Is Stephen Strasburg Finally Poised for a 200-Inning, Cy Young-Level Season?

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Is Stephen Strasburg Finally Poised for a 200-Inning, Cy Young-Level Season?
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The time has come for Stephen Strasburg to finally leave the experimental stage of his career. If all goes well, he'll win the first of what should be many Cy Young awards. Then he'll cure the common cold and save the pandas.

So the Washington Nationals hope, anyway. They may envision Strasburg as a talented strikeout artist and a 200-inning workhorse, but there's still a shred of doubt on one of those fronts.

And here's a hint: It's not the first one.

For now, things are looking good. Strasburg has been getting knocked around a little in spring training, but he's still striking hitters out (11.6 K/9). But in times like these, it's good to remember that spring training doesn't mean diddly jack in the grand scheme of schemes.

Hence the reason the Nats have already tabbed Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, as their Opening Day starter, according to an Associated Press report. That shall be step one of what, barring another catastrophic injury, will be Strasburg's first full season as a major league starter.

It could be a great one.

To that end, the talent is there. Strasburg has the stuff and the control, and he's accumulated results that confirm just how good his stuff and control really are.

Strasburg's fastball/curveball/changeup combination is at least as good as anybody else's. FanGraphs has his average fastball velocity from last year at 95.7 miles per hour, the highest among all pitchers who logged at least 150 innings. Both his curveball and changeup ranked among the league leaders in terms of standardized run values (see FanGraphs for an explanation, but you can get by knowing that, yes, that's a good thing).

For his career, Strasburg owns a perfectly respectable 2.4 BB/9 over 251.1 innings pitched. His BB/9 rose to 2.7 in 2012, but he helped offset it with his strikeout rate. He struck out 30.2 percent of the hitters he faced, best among all starters with at least 150 innings pitched (see FanGraphs).

Strasburg's high strikeout rate and modest walk rate allowed him to compile a 4.10 K/BB ratio. Only four 23-year-olds in history have done better than that.

The end result was a 3.16 ERA over 159.1 innings. That's not elite in and of itself, but it also doesn't do Strasburg justice. The FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) metrics thought much higher of Strasburg's pitching. His FIP finished at 2.82, and his xFIP finished at 2.81.

Strasburg's xFIP was the best in the majors among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched (FanGraphs). His FIP was tied for the best with lefty teammate and fellow keeper of nasty stuff Gio Gonzalez.

In short, virtually all the numbers confirm what's always been said about Strasburg. The dude's a special talent. He's like a cross between Nolan Ryan and Elvis... 

Nolvis.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Cool shot, but it was an awkward moment when this skydiver landed.

Had Strasburg been able to hold his performance over a 200-inning sample size in 2012, he would have been high in the running for the National League Cy Young Award. He may not have won it over R.A. Dickey, mind you, but he would definitely have given Dickey a run for his money.

More of the same over a 200-inning sample size is exactly what the Nationals are hoping for in 2013. While they don't have to worry about the "more of the same" part, things get dicey with the "200-inning sample size" part.

If you're thinking that Strasburg had a shot to hit 200 innings in 2012 if the Nats hadn't messed with him due to their paranoia about his 2010 Tommy John operation, well, tone it down a little.

Even when his shutdown date was still in the distant future in the first half of the season, Strasburg still logged only 99 innings in his 17 starts. Had he gone on to make another 17 starts, Baseball-Reference.com projects that he would have fallen short of 200 innings.

As good as Strasburg was in the first half of the season—he had a 2.82 ERA and a 4.57 K/BB—he only pitched as many as seven innings four times. He added only one more in the second half of the season, when his innings really started to tail off.

Starts like those are what Strasburg needs to be giving the Nationals on a regular basis, as they keep middle relievers out of the proceedings and make up for any stinkers that may occur along the way.

Piling up seven-inning starts could prove to be difficult for Strasburg for two reasons.

