Thanks to pure unadulterated filthiness by Stephen Strasburg in his first several major-league seasons, he’s become a household name — even for the casual baseball fan. It’s really quite hard to find someone who’s never heard of the Washington Nationals power-arm. With that type of attention on you, you’re going to be judged, often quite harshly, since with greatness comes high expectations. Strasburg knows that better than most.
As Paul Swydan of FanGraphs so eloquently put it in his piece on Strasburg back in June, the fans have been tough on Strasburg. He’s had a dominant career so far despite being limited by injuries. Among 83 pitchers with at least 700 innings since 2012, he’s fifth in FIP-, 11th in ERA-, fourth in xFIP-, fifth in strikeout rate, fourth in strikeout to walk rate, and seventh in batting average against. He’s easily a top-10 starter and actually is closer to the top five, certainly an ace.
As good as Strasburg has been these last few season and in his career as a whole, injuries seem to be holding him back, at least slightly. They’re not preventing him from being one of the best pitchers in the league, as he is already there — Swydan makes a good case for that — but rather injuries are stopping him from becoming the best pitcher in the league not named Clayton Kershaw.
Since May of 2015, Strasburg has been placed on the disabled list five separate times, with ailments ranging from neck tightness, to an oblique strain, to right elbow soreness and nerve impingement. Unfortunately for Strasburg, it appears the most challenging aspect of baseball for him is remaining healthy for a full season.
One thing that I believe will benefit Strasburg more than anyone else on the Nationals — or perhaps in the league, for that matter — is a six-man rotation. Many will quickly scoff at this idea, chalking it up to a bad stretch for Strasburg, but there’s more to the story.
Since 2014, Strasburg has yet to reach 30 starts in any single season. With 22 starts so far this season, he’s well outside the pace for 30 starts, and with 24 and 23 starts last season and the season before, he’s barely reaching three-quarters of a full season. In fact, he’s only made at least 30 starts in a season twice in his career, in 2013 and 2014 with 30 and 34 starts, respectively.
It’s not that Strasburg is having major injuries that are keeping him out of the rotation for weeks or even months — they’re minor injuries that are sidelining him for a start or two and sometimes a couple of weeks. Between Strasburg’s tendency to see the short-term disabled list at least once a season and fellow starter Max Scherzer’s recent neck issue which landed him on the disabled list after popping up earlier in the month, the Nationals are smartly exploring the idea of a six-man rotation.
Dusty even said Nats might consider six-man rotation in September to limit innings.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) August 30, 2017
It sounds good enough to Dusty Baker that they have already been trying it out. Strasburg’s last two starts were on the 24th and 30th of August, six days apart rather than the usual five. Scherzer is now experiencing the same thing. His last start was Monday the 28th of August, and his next start will be Sunday the third of September, which is a six-day gap. Whether Washington mixes and matches the other starters like Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark or simply adds another arm during September call-ups remains to be seen.
Regardless of how they handle the other pitchers, this could give Strasburg the extra rest he needs in-between starts to prevent any trips to the disabled list. As I mentioned earlier, since May of 2015 Strasburg has seen the disabled list five times and had his starts skipped numerous times as well.
If the only thing holding back one of the best pitchers in baseball is a few minor ailments, and since it seems like Strasburg picks up right where he left off whenever he pitches, wouldn’t the smartest thing be to give Strasburg an extra day of rest?
It definitely worked on Wednesday, as Strasburg made his first start in six days. He threw only the second complete-game shutout of his career, tossing nine innings of six-hit baseball while striking out eight and walking only one batter. He also went 2-for-4 with the bat, including a home run — his second of the season.
The table below shows Strasburg’s stats from starts he made on four days of rest, which is the norm for a five-man rotation. Five days of rest would be what Strasburg would receive in a six-man rotation, and six-plus days of rest is when his starts were skipped or he returned from injury. These splits seem to show that he pitches best on more than four days of rest.
Stephen Strasburg - Days Rest Splits
|Stat||4 DR||5 DR||6+ DR|
|Stat||4 DR||5 DR||6+ DR|
With the Nationals deep in a postseason chase that puts them only four games out of securing the National League East division title, any further injuries to either Strasburg or Scherzer would be catastrophic. For them to have a chance at a deep run including a trip to the World Series, they need both Strasburg and Scherzer healthy. To ensure that happens, Washington needs to continue giving both five days of rest in-between starts.
For Strasburg, the split numbers back up the theory that he pitches much better on more than four days of rest. This means the new rotation plan could work, at least for Strasburg if not for both him and Scherzer. If it does pay off, you may see something similar from the Nationals next season. Maybe other teams, with an injury-prone starter, may begin following suit. It’s a trend toward more healthy pitching, which is never a bad thing.
Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.