Nats, Strasburg Do The Right Thing

For some reason or another, Stephen Strasburg is one of the more underrated starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. There is a bit of irony in that statement considering all of the hype surrounding Strasburg’s debut back in 2010. But, it is easy to see why Strasburg, despite all of the hype and obvious talent, isn’t thought of as the prototypical ace or one of the elite starters in the game. The first reason is his Tommy John Surgery. Despite a very good recovery from the surgery, Strasburg is considered a higher injury risk than most. The second reason plays off the surgery as his recovery was handled in a dramatic way by the Nationals. After successfully returning from the surgery in 2012, Strasburg made 28 starts and then was shutdown, despite the Nationals heading into the playoffs. Their loss is largely blamed on his absence. The final reason is all about fans and media; the win still guides perception of starting pitchers.

The first perception is difficult to overcome. Once a pitcher is labeled as soft or unable to fight through injuries, that sort of reputation tends to stick. Tommy John Surgery, although quite common these days, still gives the vibe that the pitcher is one pitch away from injury. And, Strasburg evidently has the dreaded “inverted W” in his delivery, a flaw that many believe–without empirical data–leads to injury.

Here’s the thing: Strasburg has actually been durable–at least with his arm–since his surgery. During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the right hander averaged 32 starts, 199 innings, 167 hits, 216 strikeouts, a 3.08 ERA, and a 3.07 FIP. That is quite dominant. Last season, he pitched in 23 games, having lost time because of neck and back issues. But, he pitched 127.1 innings and allowed 115 hits, 25 walks, an struck out 155 hitters. That came with a 3.46 ERA, but with a dominant 2.81 FIP.

Since 2012, Strasburg ranks 14th among all Major League pitchers according to WAR. His 28.4 percent strikeout rate ranks 5th while his 2.89 FIP ranks 8th. And, despite the fragile reputation, his 731. innings pitched is 31st among MLB pitchers during that time. And, yet, many don’t think of Strasburg without using words like disappointment or phrases like “what could have been.” That has to do with everyone’s love affair with the win total. Despite all of those positive–and dominant–statistics, Strasburg has won 8, 14, and 11 games the past three seasons. Those win totals don’t grab headlines. Sadly, there is still the feeling that a pitcher earns wins by himself. The funny thing about Strasburg’s win total is that he does rank 15th in wins since the 2012 season.

Yet, Strasburg is definitely gathering more attention this year, as if this is the year he is finally putting it all together. His numbers through 7 starts are remarkable: 49 innings, 39 hits, 12 walks, 58 strikeouts, 2.76 ERA, and a 2.23 FIP. Those numbers are spectacular, but they are not a marked improvement over his career line. The difference? He’s 5-0 and among the league leaders in wins. The win total has garnered more attention. He isn’t pitching all that much better this season. He simply has a better team supporting him. Stephen Strasburg has always been an ace. His only flaw was not living up to the insane expectations we laid on him back in 2010. He’s been elite, but it hasn’t been good enough for most.

Strasburg has been one of the best since his return from TJ Surgery
Strasburg has been one of the best since his return from TJ Surgery

It was evidently good enough for the Nationals as they agreed to a seven year, $175 million contract. The deal will pay Strasburg through his age 34 season. While its average annual value is $25 million per year, the deal does have about $10 million deferred each season (without interest). It also contains two opt-out clauses, one after 2019 season and one after the 2020 season. As many will point out, it is the largest contract ever given out to a pitcher who underwent Tommy John Surgery.

That will form most of the narrative. The Nationals are taking a big risk on a pitcher who had major surgery and who is perceived to be in need of coddling. There will be the fear that this contract will prohibit them from making a huge offer to Bryce Harper. That is unlikely, given the Nationals’ history of shelling out big money for free agents. If they want Harper–and, more importantly, he wants them–they’ll make the offer.  But, the risk of giving a Tommy John Surgery survivor a long term, big money deal will be portrayed as great.

That narrative, like most surrounding Strasburg, is incorrect. The Nationals and Stephen Strasburg both made the wise decision to sign this deal. Certainly there is a risk in signing a pitcher to a long term deal. But, that’s the point. There’s risk with signing any pitcher, not just Strasburg. The Nationals are the one club that knows his routine and knows how to keep him as healthy as possible. Strasburg won’t have to work with another team’s medical staff. His routine, his arm maintenance, and conditioning will all remain the same. There is actually less unknown than if the Nationals went to the free agent market. They know his history.

Quite frankly, the Nationals are getting a great deal. Had Strasburg hit the open market, his value would’ve likely been quite high. If he finished this season at his current pace, he would be looking for money close to David Price’s deal. A $25 million per season average is high, but it isn’t the highest for a pitcher in the sport. In an age where fifth starters are getting $14 million or so per season, Stephen Strasburg has given the Nationals a team-friendly deal. Well, it’s as friendly as $175 million can be.

That’s why it’s a win for Strasburg as well. While he may have left money on the table, Strasburg chose stability and familiarity while also leaving him some options to leave if he completely outperforms the market. Right now, he’s in a great situation to pitch well. The Nationals are in position to win big this year with Strasburg leading the rotation. The narrative will be something like Strasburg finally breaks through to lead the Nationals. The reality is he’s simply doing what he’s always been doing. The only difference is that most are finally seeing him for what he is: a dominant, frontline starting pitcher. And, the Nationals just wisely locked him up through the rest of his prime. Sounds like a win-win.

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