The Nats Will Never Win It All (Part 1):
The Year Strasburg was the Worst Pitcher in Baseball
May 20, 2015
It pains me to say it but even with as talented as the Nationals seem to be, they will never win a championship, not with this roster. There are simply too many obstacles. In this two part column, I will list and analyze the reasons why despite their immense talent on the roster, they simply are incapable of winning baseball’s biggest prize.
The first reason and the focus of this page is Stephen Strasburg. Hailed as the best pitching prospect ever when he was drafted, he has, with the exception of an occasional few games, been disappointing in both his overall output and how much he has matured. It is true that he came to the big leagues with relatively little minor league experience but that would not have happened unless he had not already possessed each of one of the top ten fastballs, change-ups and curveballs in the big leagues when he debuted. Rare is a pitcher who throws one pitch that is considered “plus” by scouts, and he has three.
However, this year in particular, Strasburg has not only failed to move himself into the uppermost echelon of starting pitchers, he is arguably the worst pitcher in baseball. For fantasy owners, he is without question the worst as he likely was one of the more expensive buys on draft day yet has produced some of the worst numbers.
There have been rumors that he is not mentally tough on the mound, that he doesn’t possess the killer instinct that the great ones possess. It is true that for his career batters hit a little better against him with runners on base (.266/.348/.320) and with runners in scoring position (.265/.335/.321) than they do when the bases are empty (.214/.311/.269). But this is also true for Matt Harvey (.200/.274/.252 empty, .228/.295/.277 with runners on, .245/.349/.301 with runners in scoring position), a pitcher whose make-up is considered off-the-charts and is hailed as everything one could want in a top-of-the-rotation ace. And the difference in their numbers might be due to nothing more than the fact that Strasburg has had three more seasons of experience. Of course, there are pitchers like Clayton Kershaw who are actually better against the imminent threat of runs, so there may be something to this. But that is not why Strasburg’s ERA is over 6.00 this year.
Others have suggested that he had a spring training ankle injury that slightly tweaked his mechanics and that he still hasn’t fully recovered. Maybe there is something to this but I haven’t found much that would indicate his mechanics are significantly different than they were last year. They are certainly different than they were when he was drafted so maybe he and the Nationals coaching staff should look to that video for other ways to improve.
My concern is with his relationship with Wilson Ramos, the primary catcher for the Nats. Simply put, Strasburg is at his worst when Ramos is behind the plate. And despite a reputation as a good defensive catcher who frames pitches well, I submit that Ramos’ pitch calling is well below average and that he has a tendency to give the opposition additional chances with his lazy play behind the plate. But I’ll address Ramos specifically in the next column. This one is about Strasburg.
First, the pitch calling. While Ramos is the one calling the pitch, it is the pitcher who ultimately has the final choice as to which pitch he wants to throw. So it’s largely Strasburg’s fault if he is throwing a pitch he doesn’t want to throw. The thing that has bothered me more than anything is how predictable their pitch selection has been. I haven’t yet compared the frequency with other pitchers, but for a pitcher who has three plus pitches as well as a serviceable fourth pitch, they throw an awful lot of first pitch fastballs.
Strasburg first pitch fastballs
5/23 – 14 of 20 (70%) first 3 of 4
5/17 - 16 of 22 (73%) first 10 batters
5/12 - 13 of 20 (65%) first 5 of 6
5/5 – 13 of 17 (76%) first 4 of 5
4/30 – 16 of 23 (70%) first 3 of 4
4/25 – 20 of 25 (80%) first 12 batters
4/19 – 18 of 30 (60%) first 3 of 4
4/14 – 19 of 27 (70%) first 4 of 5
4/9 – 20 of 26 (77%) first 9 batters
Total – 149 of 210 (71%)
Bold = Quality outing in which he allowed fewer hits than innings pitched and posted an ERA under 4.00.
His lowest ratio of first pitch fastballs occurred on 4/19. I believe not coincidentally that is why it was his best start of the year. He has started at least three of the first four batters in every game with a fastball and in three games he has started off at least each of the first nine batters with fastballs. A batter has known walking to the plate that there is a 71% chance that he will see a fastball on the first pitch. If he were facing Bartolo Colon, a pitcher who basically only has one good pitch (fastball) and throws it 80% of the time, that would make sense. But for a pitcher with the repertoire Strasburg has, and who has historically thrown fastballs roughly 60% of the time in total, he is giving the hitter a significant advantage by letting them know that the fastball is coming first. Ironically enough, when there has been at least a second pitch of the at bat, he has followed that first fastball with another 66% of the time. Remove the start against Philly on 4/19 in which he mixed his pitches reasonably well, and that percentage goes up to 68% of the time. This has been true to a lesser extent with his other pitches as well; whatever Strasburg starts the at bat throwing, there is a better than even chance that the next pitch will be exactly the same.
If a batter knows what’s coming and only has to look for location he has a huge advantage because he already has already seen the timing and trajectory of the pitch.
And we see some of this in his results. Strasburg’s swinging strike percentage has been among the best in baseball for the past five years; this year he ranks 148th among starters. Batters are making contact with pitches in the zone almost 10% more often than they have in previous years. They are making contact with pitches outside the zone nearly 20% more often. He’s not fooling anyone. The total number of pitches in the zone are 5% up so that accounts for some of it, but the other? His fastball, which has averaged nearly 5 runs above average the first four years of his career, is more than 3 runs below average this year. His change-up, which has rated almost as effective as his fastball (last year, far moreso) is also a negative pitch this year. Since there has been no significant loss in velocity or movement, this has to be the result of either the pitch locations or the pitch sequencing.
Perhaps heat maps of his locations will reveal that he is throwing the ball over the center of the plate more, and perhaps Strasburg has always been somewhat predictable with his use of his fastball. All I know is that being this predictable can’t help his cause and unless he insists on changing this pattern – and he has shown little evidence that he wants to change - his struggles will very likely continue.
(Editor’s note: Brad Johnson of Fangraphs posted Strasburg’s heat maps from last year and this and it reveals that he is indeed throwing the ball in the middle of the strikezone more. Combine that with predictable pitch selection and it’s no wonder why it seems like he’s throwing batting practice every start… because essentially, he is.)