Stephen Strasburg and bad luck for great pitchers

Strasburg has impressed this year, but he should be even better. - Patrick Smith

In 2014 (and in his career as a whole), the Washington righty hasn't lived up to his potential; however, he's still pitched phenomenally as a whole. That combination is an unusual one, to say the least.

From the day he arrived at the major leagues, Stephen Strasburg has justified the #1 overall selection the Nationals used on him. Hindered only by a pesky UCL tear, he's dominated whenever he's been healthy. His single-season ERA- has never risen above 86 — meaning he's always been at least 14% better than league average — and his career ERA- of 78 ranks 40th all-time among starters with 500 innings. Despite this, people don't seem to recognize just how spectacular he really is; I'd imagine that chance probably has a hand in that.

That 40th-place ERA- is pretty impressive, especially when you recognize that it's out of 1,688 pitchers. What's more impressive is Strasburg's career FIP- of 71, the fourth-best mark ever. This isn't the result of one fluky year, either — in five big-league seasons, his ERA- has been above his FIP- in all but one (2013). Yes, it seems that as well as Strasburg has pitched (and as the aforementioned statistics should prove, he has pitched quite well), he has nevertheless underperformed — he has, somehow, managed to be both unlucky and still really good.

Strasburg's 2014 season perfectly encapsulates all that has ailed him throughout his tenure in the majors. While his 86 ERA- thus far is certainly nothing to sneeze at, his 63 FIP- really separates him from the crowd: The former number comes in at 36th out of 99 qualified pitchers, but the latter places third. Looking at these numbers, you'd suspect the Luck Dragons have turned on Mr. Strasburg; his 69.7% strand rate and .358 batting average on balls in play confirm these suspicions. However, a 29.3% strikeout rate and a 5.5% walk rate have kept his ERA at a superb 3.10. In short: He has excelled in 2014, but he should have excelled much more.

Others have noted his misfortune, and analyzed the various causes behind it, but I don't want to look at it from that angle. Instead, as is my wont, I feel the need to ask: How common is this? How often have skill and misfortune colluded to create this hapless hurler?

We'll need to set some parameters. Let's go back to 1920, because I don't feel like going back further than that. From then until now, there have been 7,083 qualified pitcher seasons. Of them, only 367 have featured a gap of at least twenty points between their ERA- and their FIP-. So bad luck, period, is fairly rare, which seems logical.

But just measuring by the gap sells Strasburg short. Remember, although he's been star-crossed so far, he has still done quite well. Out of those 367 campaigns, how many also featured a better-than-average (i.e. sub-100) ERA-?

Not many — 21, to be exact:

Season Name K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- ERA--FIP-
1975 Ron Reed 13.00% 5.00% 0.311 65.70% 95 67 28
1984 Dwight Gooden 31.40% 8.30% 0.296 72.50% 74 49 25
1960 Gene Conley 15.20% 5.50% 0.303 67.90% 98 74 24
2010 Francisco Liriano 24.90% 7.20% 0.331 73.10% 88 64 24
1994 Erik Hanson 19.50% 4.40% 0.332 69.10% 98 74 24
2011 Zack Greinke 28.10% 6.30% 0.318 69.80% 99 76 23
2014 Stephen Strasburg 29.30% 5.50% 0.358 69.70% 86 63 23
1991 David Cone 25.00% 7.60% 0.301 70.90% 91 68 23
2002 Roger Clemens 25.00% 8.20% 0.316 68.30% 99 77 22
1925 Dazzy Vance 20.30% 6.10% 0.302 65.90% 84 62 22
2014 Aaron Harang 24.20% 7.60% 0.317 71.40% 91 69 22
1988 Dwight Gooden 17.10% 5.60% 0.301 70.50% 97 75 22
2001 Andy Pettitte 19.10% 4.80% 0.332 66.80% 91 70 21
2002 Chuck Finley 21.50% 9.60% 0.313 67.70% 98 77 21
2002 Curt Schilling 31.10% 3.20% 0.297 74.50% 75 54 21
1957 Mike Fornieles 13.40% 6.90% 0.294 67.90% 97 76 21
1972 Andy Messersmith 20.60% 9.90% 0.254 73.90% 98 77 21
1976 Dennis Eckersley 24.40% 9.50% 0.27 71.00% 99 78 21
1997 John Burkett 16.80% 3.60% 0.346 68.30% 96 75 21
1969 Bob Veale 21.70% 9.30% 0.338 74.20% 91 71 20
1965 Mickey Lolich 22.30% 7.10% 0.281 73.10% 98 78 20

Most of these men succeeded with regards to plate discipline, but fell short when it came to allowing hits and stranding runners. The important takeaway, though, is that while some pitchers have pulled this off, it's incredibly rare. Misfortune and excellence generally don't commiserate, which only makes Strasburg's achievements all the more odd.

This trend probably won't continue, if the projections are to be believed. ZiPS foresees a 2.80 FIP to go with a 2.74 ERA, which would bring Strasburg's season ERA and FIP to 2.89 and 2.63, respectively — still unlucky, just not historically so. With that said, projections have been wrong before; as their team disappoints them for the second straight year, fans of the Nationals can at least hope for him to keep this up. A playoff berth probably won't come out of the 2014 season, but a weird tidbit could.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Thursday, June 5th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Veep, Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO. Boldly running for president. Proudly standing for everything.

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