After Stephen Strasburg‘s start on Sunday afternoon, he brought his record to 3-4 and has a 5.98 ERA on the year. Strasburg doesn’t seem to be fully healthy as he has battled injures for most of this year, but I am not sure that is the whole story. Stras showed his best stuff on Sunday and I think he might be on the road back to where he should be. Let’s break down some numbers to try to figure out what is going on with Strasburg.
Strasburg’s ERA is not pleasant to look at, but his FIP is a bit more palatable at 3.47. FIP is a more accurate measure of a pitcher’s ability as it attempts to account for luck and defensive miscues. Strasburg’s ERA puts him 120th in the league against pitchers with a minimum of 30 innings pitched. His FIP, on the other hand, puts him 41st on that same list, right next to names like Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester. What could the culprit be behind his awful ERA?
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First, Stras seems to be generating a lot more contact this year. His contact rate is up almost 10 points since last year from 76.3% to 84.3%. More contact means less strike outs and the numbers bear this out with a 20.6% strike-out rate compared to 27.9% last year.
Contact is not necessarily a bad thing and pitching coach Steve McCatty preaches to his guys to pound the strike zone and rely on the seven guys behind you to pick you up. In addition, the contact Strasburg generates is usually soft contact. He has only given up four home runs and his HR/9 innings rate at .76 is well below the league average at .97. His fly ball distance is also excellent at only 264.29 feet. The leader, if you were curious, is James Shields at 323.41 feet and the league average is 277.87 feet.
So what gives? Strasburg is generating more contact, but his contact is weaker and usually within the ball park. The answer lies with BABIP. Strasburg’s BABIP is a ridiculous .398, which leads the majors and is a full 100 points above the league average. That is an unsustainable number and should come down resulting in fewer hits, base runners, and ultimately, runs.
The other part of the puzzle is why Strasburg doesn’t have his usual swing-and-miss stuff. If you haven’t already, take a look at Jeff Sullivan’s article over at Fangraphs where he argues Stras’s mechanics are still off from his ankle injury during high pressure situations and from the stretch. I think the reasons for Strasburg’s early season woes are due to the combination of terrible luck and poor mechanics in high-leverage situations due to a past injury.
The good news for Washington Nationals fans is Strasburg will continue to get healthy, which will improve his mechanics, and his ERA should come down to where his FIP is now after his BABIP normalizes a bit. And, if Sunday’s start is any indication, Strasburg should be back to his old self soon enough. While the rotation should be fine with arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now in Max Scherzer, Strasburg needs to get right for the Nats to continue their winning ways.