So Stephen Strasburg wants to be a workhorse.
I can’t say I blame him. He, and more specifically the Washington Nationals, came under the gun at the end of the 2012 season when the Nationals decided to shut him down on Sept. 7, after 28 starts and 159.1 innings. The logic the team employed was based somewhat on the so-called Verducci Effect, whereby some teams expect pitchers to break down if their innings are increased too rapidly. They also didn’t want to over-tax his arm coming off of the surgery.
The surgery and rehabilitation kept Strasburg out for nearly a calendar year, allowing him to log 44.1 innings in 2011 across five levels. In 2010, he had pitched 123.1 innings across three levels. In 2012, the team was still relatively aggressive in allowing him go 159.1 innings.
The key argument against shutting Strasburg down was that the Nationals were in a playoff race. They ended up winning the NL Easy by four games with the league’s best record and were eliminated in the NLDS, three games to two, by the St. Louis Cardinals. Whether Strasburg could have pushed them over in that playoff series is impossible to know, but it doesn’t appear holding him out hurt the Nationals in their push for the playoffs.
Now, some questioned whether his 159 innings could have been spread out to last longer by pitching him every six days or limiting him to five innings per start (he averaged about 5.7). That’s fair, but let’s look ahead to 2013 instead. Having pitched 159 innings last year, most teams would probably feel safe bumping Strasburg into the 190 range. Mike Rizzo has said there is no limit. But not Strasburg:
It’s going to be a great opportunity and a fun year…200-plus innings is a huge goal for me…(hopefully) I can be the workhorse in the rotation.
40 or more extra innings of Strasburg this year? Sign me up! But how will he hold up with the increased workload, whether it be via more starts or longer starts?
This route seems obvious, but Strasburg actually started 28 games last year, so there’s only room to add four, maybe five, more starts. If we look at his monthly splits, he didn’t really appear to slow down so much as just experience monthly fluctuations in his indicators. At the half-season level, his second half was only slightly less impressive than his first half. We also don’t see much of a drop-off in velocity, as he ramps up to a June peak and slows a bit. However, Bill Petti has shown that July velocity drop-offs can be cause for concern (although Strasburg’s drop isn’t nearly as pronounced).
This is where things could get more interesting. If Strasburg started 33 games at his pace from last season, he’d end up at about 188 innings. He reasonably needs to average a hair over six innings a start to hit 200 innings (6.06 if he starts 33 games, 6.25 if he starts 32 and 6.67 if he starts just 30).
Here we can see that Strasburg doesn’t really lose anything as he gets later into the game, either. It’s tough to really determine, since he only pitched five innings later than the sixth, so we have almost no sample beyond there. Still, we see a bit of a dip in the sixth inning, but that comes after the fifth, which was his strongest, and the fourth, which was his worst. There is no clear evidence he’s getting worse as the game progresses.
Now, what if hitters are figuring him out later in the game, but for whatever reason this hasn’t manifested itself in FIP or walks and strikeouts (say, for example, more hits start falling in, he allows more extra-base hits, or whatever)?
We don’t really see a difference between the second and third time out, though we do see a drop-off in performance after a batter sees him for the first time. This isn’t really a striking breakthrough, though the jump in OPS despite steady strikeout and walk rates is alarming. However, it is mostly fuelled by a .370 BABIP in the third plate appearance, which is probably unsustainably high.
Finally, we see that he doesn’t experience much of a decline as his pitch count rises.
*He did not show a significant drop-off later in games, though he was rarely left in beyond the sixth.
*His first time facing a batter is deadly, and slightly less deadly thereafter.
*He shoes no appreciable decline as his pitch count rises.
It appears, based on 2012’s evidence, that Strasburg can reasonably be expected to perform just as well with more innings, whether it be later in the season via more starts or via longer outings, or both.
But can he do it?
This is the big question. From a medical standpoint, it’s likely one that is better left for brighter minds, such as Jon Roegele, our resident Tommy John expert. However, Strasburg used four pitches per plate appearance and 16.4 pitches per inning last season. Even with "no limit" to his workload, Davey Johnson is going to be hesitant to let Strasburg fire more than 100 bullets too often. That pitch-per-inning pace is enough to get him 6.1 innings per start with a 100-pitch limit, so it’s still a reasonable goal. It would certainly help his case to become a bit more pitch efficient, though.
Otherwise, I don’t really see a case for why he couldn’t be just as successful over 200 innings this season. Awesome.