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Pretending the Strasburg-Kershaw matchup still happened

What would have happened if the Nationals righty had taken the mound on Monday night?

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I’m not the only one who was disappointed to hear that Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg was not going to appear in Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Strasburg set to finally face Clayton Kershaw, it was supposed to be a night for the ages at Dodger Stadium. Fans, players, and Vin Scully especially were disappointed when the Nationals made the announcement that Strasburg would be scratched from the game after being unable to rid himself of tightness in his upper back that started on Saturday. It seems minor and he should be fine, but manager Dusty Baker likely made the right move starting Yusmeiro Petit to ensure that Strasburg has plenty of time to recover given what’s happened in the past.

There was tons of hype around the Strasburg-Kershaw matchup, and rightfully so. Kershaw continues to establish himself as a dominant figure on the mound and the best pitcher in baseball right now. He leads the league with his 1.57 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 141 strikeouts through 115 innings pitched. Without belaboring the obvious, Strasburg has also proven to be back, back again. His velocity is up, he’s got good feel for his slider, and he’s third in the league in strikeouts with 118, just behind Max Scherzer at 128. The game even had something for the W-L crew, as Kershaw and Strasburg had a combined 20-1 record entering Monday, 10-1 and 10-0 respectively.

If you love a good pitching duel, this match made in heaven turned out to be too good to be true. But, the game went on and Petit delivered a quality start, giving up two home runs and striking out five. It was the run production that wasn’t there for the Nationals on Monday. Both teams put seven hits on the board, but the Nationals only scored one and left six men on base. The Washington team struggled against the Kershaw, who earned his eleventh win of the season last night and struck out eight.

But let’s pretend for a second that Strasburg didn’t have back tightness. Let’s pretend it’s Monday night and Dusty Baker hands the ball to Strasburg and everything goes as planned. What would have happened?

Kershaw still would have been Kershaw and handled the Nationals, but let’s speculate about just how close a battle between Strasburg and Kershaw would’ve been.

Petit got his first start of 2016 last night, mostly due to the fact that the starting rotation for the Nationals hasn’t missed a beat. As far as his performance, no one was expecting him to be Strasburg. Collectively the Dodgers hit .226 and Petit posted a 4.50 ERA and 6.29 FIP. The last time Strasburg faced the Dodgers in 2014, he posted a 2.45 ERA and a 2.31 FIP, for what it’s worth.

Petit is a pretty average pitcher, and it goes without saying that Strasburg is a great one. But is the difference between Strasburg and Petit enough to make a difference in the outcome of a Nationals v. Dodgers game with Kershaw on the mound? Based on Strasburg’s ERA, we could expect him to give up around two runs in six or seven innings. Petit gave up three. Interestingly, the two Nationals pitchers have a similar ERA-, with Strasburg at 71 and Petit just four points above at 75. While that may be one of the limited similarities between the two, since Petit’s FIP is much worse than Strasburg’s. Without run production behind him, Strasburg’s performance on the mound seems like it wouldn’t be enough to win against Kershaw.

So while baseball fans everywhere were let down that they didn’t get to watch a serious pitching duel, Petit didn’t pitch much worse than you would have expected Strasburg to pitch. With Strasburg in the game, the score likely would have been a closer – and the game certainly a more exciting experience – but with the same outcome.

Fans missed out on Strasburg’s velocity and increased use of his new slider is also something he brings to the table, but were treated to Petit’s deceptive ways. It’s easy to overvalue the impact of one baseball player, even a starting pitcher, in any single game. Strasburg is a much better pitcher than Petit but the difference between great and ordinary just isn’t that large on most nights. Against a lesser opponent, that margin can make a big difference, but against a superhuman like Kershaw, it’s mostly aesthetic.

So, to Vin Scully (and everyone else), I hope this eases the pain of missing out on the highly anticipated matchup.