Comparing Stephen Strasburg's Early Dominance to Other Phenom Flamethrowers

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Comparing Stephen Strasburg's Early Dominance to Other Phenom Flamethrowers

Stephen Strasburg's fastball is a thing of beauty. Unless you're standing in the batter's box, that is. Then his fastball is almost unfair.

The Washington Nationals pitcher's fastball comes at hitters from out of his right arm at 95.7 miles per hour, according to FanGraphs. In other words, Strasburg's fastball currently has the most MPH in the majors. It's horsehide's hottest heater. Yes, his No. 1 is No. 1.

Whichever way you want to phrase it, one thing is clear: Strasburg is a flamethrower.

But at this stage of his career, how does he compare to other pitchers who could be described similarly?

To date, Strasburg has started 48 games in the majors since 2010, his first season, and here are some key stats he's compiled so far, along with where he ranks in MLB in that time:

The table above focuses on rate stats ("per nine" or "per inning"), because the elephant in the room with Strasburg is that he's already undergone Tommy John surgery (back in September 2010) and then was shut down last summer after 28 starts and 159.1 innings.

As a result, all of his counting stats (i.e. starts, innings pitched, wins, strikeouts, etc.) are depressed, because first he missed a huge chunk of time, and then was forced to miss a huge chunk of time.

As you can see, the Nats' ace ranks well inside the top-10 in five of the seven categories above, and he's not too shabby in homers allowed per nine and walks per nine, either. When taken together, those seven stats are highly correlated to power pitchers, who should be able to, for instance, strike out batters at a high rate while also limiting hits and homers allowed.

Given that Strasburg, at 24, is still in the early portion of his career, we need to compare him to fellow flamethrowers at the same stage of their careers, so let's use the first 50 starts—a number he'll reach before this month is out—as the marker.

(With apologies to hard-throwing relievers, we're going to stick only with starting pitchers here.)

To do this, we first need to define what a "flamethrower" is, then find them. We'll do this via FanGraphs' handy-dandy pitch types. Unfortunately, the data for this tool only goes back to 2002, so we'll have to concentrate on 2002-13 for now.

For our purposes, we'll call a flamethrower any starting pitcher whose average fastball velocity was at least 94 miles per hour in at least one qualifying season since 2002. Twenty-eight such pitchers qualify, and here's that list:

*Many of the above pitchers achieved the 94-mph season multiple times, so the average fastball velocity listed is the highest in a single season.

That's a good cross-section of names. There's an all-timer (Randy Johnson); a bunch of potential future Hall of Famers (Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia); Cy Young winners (David Price, Tim Lincecum); a group of quality innings-eaters (A.J. Burnett, Edwin Jackson, Ervin Santana); a batch who underwent major surgery (Josh Johnson, Kerry Wood, Michael Pineda); and even a few injury-riddled types (Dustin McGowan, Rich Harden).

Now, before we start comparing Strasburg to his hard-throwing brethren, let's pare down this list just a tad to eliminate any pitchers who don't quite measure up for lack of enough games started.

That means we have to say goodbye to Jeff Samardzija (36 career starts), Matt Moore (34), Alexi Ogando (33), Michael Pineda (28) and Matt Harvey (13). All five of them have proven to be anywhere from good to great so far in their careers, but they simply haven't made enough starts to really be considered.

With that out of the way, let's bring back the Strasburg table from above; only this time, instead of listing where he ranks among all major league pitchers since 2010, we're going to compare those same stats Strasburg has achieved through his first 48 starts to the remaining 22 flamethrowers from above, based on their first 50 starts in the bigs.

Drumroll please...

In addition to the same seven stats from Table 1 above, you'll notice this table also includes innings, wins and losses, since we've leveled the playing field, so to speak, by limiting all 23 hard-throwing hurlers to their first 50 starts.

What stands out? Well, two things. One, Strasburg compares extremely favorably to his fellow flamethrowers across the board, ranking in the top five in every single rate stat. In fact, in each stat, here are the pitchers he's behind:

STATISTIC STRASBURG HAS BEEN WORSE THAN...
ERA  Oswalt (2.76)
WHIP  Oswalt (1.07)
H/9 Wood (6.87), Lincecum (7.37) 
K/9  NONE
BB/9  Oswalt (1.77)
K/BB  Oswalt (4.56)
HR/9  Lincecum (0.59), Harden (0.68), J. Johnson (0.69), Jimenez (0.69)
Wins  Oswalt (31), Verlander (28), Price (26), Santana (25), Sabathia (23)
Losses  Oswalt (8), Lincecum (8), J. Johnson (11)
Innings  All but Jackson (256.1)

 

(Note: Roy Oswalt was pretty freakin' good right out of the gate at the turn of the century, huh?)

But what you also should notice is that final category: innings. Strasburg is next-to-last—22nd out of 23—in innings pitched through his first 48 starts.

Of course, he still has two starts to gain some ground, but even if he were to throw, say, 14 innings over career starts No. 49 and 50, Strasburg would only have 283.2 innings. That would still rank 16th out of 23, and Strasburg would be merely thirds of an inning ahead of a handful of pitchers.

And that's assuming Strasburg can actually throw 14 innings over his next two turns. Consider this. During Strasburg's Opening Day start this year against the Marlins on April 1, Nationals beat writer Dan Kolko of MASNSports.com tweeted a rather incredible, yet accurate, statistic about Strasburg—one that puts the numbers above in a whole different context:

As shocking as that stat was on Opening Day, it remains true to this day, because only moments after that tweet, Kolko followed up with this:

Major arm surgery and Operation Shutdown aside, Strasburg is now 48 starts into his MLB career and...he's never once set foot on a mound in the eighth inning of a game. 

Now, some of you may be wondering: What about Bob Gibson? Or Nolan Ryan? Or even Roger Clemens? You know, the flamethrowers of yesteryear. How does Strasburg stack up against them?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
When Roger Clemens won the 1986 AL Cy Young and MVP awards with the Red Sox, he threw 254 innings.

While it's certainly possible to do this, such an endeavor also seems just a little bit shortsighted and fruitless, primarily because times have changed so much, even from the 1990s. Between limiting innings and pitch counts and doing everything possible to protect their investments, teams have made it practically impossible for pitchers to be compared across eras.

As dominant as Strasburg has been—and very well could continue to be going forward—there's only one word for trying to compare him to guys like Gibson, Ryan, Clemens and other phenom flamethrowers from decades past.

Unfair.

 

All stats came from Baseball-Reference.com, except when otherwise noted.

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