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May 29, 2015

Release Points

Where Have You Gone, Stephen Strasburg?

by Dan Rozenson

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Stephen Strasburg’s season has been a frightening experience for me, not just as a Washington Nationals fan but also as a sabermetrician. Dissecting the reasons for his season-long struggles is not easy. To begin with, my brain is struggling with how much of his 6.50 ERA to attribute to bad luck and how much to bad pitching. Matt Trueblood took a good crack at exploring the issue a few weeks ago. Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller touched upon it earlier this week in their podcast, and left with no good explanations; they concluded it was likely just a random rough patch in his career.

The numbers don’t really point to a strong conclusion. Some of the peripherals say he’ll be fine, and others say he’s in real danger.

Some signs he’s okay include the following:

  • He’s got a decent FIP and xFIP around 3.65. Not Strasburgian, but also not a real cause for worry.

  • His fastball speed and pitch movement are no different from last year.

  • His batted ball breakdown is unchanged.

And some signs he’s in trouble:

  • His DRA is the worst in the NL. Worst.

  • His BABIP is .390. If that accurately reflects his pitching, it means guys are getting really good swings.

  • Strikeout rate and whiff/swing rates are down. Not bad, but down from previous years.

  • Righties are killing his curveball and changeup like never before.

With the season still relatively young, and the sample sizes still uncomfortably small, I opted for a qualitative approach. Namely, I re-watched all of his starts. Every pitch. I took notes on things like sequencing, command, and other little things worth nothing, and I have my shorthand game summaries below. Every run-scoring play is broken down briefly. Building up from the granular pitch-by-bitch level, I looked back to see if any major trends emerged. Skip to the end if you don’t want the minutiae.

April 9th vs New York Mets:

Game Score: 34

  • 3rd inning: Strikeout. Granderson single bad curveball. Desmond error. Lucas Duda hit in foot by wild curveball. Michael Cuddyer single on a good fastball. Daniel Murphy bad-luck chopper off the plate. Good fastball infield fly. D’Arnaud blooper single two RBI on a good curveball.

  • 6th inning: D’Arnaud and Flores hit singles on first-pitch fastballs that hit their spots. Granderson walk, 2-2 and 3-2 changeups. Wright singles first-pitch fastball, middle of the plate.

April 14th vs Boston Red Sox:

Game Score: 33

  • 2nd inning: Poorly located first-pitch fastball to Napoli single. Fly out on well-located changeup to Daniel Nava. Strikeout on well-located curveball to Ryan Hanigan. Solid single by Brock Holt on middle-in fastball. Two RBI single by Mookie Betts on high-middle changeup, poor pitch.

  • 3rd inning: Hanley Ramirez single on very good curveball. Pablo Sandoval hit in foot by wild curveball. Napoli fielder’s choice. Daniel Nava RBI single on hanging curveball. Hanigan RBI single on mistake 0-2 fastball.

  • 4th inning: Dustin Pedroia home run on mistake first-pitch fastball up and in, badly missed location.

April 19th vs Philadelphia Phillies:

Game Score: 69 (nice)

  • 8th inning: Odubel Herrera double on middle-middle fastball. Freddy Galvis RBI single on middle-middle fastball.

April 25th vs Miami Marlins:

Game Score: 44

  • 4th inning: Middle-cut fastball line-drive double for Martin Prado. Inside corner fastball line-drive RBI double for Giancarlo Stanton (111 mph off the bat). Line-drive RBI single on middle-in fastball by Justin Bour. Espinosa error. Ichiro single on center-cut fastball. Double play on a fastball.

  • 6th inning: Pitch-around walk to Stanton. 2-0 fastball groundball single. First-pitch fastball, well-located, singled up the middle for RBI by Bour. GIDP on a fastball, run scores.

April 30th vs New York Mets:

Game Score: 54

  • 2nd inning: 0-2 change hit glove but not much sink (thigh-high), lined to left for double by Flores. Middle-in 1-2 fastball to Kevin Plawecki lined to right-center for RBI double. Curtis Granderson RBI single on a well-located changeup.

May 5th vs Miami Marlins:

Game Score: 43

  • 2nd inning: J.C. Realmuto triple on a high changeup. Ichiro RBI single on two-strike curveball left up, second he saw in AB. Adeiny Hechavarria full-count HBP on wild changeup. Ichiro scores on error—bad Strasburg throw to first base on pitcher bunt.

May 12th vs Arizona Diamondbacks:

Game Score: 16

  • 1st inning: Goldschmidt walk. Peralta single, inside fastball. Aaron Hill high fastball two RBI double.

