Bleacher Report dubbed Stephen Strasburg, just two weeks after being drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals, either the “LeBron James of baseball,” or, on the opposite spectrum, a “big time bust.” Not like we needed the answer now or have some further insight, but it’s clear, for the record: neither, obviously.
He didn’t become the face of baseball, and he’s not even the best starting pitcher on the team. Yet that doesn’t make him an incredibly special talent, something we’ll learn even more this offseason.
Six pitchers have more fWAR than Strasburg since his first full season in 2012: Zack Greinke (Hall of Famer), Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander (Hall of Famer), Chris Sale (we’re getting to Hall of Famer), Clayton Kershaw (Hall of Famer), and Max Scherzer (Hall of Famer). Not bad company! In terms of RA9-WAR, it’s a more modest tenth, but you get the idea: despite the ups-and-downs, this is one of the premier pitchers in the game, as originally predicted.
And if you’re going by more sophisticated stats like Deserved Run Average, he was the very best pitcher of 2019, worth a whopping 8.26 WARP, about a half-win better than his Game Six counterpart, Justin Verlander.
Verlander, to the Nationals’ benefit, could be troubling in a possible game-changing kind of match-up. Over his last four starts, six of his ten earned runs were allowed in the first inning. Sure, three of those could be attributed to Aaron Hicks’ three-run shot against the foul pole, but he looked similarly weak in the first inning of Game Three, allowing a walk, a single, and a double to start off the game.
Verlander didn’t give the Nats another opportunity until the seventh, but the point stands: being vulnerable early on with command could be devastating in one out of early few chances; Washington just needs to, in ways they haven’t, capitalize on those brief moments, just like the Yankees couldn’t.
Which brings us back to Strasburg, who really has an excellent shot at out-dueling Verlander; it’s a big reason why they matched up more favorably than New York, who just couldn’t keep up with the aces with their more tired bullpen.
His own postseason has been stellar, with a sparkling 1.93 ERA/1.96 FIP in 28 innings, including 40 strikeouts. In his total playoff career, he has allowed just seven earned runs in 47 innings while striking out 64. It’s no exaggeration that he’s one of the great postseason starters of the last few years, and a great start would merely be the capstone.
What’s interesting is that despite Strasburg finding a ton of success using his curve throughout the year—to the tune of using it a career-high 30.6% of the time this year—he has eschewed it a bit more in recent starts:
The approach against the Dodgers in Game Five of the NLDS, where he tossed six innings and allowed three runs, was rather simple:
In their case, the focus was to sprinkle fastballs up in the zone but largely a) spin curves for strike, and b) use curves and changes to chase. Against the Astros, the strategy is similar but the distribution shifts:
Curves in Game Two were used more to get one over for a strike, changes still used to chase, and surprisingly, a sinker or two-seamer (the interpretation of the pitch changes depending on the tracker system) to operate on an east-west basis against hitters.
If I’m Strasburg, I’m thinking of going somewhere near the latter approach. Using the curve to drop one in against the Astros of all teams could be a terrible idea, so using the sinker to keep hitters off balance is important. The only true four-seamers the heart of the order should see is right around eye level, and changes and curves should basically always look like they’re on the lower third and hitting the black.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Yet for a pitcher who has made it this far, from draft pick who could be a superstar to starting pitcher in an elimination game who basically became one, this is par for the course for the big right-hander. The postseason is all about making adjustments and wiggling your way to success against superior offensive competition, and tonight will be no different.