Stephen Strasburg: Why Washington Nationals Can Still Win a Title Without Ace
The curtains have finally closed on Stephen Strasburg's season. As reported by Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post, the Nationals are shutting their 24-year-old right-hander down for the rest of the year, just as they promised/threatened they eventually would.
I would say the world can now go back to spinning, but one gets the sense that the world has actually stopped spinning now that Strasburg has finally been sidelined. Surely the Nationals are doomed to fall short of the World Series without their ace.
No. Not right at all. This Nationals team deserves a lot more credit than that. Strasburg may not throw another pitch until spring training, but between now and then, the Nats could still end up winning the World Series. They still have the goods to win it all.
Pushing Strasburg to the side certainly looks like a dumb decision on a surface level, as shelving a pitcher with a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and an 11.1 K/9 just isn't something that any would-be World Series champion team should do if it has its head on straight.
Strasburg's numbers for the season as a whole definitely suggest that the Nationals are going to tough it out from here until their bitter end without a true ace pitcher. But a closer look at the numbers and a proper perspective of the circumstances at play suggest something entirely different.
You see, Strasburg wasn't pitching so well recently. His final three starts saw him log only 14 innings while compiling a 6.43 ERA and a .288 opponents' batting average. Stretching back even further, we're talking about a pitcher who hadn't pitched more than six innings since July 25. True "ace" pitchers do that with regularity.
Is fatigue to blame for Strasburg's struggles down the stretch? Only he knows that. Nationals manager Davey Johnson, however, floated a theory on Saturday that makes total sense.
Via the Post:
The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable. I feel it’s as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally, totally committed in the ballgame. And he’s reached his innings limit. So we can get past this and talk about other things for a change.
Nobody is going to get Strasburg himself to admit that the general obsession with his innings count had him losing not only his focus on the mound but also sleep at night, but Johnson admitted that for him.
"I know he’s been struggling with it for weeks," Johnson said. "I know he doesn’t sleep good thinking about it."
Take a moment to consider how things would have panned out had the Nationals not decided to shut Strasburg down on Saturday—or at any point in the near future, for that matter. The obsession over his innings limit would have gotten more and more intense, thus making it harder and harder for him to concentrate. Bad vibes could have gotten considerably worse.
And if he were actually allowed to pitch in October, the media hype would have been through the roof. The folks at ESPN probably would have taken to talking about Strasburg more than Tim Tebow and LeBron James combined.
Nats general manager Mike Rizzo indicated on Saturday that pulling the plug on Strasburg's season was partially motivated by a desire to "finish the season off positive." The Nationals should be able to do that now. With Strasburg finally out of the picture, the pressure is off of them almost as much as it is off of him. The Nationals only have to worry about playing baseball the rest of the way.
And make no mistake about it: Even without Strasburg, the Nationals are a very, very good baseball team.
They certainly still have good starting pitching. Strasburg is the club's ace by reputation, but the numbers all say that Gio Gonzalez is the true ace of the Nationals. He's 18-7 with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP, and FanGraphs has him tied with Clayton Kershaw for first among National League pitchers with a WAR of 4.9.
Gonzalez is a legitimate candidate for the NL Cy Young Award. The Nats shouldn't be at all worried about the possibility of him matching up against the likes of Kershaw, Matt Cain, Johnny Cueto or any of the NL's other No. 1 starting pitchers in the postseason. Gonzalez will be able to hold his own against anybody.
Jordan Zimmermann, meanwhile, is nearly as good as Gonzalez. He doesn't have a sparkly record, but he does have a 2.99 ERA and a rock-solid 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had some rough outings in August, but his recent seven-inning performance against the Chicago Cubs could get him going again just in time for the postseason.
Beyond Gonzalez and Zimmermann, the Nats could ask for a much worse potential Game 3 starter than Edwin Jackson. He can be unpredictable, but he's finishing the season on a strong note. In his last four starts, Jackson has a 3.04 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 26.2 innings pitched. And unlike Gonzalez and Zimmermann, Jackson has some postseason experience to fall back on.
Contrary to popular belief, starting pitching isn't the Nationals' only strength. The Nats can swing the bats, too.
It took a while for Washington's offense to come together due to injuries, but it's come together in a big way since the All-Star break. The Nationals lead the NL in runs scored since the break with 280, and they also lead the league with a collective batting average of .281.
It isn't just one guy doing all the work, either. Jayson Werth has a .901 OPS since he was activated off the disabled list in early August. Bryce Harper has gotten a second wind, as he's compiled an OPS over 1.000 in his last 20 games. Ryan Zimmerman has an .864 OPS since the start of August. Adam LaRoche has a 1.792 OPS in September. Ian Desmond has a 1.093 OPS over his last 15 games.
As they say, hitting is contagious. The Nationals can vouch.
There are some complaints to be made about the Nationals bullpen. It was terrific in the month of August, posting a 2.34 ERA, but it's gone through some struggles since the calendar turned to September and has generally had an up-and-down kind of season.
Are the Nationals still good enough to win it all without Stephen Strasburg?
We know this much, though: In the eighth and ninth innings, Davey Johnson could do a lot worse than the likes of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. They both feature tremendous stuff, and they can be dominant when they know where it's going.
Everyone is worried about the Nationals now that Strasburg has been ripped from the equation, but you can rest assured that the Nationals aren't all that worried. There's no set formula for winning baseball games in the month of October, but having good starting pitching, a deep offense and a talented bullpen are good places to start.
So don't fear for the Nationals. They don't need Strasburg to win it all this year. They have enough depth to handle their business without him.
And if you think about it, that's pretty scary.
Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the stats.
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