One is the simple fact that he's a strikeout pitcher, and such pitchers are always going to be tasked with throwing more pitches than most. Per ESPN.com, Strasburg threw 3.99 pitches per plate appearance in 2012, tied for the ninth-highest mark among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched.

This doesn't necessarily have to be Strasburg's undoing. He can pitch to contact more, which he might just take to doing if his sinker experiment yields a go-to weapon. If not, he can help keep his pitch counts down by continuing to limit free passes and be very good at missing bats.

But what Strasburg can't control are his handlers. The Nats didn't let Strasburg top 100 pitches all that often in 2012, and he ended up averaging only about 93 pitches per start. In this department, he didn't budge much from the 89 pitches per start he averaged as a rookie back in 2010.

The aces—the real tried and true aces of the league—are good for more than 100 pitches per start. That's apparent when you look at the leaderboard from last year, which features five Cy Young winners within the top nine.

The word from the AP is that there's no innings limit on Strasburg this season, and that part I can trust. But that comes down to them having no limitations in regard to Strasburg's pitch counts, and that's where I have a hard time trusting the Nats not to be paranoid.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Because Davey Johnson is no fun.

There are going to be times this season when Strasburg will have thrown roughly 100 pitches through six innings and the Nats will have a comfortable lead. In these situations, I have a hard time picturing Davey Johnson running Strasburg back out there knowing that his strikeout style could result in him needing another 20 pitches to get through the seventh.

Scenarios such as these could be commonplace in 2013. The Nationals were among the league's top run-scoring teams in the second half of the season last year when everyone was healthy. With a true leadoff hitter in Denard Span coming aboard and Bryce Harper poised for further improvement in 2013, Washington's offense should be at least as explosive as it was down the stretch in 2012.

This strong offense will provide Johnson and the Nats with excuses to be safe rather than sorry with Strasburg.

Yes, Strasburg is a big boy. And yes, he's due to be paid more than most non-arbitration-eligible youngsters in 2013 ($3.9 million, to be exact). The Nationals want to get bang for their buck, and they know Strasburg has the talent to deliver it.

But the Nats won't just be looking to get bang from their buck by having Strasburg throw 200 innings in the regular season. They're also counting on him being ready to throw more in the postseason, perhaps as many as 20 or 30 more.

To make sure Strasburg is ready for that, you better believe the Nats will be willing to cut his innings when they can. To go from 160 innings to 200 innings is a big jump. To go from 160 to 220 or 230 is an even bigger jump. Every big jump Strasburg takes is going to be a scary one for the Nats.

So while the Bill James projection (see FanGraphs) for Strasburg in 2013 may be 208 innings, 200 innings is my optimistic estimate for him. My realistic estimate is that he'll finish somewhere in the 190-inning range.

Close enough for government work? Absolutely. The Nats will gladly take 190 innings a year after winning 98 games with only 160 innings pitched in from Strasburg. If they can win the NL East with 160 innings from him, they can win it with 190 innings from him.

But close enough for a Cy Young award? That depends.

Will Stephen Strasburg pitch 200 innings in 2013?

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Innings are pretty important in the Cy Young race, as we saw this past year with Gonzalez's case. He won more games, struck out more batters per nine innings and had an ERA only 16 points higher than Dickey's, but he only had 199.1 innings to Dickey's 233.2. Clayton Kershaw also had Gonzalez beat by a wide margin with 227.2 innings. Those and his superior ERA helped him finish second in the Cy Young voting over Gonzalez.

Close but not close enough is where Strasburg is likely going to find himself in the 2013 Cy Young race if he falls short of 200 innings. He'll only be able to sway the voters if his numbers are absolutely insane.

Which, granted, is entirely possible. I may have my reservations about Strasburg's capacity to eat innings, but my "all the numbers" point stands. Winning a Cy Young with less than 200 innings pitched would be a fine testament to Strasburg's capacity to dazzle on the mound.

If he falls short, oh well. There's always next year, and Strasburg should be in absolutely no rush to stockpile hardware. He's a young'un, and the shiny stuff isn't going anywhere.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless where otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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