/Stephen Strasburg Is Proving His Worth to Nationals … and to the Rest of MLB

Stephen Strasburg Is Proving His Worth to Nationals … and to the Rest of MLB

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 14: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals smiles as he walks back to the dug out in the fifth inning of game three of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park on October 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The time for selling Stephen Strasburg short is over.

There are only a few weeks left until the Washington Nationals ace has to decide between taking the four years and $100 million left on his contract or opting out to seek greater riches in free agency. And with the way he’s pitching, Door No. 2 may be looking more enticing by the day.

On Monday, Strasburg was front and center in the Nationals’ 8-1 over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. He pitched seven innings and allowed only one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts.

The Nationals have outscored the Cardinals 13-2 in the process of racking up a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Their first-ever World Series ticket could be punched as soon as Tuesday at Nationals Park.

Assuming that celebration eventually does take place, plenty of individual Nats players will be extra deserving of a champagne shower.

Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick have been racking up clutch hit after clutch hit since the calendar turned to October. And as good as he was in Game 3, Strasburg hasn’t even been Washington’s best pitcher in the NLCS. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer each gave up one hit over 14.2 combined innings in the first two games.

And yet October 2019 feels fundamentally like Stephen Strasburg’s moment. Never before has the 31-year-old felt more essential to the Nationals, much less more like one of the quintessential aces in Major League Baseball. 

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Believe it or not, it’s already been 10 years since the Nationals picked Strasburg out of San Diego State with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. Likewise, it’s already been nine years since he electrified the baseball world with 14 strikeouts in his major league debut.

It seemed back then like a straight and narrow path to the Baseball Hall of Fame lay ahead of Strasburg. After all, how could a guy with exceptional control of a triple-digit fastball, a knee-buckling curveball and a disappearing changeup possibly fail?

“Let us count the ways,” said the baseball gods.

Not long after he arrived in the majors in 2010, Strasburg’s elbow broke down, and he had to sit for more than a year after having Tommy John surgery. Infamously, that later begat the Nationals’ controversial decision to shut him down ahead of the 2012 postseason.

Despite that major precaution and more minor ones in ensuing years, the injury bug has nonetheless continued to take bites out of Strasburg. Over the last eight seasons, he’s topped 30 starts three times and 200 innings only twice.

Though he’s been an occasional All-Star and Cy Young Award contender, he also hasn’t had the easiest time living up to his sky-high potential. There’s never been anything wrong with his strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he’s been prone to good-not-great ERAs by way of a proneness to loud contact.

In 2019, however, pretty much everything about Strasburg changed for the better.

For one thing, he stayed healthy enough to log an NL-high 209 innings. For another, he was able to mitigate any harmful effects from a downturn in his average fastball velocity—to “only” 93.9 mph—by adopting a new pitch mix:

Courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

The slider Strasburg was throwing between 2016 and 2018? That was gone. In addition, his fastball usage featured fewer four-seamers and more two-seamers.

As Strasburg explained to Byron Kerr of MASN: 

“[My sinker is] a pitch that complements my other ones pretty well. You look around the league and there are guys that are fastball hitters, and at the same time four-seamers don’t struggle with two-seam. So, I think when you have that variation and you have confidence to throw either one, depending on who you are facing, it can really be used to your advantage.”

Strasburg’s new-look repertoire didn’t cost him in the strikeout-to-walk department, where he put up a par-for-the-course 4.5 mark. What it did do, however, was help him with his contact management. His ground-ball and hard-hit rates were both better than average to an all-new degree:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Thus was Strasburg able to win a career-high 18 games and finished with a 3.32 ERA, which translated to the second-best full-season ERA+ of his career.

So has it gone for the veteran right-hander in the postseason. He’s racked up 33 strikeouts and only one walk over 22 total innings, and he’s been keeping the bulk of his batted balls on the ground

Strasburg’s career postseason track record, meanwhile, is inching toward Gibson-ian, Schilling-ian or Bumgarner-ian levels of magnificence. It now includes a 1.10 ERA, 57 strikeouts and five walks over 41 innings.

If the Nationals achieve what would seem to be a very likely sweep on Tuesday, they’ll have every reason to give Strasburg the ball for Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 22. After that, nothing short of an injury might keep him from opting out in search of a free-agent payday in the $125 million to $150 million range.

That, certainly, would be an appropriate cap on a season that feels like it’s been a long time coming.

                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.