Holding Court: What’s Eating Stephen Strasburg?

Janet Jackson – Nasty (Music Video) from Mary Lambert, Director on Vimeo.

What does Janet Jackson have to do with Stephen Strasburg’s current struggles?  Court illuminates, read on.

So why does Stephen Strasburg suck right now?

Okay, okay, he doesn’t suck. After his last start, he actually lowered his ERA to below last year’s numbers, but he can’t seem to give his team a chance. So what’s wrong? I decided to look into his advanced stats on Fangraphs.com (so you don’t have to) and found some interesting info. The sample size for this season is ridiculously small but I was mostly looking for numbers that were out of line from last year’s stats.

 Is it his velocity?

No. All of his pitch velocities closely match his averages from last year. The four-seamer is a little slower, but the two-seamer is actually harder.

 Is it his lack of first pitch strikes, like Boz says?

I don’t think so. He’s only throwing 57% first-pitch strikes compared to 62% last year, but I don’t think that’s enough to explain his troubles. Strasburg was 37th in this category in 2012, so it’s not like he has been the picture of efficiency over his career. Besides, Chris Sale did okay last year throwing 57% first-pitch strikes. Overall, Stras has thrown just about the same ratio of balls and strikes as he ever has.

 He must be allowing a lot more base-runners then, huh?

Not really. His WHIP was actually lower this year until all the walks his last start against the Braves. His walk rate is up slightly, but not enough to be the main problem. Ed: For More on WHIP

 What about luck? All those dying quails are killing him, yes?

Nope, not that. His BABIP this year is lower than his career average, and 2012, so by that standard, he’s actually been more lucky this year. Ed: For More on BABIP

 Is he not a winner?

Child please.

So what the hell is it? It’s ‘pitching to contact’, isn’t it?

I really want to say ‘yes’ here. I fall firmly in the Pitch to Strikeout #P2K camp, while we all know Frank is a sheep in the #P2C flock (ED: I prefer to think of it as Pitch Assuming Contact, but okay) lead by shepard/pitching coach, Steve McCatty. So why do I think I know better than the professionals (and Frank)? Because strikeouts work. They keep hot things hot and cold things cold. They make light bulbs burn longer. They can make Chuck Norris cry, which in turn cures cancer. You can’t score walking back to the dugout. When I started looking into the numbers, I did so with the hopes of proving this #P2C notion is total hogwash.

Strasburg’s striking out about two and half fewer hitters every 9 innings so that has to be it.

Wrong again.

Yes the K/9 is down, but it’s still a very respectable 8.68 per 9 innings. More people are putting the ball in play against Stras, but as I’ve pointed out, his BABIP and WHIP are in line with last year. The vast majority of this is coming on pitches OUT of the strike zone. In fact, hitters are making  contact with almost 11% more pitches out of the strike zone despite swinging at pretty much the same percentage of pitches as last year. This means he’s much more successful at getting hitters to chase bad pitches producing weak contact (supported by the lower BABIP). This tells me that despite what I think about pitching to contact, Strasburg is getting guys to put bad pitches in play and is just as successful as he’s ever been at keeping guys off the bases.

But here’s where the other edge of the P2C sword comes into play: Strasburg is worse at stranding runners right now. Last year, only 24% of baserunner scored. This year, it’s up to 31%. Maybe even more interesting is looking at what hitters have done against him with men on base. Last season, there was no real difference. Hitters had a wOBA of .286 with the bases empty, a wOBA of .285 with men on and a wOBA of .300 when those men got into scoring position. Pretty steady. So far this year the numbers are similar with nobody on versus men on at wOBAs of .278 and .281 respectively. However that wOBA jumps to .318 with runners in scoring position which accounts for the lower LOB%. Ed: We don’t have a wOBA article yet but it’s coming.  Here’s a helpful page for now

So why?

That’s relatively easy. Lefties are killing him. Righties are hitting .211/.228/.278 which equals a wOBA of .218 and have struck out 25 times while walking only twice. Lefties, however, are hitting .264/.391/.434 (wOBA of .367!) and have walked almost as much as they’ve struck out – 10 BBs to 11 Ks.

And I think I know why: the curveball.

 Every Ace needs another one in the hole. For Strasburg, that’s been his curveball – Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty. Fangraphs has a cool feature called Pitch Values. They rate just how good a particular pitch is compared to the rest of the league. It shows us that Stras had three “plus” pitches last year – his four-seam fastball, his change-up and his curveball (his two-seamer was average), with the curveball being twice as valuable as the other two (and 9x more valuable than the two-seamer).

Ms. Jackson, indeed.

Unfortunately, Ms. Jackson has been on sabbatical so far this year. A pitch that was about 2 runs better than average (per 100 pitches) was almost a run below average before the Braves start. That’s quite a drop-off. And it means Strasburg hasn’t had his best weapon, or at least hasn’t been using it as well until then.

A deeper look shows that he’s not throwing it for strikes, 44% down from 48%, and thus, he’s getting fewer swings and fewer swings and misses. Hitters swung at Ms. Jackson 35% of the time last year and of those swings, they missed completely on about 13% of those swings. This year’s swing % and swinging-strike % are down to 28% and 9.6% comparatively.

 I believe Strasburg is accomplishing most of what he’s been trying by pitching to contact – homers are down, line drives are down, hitters are putting bad pitches in play with less success. He’s going longer into games, but he hasn’t been able to put lefties away when he needs to. With his curveball.

 Ultimately, the numbers show that Strasburg’s best pitches are the ones hitters can’t touch. I’m all for trying to figure out new ways to get guys out. Just don’t forget the old ways (has ‘Game of Thrones’ taught us nothing?) They say behind every good man is a good woman and Strasburg is no different. He needs to do whatever it takes to get Ms. Jackson back. Switch numbers with Denard Span. Take Hollywood Gonzalez out for a walk. Sit through a ‘Nutty Professor’ marathon. Leave no stone unturned. Because when She comes back, He comes back.

 Perhaps the courtship between Mr. Strasburg and Ms. Jackson is beginning to thaw. While first inning troubles got Strasburg again the last time out, his curveball was the best it’s been all year. The pitch’s value went from almost a run below average before the Braves start, to almost a run better. Eight strikeouts was a 2013 game-high for him despite having his lowest fastball velocity of the year. For a man known as a flame-thrower, it was Strasburg’s curveball that allowed him to put up a quality start on a day he didn’t have his best stuff.

 Strasburg’s fate, and the fate of the Nationals, will depend on his ability to regain the mystical power of a once-great pitch. Let’s hope she goes by a proper name.

One thought on “Holding Court: What’s Eating Stephen Strasburg?

  1. I had someone bring up his win/loss record to me after his last start. I punched him in the face, and got arrested. After I got bailed out, though, I explained runs scored per games started to him. The average runs scored per game started in the NL is 4.2. Stras has gotten 2.3, which is good for 67th out of the 70 starters in the NL. I also apologized for punching him in the face.

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