Explaining Why Stephen Strasburg Will Never Be MLB's Next Justin Verlander
Here's a hint: Don't do that.
Strasburg is never going to be Verlander's equal, nor is he going to be up there with any of Major League Baseball's great aces who are also tireless workhorses. That's not the life Strasburg has been cut out for.
Before you object, let's be clear about one thing: We're not talking about a question of talent. If talent is a matter of stuff and command, then Strasburg has those two areas pretty well covered.
Strasburg's stuff, obviously, is tremendous. Drool-inducing, really. He's got the kind of stuff that we all gave our customized video-game pitchers when we were kids (and/or still do as adults).
Per FanGraphs, Strasburg has the highest average-fastball velocity of any starter in the majors (minimum 160 innings pitched) since the start of 2012. It's a true plus offering, and his curveball and changeup are about as nasty as any in the game.
Strasburg is still working on his sinker, but it bodes well that it has by far the best ground-ball rate of any of his pitches this season, according to BrooksBaseball.net. If he continues to master that pitch, the task of beating him will be all the more difficult.
As for Strasburg's command, Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says he's thrown 45.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone since the start of 2012. That puts him right there with Matt Cain, as well as ahead of guys like Felix Hernandez and, yes, even Mr. Verlander.
So talent isn't an issue. Strasburg may have more of that than any other starting pitcher in the majors, and I'll wager that he has more of it now at the age of 24 than Verlander did when he was the same age in 2007.
But Verlander didn't become Verlander just on his ability to throw a baseball. The Detroit Tigers' right-hander's freakish durability is as big a part of his legend as his freakish stuff, and similar freakish durability should not be expected from Strasburg for a couple of reasons.
One is that it is very unlikely to be allowed. Another is that Strasburg's body very likely won't allow it.
Strasburg becoming an elite workhorse means finding a way past the paranoia of his employers. The Nationals have been extremely cautious with his right arm, particularly last year when he was tackling his first full major-league season less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
To give you an idea of how small Strasburg's workload last season was, here's how it compares to Verlander's age-23 season in 2006.
|Player||Starts||Innings||Pit/GS||120+ Pitch Starts|
In his age-23 season, Verlander logged more starts, more innings, more pitches per game started and more 120-pitch starts than Strasburg did in his age-23 season last year. Overall, Verlander threw exactly 361 more pitches in 2006 than Strasburg did in 2012.
Granted, Verlander wasn't coming off Tommy John surgery. But he still compiled all that work despite dealing with two separate episodes of arm fatigue late in the year (see Baseball Prospectus). He was not a picture of health in 2006, yet he still handled a sizable workload.
To boot, not pictured in the above table is the work Verlander did in the postseason in 2006. Factor that in, and you've got another four starts, 21.2 innings and 406 pitches.
So Verlander's leash was pretty loose in 2006, and the Tigers loosened it even more in his age-24 season in 2007. He crossed the 110-pitch plateau nine times in 32 starts and averaged 105 pitches per start.
The Nationals have loosened Strasburg's leash in 2013, but only to a degree. He's averaging 102 pitches per start through his first seven outings, but 110 pitches would still appear to be his limit. He's topped out at 114 pitches this season, and still has yet to throw over 120 pitches in a major-league start.
That's something that Verlander now does regularly, and it's hard to imagine Strasburg ever getting to that point because of how the Nationals treat him. They have yet to show a willingness to take his training wheels completely off, and they could continue to do so as long as he's under their control.
That would be through the 2016 season, which will be Strasburg's age-27 campaign. If the Nationals are still afraid to let him go too far beyond 100 pitches and, by extension, 200 innings per season by then, his niche is going to be carved out.
Even if Strasburg were to escape the Nationals through free agency, he'd still be in a situation where his employers would want to treat him with extreme care. There'd be a lot of money invested in him, and the people investing that money would know that it would be at risk if Strasburg were to be asked to suddenly handle a bigger workload after so many years on a short leash.