  • 3rd inning: Ender Inciarte homer on 1-0 fastball up and in—must have been guessing location.

  • 4th inning: First-pitch hanging slider to Chris Owings hit for triple. Tuffy Gosewich line-drive RBI single on changeup. Nick Ahmed single to left on good curveball. Strasburg fielding error on pitcher bunt. Inciarte sac fly. Mark Trumbo three-run homer on awful changeup.

May 17th vs San Diego Padres:

Game Score: 51

  • 1st inning: Abraham Almonte reaches on dropped third strike, steals second, scores on fielder’s choice grounder.

  • 3rd inning: Misplaced fastball homer to Justin Upton.

  • 6th inning: Misplaced curve hit for line-drive double by Matt Kemp. Good curve hit by Upton for single. [Strasburg exits] Inherited runner scores.

May 23rd vs Philadelphia Phillies:

Game Score: 27

  • 3rd inning: 3-2 curveball misses to Ben Revere for a walk—showed confidence. Cesar Hernandez double on 0-2 changeup way up in the zone. Fielder’s choice ground out RBI by Chase Utley. Ryan Howard hits high fastball for RBI double. 0-2 fastball homered to right-center by Maikel Franco—middle-middle.

  • 4th inning: Odubel Herrera hits hanging two-strike curve to gap for double. First-pitch fastball to Cole Hamels line-drive single, Bryce Harper throwing error moves Hamels to second. First-pitch changeup line drive to Ben Revere scores Herrera, Hamels out at plate, Revere to second on throw. High fastball to Hernandez scores Revere; Hernandez takes second on throw to plate and third on error when ball gets away.

Analysis

So, that’s everything.

The first thing I looked for over the course of the season was whether I could assess his .390 BABIP and high run totals as a result of bad luck or bad pitching. For the most part, I’d have to call it the latter. Only in the April 9th start would it be fair to say that Strasburg's stat line was an unfair reflection of his pitching performance. Few of the hits he surrendered were bloopers or seeing-eye singles. There was a lot of solid contact. Also, just about every run-scoring inning was a multi-run jam up (with the exceptions of solo home runs). He has rarely been able to stop the bleeding.

The real story for me behind all of it has been the lack of touch on his curveball and changeup. You may have noticed Strasburg is throwing more fastballs than ever this year, but that’s probably not part of the game plan. It’s likely a reaction to the fact that his curve and change are much less effective, and there’s no real backup plan when that happens. In only one start and in brief flashes in other games was Strasburg able to throw his secondary pitches for strikes. Instead, they often turned out to be non-competitive pitches or meatballs.

It’s only after having watched his whole season that I found statistics that tell the story. Below is a chart comparing his pitch outcomes by pitch type, 2010–14 in black and this season in red/green. Red and green just mean increase or decrease, not necessarily better or worse. Remember, these percentages are of all pitches thrown in that type:

Pitch Type

Called Ball

Called Strike

Swing

Foul

Whiffs

BIP

Four-seam

32.5% (-6.3)

27.5% (+2)

46.6% (+1.9)

21.1% (+3.5)

7.7% (-2.7)

18.1% (+0.9)

Change

38.5% (+4.6)

34.1% (-12.5)

54% (-6.3)

14.7% (-1.6)

26.9% (-13.8)

12.5% (+9.1)

Curve

35.5% (+8.8)

41.7% (-8.8)

36.2% (-4.7)

10.2% (-2.2)

13.7% (-3)

12.3% (+1.1)

It’s obvious that Strasburg's changeup has lost a tremendous amount of effectiveness this year. Over half of them in the 2010–14 period were called or swinging strikes, while this year it’s just 34 percent. Likewise, 55 percent of his curves were called or swinging strikes in years past, but this year it’s just 44. Meanwhile, his fastball is being thrown more often, at the expense of a higher foul rate and fewer whiffs.

Strasburg’s heater hasn’t been all bad, considering. It still has above-average velocity and often has the explosiveness needed for swings and misses. Having a 96 mph fastball with movement is like commanding an army that features an awesome tank corps. Those tanks are an essential part of your armed force, but their actual utility will be limited without infantry and artillery support. For the most part of the season, Strasburg has been a one-trick pony.

I can’t tell Stephen Strasburg what he needs to be successful, but I can describe how he looks when he is. He mixes pitches with ease, using any pitch in any count to keep hitters off balance. He’s able to come up with swing-and-miss pitches when he needs to, but he can also count on a fair number of called strikes. He can work a lineup three times over because hitters won’t have seen too many pitches to get comfortable.

This year, none of that has been the case.

Related Content:  Cliffs

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