said...

cass blovy8 Donald Anon - It should die. It won't die. It left open a question that can't be answered so it'll keep getting asked.

Donald - Posey had help - melky was great and three other guys were above average. You want a guy with next to no help look at George Brett 1985 or McCutcheon last year - then again those teams couldn't score at all.

I looked at it and as far as a TEAM goes it would take three "best in the league" guys to carry a team to the outskirts of playoffs. Four to have a good shot. So Verlander, Strasburg, Bryce and Trout all on the same team having close to career bests could make the playoffs with a bunch of replacement level guys. But really they all need to be firing on all cylinders to do it.

That's why you'd rather have depth. It protects you from injury or the vagaries of performance of one individual. Increases your chances of hitting your expectations by balancing underperformance here with overperformance there.

blovy8 - small sample size hurts but I like that it's spread out among 3 seasons (and one isn't all that small) repeatability of small sample size matters, implies precision.

Froggy said...

Good piece Harper. Notice I don't jump on the 'shuthdown' bandwagon. That is so 2012!

I think Straus will be even better this year as he now has the benefit of having gone a whole season around the horn. I think he knows he doesn't have to throw it 98 mph every pitch and he will use the FB to set up his other equally nasty stuff. The key will be whether he is pitching with a lead more often or not going into the 5-6th.

Now to other things...other than him being 34 years old, tell my why we don't go after Lohse?

Can you imagine...

BlueLoneWolf said...

Froggy- Because do we really want to put Detwiler through that again? Look, we could all tell that post-Wang-disaster Det and pre-Wang-disaster Det were two different people, and that stint in the bullpen helped him, but after we finally got him taped together and on the mound to win some starts (which he did), do we really want to say to him 'sorry, this guy's coming in and taking your spot after what you did last year'? I know that's business, but that can really screw with a team's chemistry without legitimate reason and with a player's psyche. Lannan was playing for a contract because he knew he was going to get out of here. You want to give a 34 year old a replacement deal to get rid of a 27-year old that's really gotten his act together? You just don't ditch good starting pitching like that, especially with the youth that you need at the position...

So yes. It's because he's 34 and you've got a younger cheaper guy there already that's shown plenty of promise.

Froggy said...

BLF, I'm a big National Det fan also. Looking closer at Lohse's career numbers and subtracting his great last season, he is a 102-106 wins, 4.6 career ERA guy. Not great and not what I thought either.

So, like you said, give Det his shot, he earned it. And besides, we are playing with house money.

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