That would be asking for an injury to happen even if Strasburg's medical record was clean, which, of course, it's not. As it is, the fear of him suffering another major injury doesn't just stem from his medical record. His mechanics are also a red flag.
When Strasburg was first coming up, there was some buzz about his mechanics potentially being dangerous. His Baseball America scouting report, for example, noted that there were some within the Nationals organization who were concerned Strasburg's mechanics could eventually result in him breaking down.
Several years later, these concerns have some legs. In addition to Tommy John surgery in 2010, Strasburg has also battled shoulder inflammation, bicep tightness and forearm tightness since he arrived in the majors (see Baseball Prospectus). As explosive as his right arm is, it's fragile.
Last year, Lindsay Berra of ESPN The Magazine sought to find out exactly what it is about Strasburg's mechanics that makes them so dangerous, and an independent coach and former Pittsburgh Pirates scout named Paul Reddick had an answer.
Reddick provided a step-by-step breakdown of Strasburg's mechanics in comparison to the practically flawless mechanics of Greg Maddux. The gist was that Strasburg's pitching delivery results in his upper half being out of sync with his lower half, putting extra pressure on his shoulder and arm.
Strasburg is also an "inverted W" guy, which Berra explained at length in a separate article focused on Tommy John surgery:
...if a pitcher's elbows come higher than his wrists and shoulders, with the ball pointing down, he's demonstrating an "inverted W" -- a sign that his sequence is off and he's fighting his own body. Such poor timing leads to arm lag, evident when the throwing elbow trails the shoulder once the shoulders square to home plate. Strasburg exhibits both problems, forcing him and others like him to rely more on the arm's relatively small muscles instead of the more massive ones in the legs and torso.
The ideal pitching delivery, according to Berra, looks like this: "When the [front] foot makes contact with the mound, the pitching arm must be up and ready to throw. A righthanded pitcher should be showing the baseball to the shortstop, a lefty to the second baseman."
Case in point, here's Verlander:
Verlander's front foot is about a fraction of a second away from hitting the ground in this shot, but it's close enough for our purposes. What you can see here is that his arms are not making an inverted W. His right arm is ready to throw, with the ball clearly visible to the shortstop.
Now here's Strasburg:
Strasburg's lead foot is a fraction of a second from hitting the ground in this shot, too, and you can see that his right arm is not up and ready to fire like Verlander's. It's still on the way up, and really isn't ready to fire until Strasburg is already striding towards home plate.
By contrast, here's where Verlander's arm is when he starts his stride towards home plate:
The difference is subtle, but what you're seeing in this image is Verlander's arm coming forward as he strides towards the plate. He's already in the process of throwing, whereas the above image of Strasburg shows that he's still in the process of preparing to throw. He's basically still locking and loading at a point where Verlander is firing.
That's the "arm lag" Berra was talking about. Because Strasburg's arm is not in sequence with his lower half, his arm has to generate more torque than it should have to.
Point being: Strasburg's arm was surgically repaired in 2010, but it's not going to be totally safe until he alters his mechanics. Since that hasn't happened yet, it would appear he and the Nationals won't even consider a mechanical overhaul until they get a darn good excuse.
Such as another major injury. And if one should occur, Strasburg's going to be damaged goods for good.
Even if Strasburg is able to avoid major injuries, his mechanics are still very likely to keep the minor injuries (stiffness, inflammation, etc.) coming, and that's only going to keep feeding the notion that Strasburg is best kept on strict pitch-count and innings limitations.
Verlander achieved his status as an indestructible workhorse by proving it. The same goes for aces like Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, James Shields and other perennial 230-inning guys. These pitchers eventually showed that 200 innings was a formality for them, not a goal.
As much as Strasburg would presumably like to follow in their footsteps, his overprotective employers, injury history and mechanics are standing in the way.
We'll just have to be content with him being a super-talented pitcher who's one of the lesser workhorses in the game.
Hey, as long as the "super-talented" part holds up, I'm cool with that arrangement.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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