What Stephen Strasburg Must Do to Become the Best Overall Pitcher in MLB

Robert Wood@@bleachRWreachrCorrespondent IJanuary 23, 2013

What Stephen Strasburg Must Do to Become the Best Overall Pitcher in MLB

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    Stephen Strasburg has already shown that he is one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, despite only 45 starts spread out over three injury-shortened seasons.

    According to Baseball-Reference.com, Strasburg has a 162-game average consisting of a 16-8 record, a 2.94 ERA and 236 strikeouts, but with no complete games or shutouts.

    Those stats are no doubt impressive, but they would not earn Stephen Strasburg the title of "best overall pitcher in MLB."

    To achieve that status, Strasburg would need to lower his ERA, throw more complete games and shutouts, reach the 20-game plateau and win a Cy Young or two. Oh yeah, and he must be a big-game pitcher.

    Here are five things Stephen Strasburg must do to become the best overall pitcher in MLB.

5. Lower the ERA

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    A pitcher's ultimate goal is to not allow any runners to cross home plate. So an excellent indicator of a pitcher's dominance is his ERA.

    Stephen Strasburg's ERA in 2012 was an impressive 2.94. But that ERA must go even lower if he wants to be considered the best overall pitcher in  baseball.

    Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers is already a part of that debate. Kershaw led MLB with a 2.53 ERA in 2012, and he was even better in 2011, when he again led the league with a 2.28 ERA.

    As a result of his dominant ERA, Kershaw finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2012 and won the 2011 NL Cy Young award.

4. Throw Complete Games and Shutouts

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    Stephen Strasburg purports to be the "ace" of the Washington Nationals pitching staff.

    But an ace is expected to be a workhorse, a pitcher who can throw a lot of innings and, if necessary, complete the game for his team. A truly dominant pitcher would also turn a few of those complete games into shutouts.

    "King Felix" is just that type of pitcher. In 2012, Felix Hernandez was tied for second in the MLB with five complete games. He also led the MLB with five shutouts. In 238 starts during his eight-year career, Hernandez has 23 complete games and nine shutouts.

    Stephen Strasburg has yet to throw either a complete game or a shutout in his 45 career starts. He will need to change those stats, and soon, if he wishes to join Felix Hernandez in the conversation for best overall pitcher in baseball.

3. 20-Game Winner

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    Winning 20 games in a season is a measuring stick for starting pitchers in MLB. It separates the elite from the very good.

    David Price is an elite pitcher. He won 20 games last season for the Tampa Bay Rays, propelling him to the 2012 AL Cy Young Award—the first of his five-year career.

    Based on wins alone, Stephen Strasburg can only be considered very good at this point in his young career. His victory total based on his 162-game average comes to 16, with nine losses (via Baseball-Reference.com).

    Strasburg must reach the 20-win plateau to be considered elite.

2. Win the Cy Young Award

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    Winning 20 games and winning the Cy Young Award are mutually exclusive.

    Cases in point: Stephen Strasburg's teammate on the Washington Nationals, Gio Gonzalez, led MLB with 21 wins in 2012, but finished third in the NL Cy Young balloting. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record.

    But winning the Cy Young Award may actually go further in cementing someone as one of the best overall pitchers in MLB. Because, for one season, the Cy Young Award winner was one of the two best pitchers in all of baseball.

    Roy Halladay has won the Cy Young Award twice in his 17-year career. He won the 2003 AL Cy Young Award as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays and the 2010 NL Cy Young Award while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay also finished second in Cy Young voting two different times and third another time.

    It's no coincidence, then, that Roy Halladay is considered one of the best overall pitchers in MLB—and has been for most of his career. And with a career record 199-100, to go with a 3.31 lifetime ERA and 2066 strikeouts, he should find himself embroiled in another debate by the end of his career: whether or not he  should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    To reach the level of preeminent pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Stephen Strasburg must first begin by winning the Cy Young.

