Washington Nationals: Will Stephen Strasburg take the next step?


Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg finished 2017 on an absolute tear. Will he remain healthy and bring the same level of play this season?

Washington Nationals’ starter Stephen Strasburg enters his ninth season on the precipice of elite status.

Since 2012, Strasburg ranks in the top-eight among pitchers in total strikeouts, ERA, FIP, K/9, WHIP, fWAR, and batting average against. By all measures, he is one of the best pitchers we have in the game; yet, he still seems have another level to reach.

Right now, he lives in the secondary group of top-tier arms with names like Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, and Yu Darvish – all excellent pitchers who have fallen just short of winning a Cy Young award. Can he find another gear and join Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, and teammate Max Scherzer at the top of the charts?

Last season, Strasburg put together a magical run following a DL stint in late July. In his final 10 starts, including the playoffs, Strasburg allowed just five earned runs over 67.2 innings, while striking out 85 batters and walking just 13. The Nationals went 8-2 in those 10 starts. (In fact, over the last two seasons, Washington is 42-12, including the postseason, when Strasburg takes the mound).

This is more than just a numbers game. Watch him twist Cubs batters into knots throughout the Game 4 win in the NLDS:

Much like Sale’s slider or Zach Britton’s sinker, Strasburg’s changeup is one of the best pitches in baseball (opponents are hitting just .107 off his changeup since 2016, with 114 total strikeouts). And he isn’t a one-trick pony. His four-seamer averaged 95.7 mph in 2017 and occasionally touched triple-digits, and he limited opposing batters to a .420 OPS with his curveball.

Strasburg’s well-documented injuries have capped his career thus far. Even though he lives in the top-ten of almost every rate statistic, Strasburg still just ranks 28th in innings pitched over the last six seasons, tucked between Yovani Gallardo and Julio Teheran. Not exactly elite company.

Strasburg has only topped 30 starts twice in his career, and not once over the last three seasons. Until he consistently approaches 200 innings every year, Strasburg will never crack the inner circle of the top arms in baseball.

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The real issue is that while some players frequently deal with fluke injuries (i.e. Bryce Harper), Strasburg’s injuries indicate a more concerning pattern. Last offseason, he pointed to his increased slider usage as the reason for injury issues in 2016. In the most recent NLDS, the Nats dealt with one of the more bizarre rumors of the year when Strasburg was reportedly too sick to pitch (until he wasn’t). And just last month, Strasburg blamed the All-Star break for his second-half DL stint because it messed up his routine.

I understand ballplayers, especially starting pitchers, are creatures of habits, but a slight deviation in one’s schedule should not force one to miss a month of action. When he is on the mound, he is as good as anyone, but it seems nearly impossible for him to work through 185 innings in a given year. Every small hiccup sidelines him for substantial portions of the season (yet another reason for the Nats to add legitimate pitchers to their rotation).

When he pitches, he is worth every bit the $175 million the Nationals gave him two years ago. Unfortunately, he simply does not pitch enough. Every year provides a clean slate, but would you bet on Strasburg to hit 30 starts in 2018? I would not. We simply have too much data proving otherwise.

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The best ability is availability, and until he gets that resolved, Strasburg will fall short of his once-assumed generational status.