How Does Stephen Strasburg's Start Stack Up Compared to Roger Clemens?
We all know that Stephen Strasburg's season is going to come to a premature end, as the men in charge of the Washington Nationals made it clear before the start of the season that they are going to shut down Strasburg once it becomes obvious his right arm has taken enough abuse.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Strasburg has done more than enough this season to prove that he still has as much talent now as he did before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. He has some of the nastiest stuff in the game, and he has the potential to be an all-time great if he stays healthy.
Projecting all-time greatness isn't easy and indeed borders on downright silliness. But hey, every all-time great who has ever come and gone in Major League Baseball started as a young, talented up-and-comer.
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Take Roger Clemens, for example. Before he established himself as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time (we'll focus strictly on the numbers here), he was a highly-touted youngster who was breaking into pro ball fresh off a decorated college career, just like Strasburg.
So just for kicks, here's what we're going to do: We're going to see how the start of Strasburg's career stacks up against the start of Clemens' career.
Strasburg has made 33 starts to this point in his career, so that's where we'll draw the line for the comparison where Clemens is concerned. We'll start by breaking up their first 33 starts into three groups of 11 and then add it all up and see where things stand.
Sound good to you?
Yes? OK, good. Let's take it away.
Note: Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the stats.
Through First 11 Starts
There's not much of a comparison here. Clemens was decidedly shaky through the first 11 starts of his career, and Strasburg was dominant. He struck hitters out, he kept runners off the basepaths, and most importantly, he kept runs off of the scoreboard.
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Yes, Clemens did pitch a few more innings than Strasburg, but not enough to constitute a huge gap between the two. It's also worth noting that Strasburg struck out at least 10 hitters twice in his first 11 career starts. Clemens didn't do that once.
So right out of the gate, it's fair to say that Strasburg got off to a better start in his career than Clemens did in his. Score one for him.
Through Next 11 Starts
|Strasburg (2010-2012)||60.1||9||39||8||64||1.35||0.78||9.58|| |
For the record, the 11 starts in question for Strasburg contain one start in 2010, all five of his starts in 2011, and his first five starts this season. This, of course, kinda makes this comparison a tough one because of how much time passed in between these starts as opposed to the time that passed between his first 11 starts.
Regardless, the edge here goes to Clemens. Strasburg allowed fewer baserunners and fewer earned runs than him, but the strikeout numbers are about even and Clemens logged significantly more innings. And while his ERA over this span wasn't as low as Strasburg's, a 3.23 ERA over that many innings is commendable.
It's worth noting that Clemens got bombed in his 12th career start. He was moved to the bullpen and made one appearance before he was transitioned back into a starting role.
That's when he really took off. He was excellent in his final eight starts in 1984, going 6-0 with a 2.63 ERA over 61.2 innings. He carried that strong start over to the beginning of the 1985 campaign, where he allowed six earned runs over his first 14 innings (that's a 3.86 ERA).
But like I said, this is a tough comparison to make because of the circumstances on Strasburg's side of the fence. Let's see how his next 11 starts stack up against Clemens.
Through Next 11 Starts
|Strasburg (2012)||61.0||25||51||21||88||3.69||1.18||12.98|| |
If it can be agreed that Clemens got the edge in the last comparison, the tables clearly turn here. The only area where Clemens has a significant edge is in innings pitched, and even that edge isn't all that significant.
Strasburg has the edge in the other key areas, most notably WHIP, strikeouts-per-nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He didn't pitch as many innings as Clemens, but he was more effective in his innings than Clemens was in his innings.
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Granted, it's worth noting that Clemens dealt with a loss of velocity during the 1985 season, and was ultimately diagnosed with a torn labrum by none other than Dr. James Andrews (Jon Helyar of ESPN.com recounted that story in an article back in 2007).
Clemens got the edge in our last comparison partially because Strasburg was pitching at less than 100 percent, and Strasburg is getting the edge here for much the same reason.
The two comparisons therefore kind of cancel each other out, leaving us no choice but to see how the first 33 starts by both pitchers stack up when taken as a whole.
Not that we weren't going to do this anyway, of course.
Through First 33 Career Starts
This is the fairest comparison we're going to get between these two, and Strasburg is the clear winner.
You'll disagree if you value things like innings, complete games and the like above all else, but the thing to keep in mind is that Clemens' workload back in the day was an upshot of the times. If Strasburg had been pitching back in the mid-1980s, he too probably would have worked that many innings.
We can say that much confidently, but what we can't say is that Clemens would have been able to duplicate Strasburg's efficiency if he had started his career in 2010 rather than in 1984. Say what you will about eras and whatnot, but things like control and general pitching savvy are timeless.
What the numbers tell us, plain and simple, is that Strasburg is a better pitcher now when Clemens was early in his career.
If Strasburg and Clemens were both young prospects at the same time, who would you pick to be on your team?
There are plenty of variables surrounding the numbers, of course. The fact that Clemens wasn't the same pitcher while he was dealing with his shoulder injury in 1985 is the big one, and we're obviously talking about two pitchers who faced two completely different sets of hitters.
Be that as it may, nobody should be so shocked that Strasburg's numbers compare so favorably against Clemens' numbers. He entered the league as a polished pitcher with outstanding stuff and outstanding control. Clemens entered the league with a hard fastball, but it took some time for him to learn how to be a pitcher rather than a thrower. That's something Strasburg is still learning as well, but he doesn't have much left to learn at this point.
Is all of this to suggest that Strasburg is destined to be a better pitcher than Clemens when all is said and done?
Not really. We know Strasburg has ability, but we don't know if he has durability. Say what you will about how Clemens achieved his legendary durability, but you have to give him props for the fact that he started shattering the 200-inning mark early in his career and kept on shattering it as his career went along.
We don't know if Strasburg can do this, and the first true test of his durability won't come until next season, when he'll finally be off the Nationals' leash for the first time. He'll make 30-plus starts, and he'll be expected to top 200 innings.
It's worth noting that Clemens had a pretty good year the first time he made 30-plus starts and pitched over 200 innings. That was in 1986, a year in which he went 24-4 with a 2.54 ERA. He famously struck out 20 batters in a game for the first time that season.
If Strasburg's 2013 season comes even remotely close to being that special, we'll know that he's going to be a good one.
As it is, he's pretty good already.
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