1. Big-Game Hunting

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    A starting pitcher's success in the regular season is worth as much as a rosin bag if it does not translate to success in the postseason. Justin Verlander and Matt Cain present an excellent case study for this baseball truism.

    Both pitchers have played in the same eight major league seasons, with very similar career statistics. Cain has three more career starts, while Verlander has 27.0 more innings pitched.

    Verlander has already compiled a 124-65 record during his eight-year career, with a 3.40 ERA and 1465 strikeouts. He won both the 2011 AL Cy Young and 2011 AL MVP—the first starting pitcher to achieve that double since Roger Clemens in 1986. Pulling off that feat solidified him as one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.

    And Verlander followed that up by finishing second in the 2012 AL Cy Young voting.

    David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays won the AL Cy Young last season in what ESPN described described as "one of the closest votes ever." But ESPN's own David Schoenfield admitted Justin Verlander deserved to win the Cy Young—an achievement that would have seen him join the ranks of Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum as the only active pitchers with multiple Cy Young awards.

    Prior to that, Verlander's 2012 regular season was highlighted by having his third career no-hitter broken up with one out in the ninth inning on May 18, 2012.

    That said, Justin Verlander has struggled in his postseason career, specifically the World Series. Overall in the postseason, he is 6-4 in 12 starts with a 4.22 ERA, one complete game and one shutout. But in three World Series starts, he is 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA in only 15.0 innings pitched.

    Verlander bombed in his only 2012 World Series start—a Game 1 debacle in which he surrendered five earned runs in only 4.0 innings of work. And his Tigers got hammered 8-3 by the San Francisco Giants en route to getting swept in the series.

    Verlander's performance was so bad that Bleacher Report's Ian Casselberry wondered at the time if it was just one bad start or if Verlander had folded under the pressure. That sort of question is not asked of a true big-game pitcher.

    Then there's Matt Cain, the San Francisco Giants right-hander, who is now considered the quintessential big-game pitcher. Cain won the clinching games of the 2012 NLDS and NLCS. And in the decisive Game 4 of the 2012 World Series, he gave up only five hits and three earned runs over 7.0 innings, earning a no-decision. His Giants eventually won the game to clinch their second World Series title in three seasons.

    Over his entire postseason career, Matt Cain has been brilliant. He is now 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in eight starts. In the World Series alone, Cain is 1-0 in two starts with a 1.84 ERA. In addition to the Game 4 performance in 2012, his only other World Series start came in 2010 against the Texas Rangers. All he did was shut out the potent Rangers lineup for 7.2 innings of Game 4, surrendering only four hits.

    But Matt Cain's postseason dominance helps mask an eight-year career that is inferior when compared to that of Justin Verlander.

    Cain has an overall record of 85-78, with a 3.27 ERA and 1278 strikeouts. But unlike Verlander, he has never won twenty games, instead peaking at 16 wins in 2012. And despite reaching double-digit wins five different times, Cain has also reached double-digit losses five times as well. Justin Verlander, meanwhile, has seven different seasons of double-digit wins, but only one season of double-digit losses.

    As far as the Cy Young award goes, the best Matt Cain ever finished in Cy Young voting was sixth in 2012.

    The two biggest highlights of Cain's regular season career also occurred in 2012. On June 13, he threw the first perfect game in the San Francisco Giants' history. And at the 2012 All-Star Game, he was named the starting pitcher for the National League. Ironically enough, he out-dueled Justin Verlander.

    Despite this disparity in regular-season achievements, Matt Cain is still considered one of the best overall pitchers in baseball, while Justin Verlander comes up a little short.

    Why is that? Because Matt Cain knows a World Series start isn't just another game. And he pitches accordingly.

    Together, Justin Verlander and Matt Cain help illustrate the priority placed on postseason success versus regular-season success. If Stephen Strasburg wants to be considered the best overall pitcher in baseball, he must pitch like Matt Cain, not Justin Verlander, when he begins his journey into postseason baseball.