Can Stephen Strasburg Ever Be a True MLB Workhorse?

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Can Stephen Strasburg Ever Be a True MLB Workhorse?

It took longer than anyone expected, but finally, after 67 starts and nearly four years in the major leagues, Stephen Strasburg threw the first complete game of his career on Sunday night against Philadelphia.

Correction: Stephen Strasburg threw the first complete game and shutout of his career against the Phillies, doing so in impressive fashion.

Not only was the 68th start of the phenom's career notable for those reasons, but it put the 25-year-old right-hander on pace to reach one of his goals for this season: breaking the 200-inning plateau.

That's workhorse territory.

What makes a pitcher a workhorse, you ask?

The literal definition, according to Miriam-Webster:

(1) : a person who performs most of the work of a group task 

(2) : a hardworking person

b : something that is markedly useful, durable, or dependable

Statistically, we can define a workhorse as a starting pitcher who throws at least 200 innings in a given season, with those truly deserving of the moniker able to carry that workload for multiple, consecutive seasons.

In the era of pitch counts and innings limits, the major league workhorse is becoming a rare breed. Only 31 starting pitchers reached that plateau in 2012, the lowest total since 2008 and a far cry from where things were only a decade ago:

MLB Workhorse Tracker (2002-2012)
Season # Pitchers w/200+ IP Avg. IP Avg. GS Avg. Pitch Count (Season) Avg. Pitch Count (Start)
2012 31 215.0 33 3,315 100
2011 39 221.0 33 3,415 104
2010 45 216.2 33 3,399 103
2009 36 216.1 33 3,368 102
2008 34 213.0 33 3,342 101
2007 38 214.0 33 3,362 102
2006 45 214.1 33 3,329 101
2005 50 218.1 33 3,311 100
2004 42 216.1 33 3,368 102
2003 44 216.2 33 3,326 101
2002 42 220.1 33 3,377 102

Basebaall References's Play Index (Subscription Required)

Strasburg has never exceeded 28 starts, 160 innings pitched or 2,610 pitches thrown in any of his previous three seasons, something that comes as no surprise considering that he missed time due to Tommy John surgery and was shut down early last season to preserve his arm.

But those average numbers certainly seem attainable for a pitcher who is entering the prime of his career, don't they?

Yes and no.

There's no question that he has the ability and desire to pitch deep into games, something he explained to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore earlier this year:

I’m not trying to get out there and get used to throwing 90, 94 pitches. You look at some of the top pitchers in the game, they go at least 110 every time out. I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m not saying that they’re going to let me do it. But I’m going to be physically ready for it.

Manager Davey Johnson chimed in as well: “He’s a regular guy. I treat him like everybody else. He’s a big machine.”

Therein lies the rub.

Of the 446 occurrences of a pitcher throwing at least 200 innings in a season over the past decade, only 77 were able to accomplish that feat without throwing at least one complete game—just over 17 percent. That doesn't bode well for Strasburg, because despite his manager's statements to the contrary, he isn't a regular guy.

Will Stephen Strasburg become a prototypical MLB Workhorse?

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Washington isn't going to treat him like everyone else, and the team will always err on the side of caution with its prized pitcher. That's the one obstacle that Strasburg simply may not be able to get around, despite his best efforts.

Can Stephen Strasburg become a workhorse?

Absolutely.

Will he?

There's a better chance of Washington GM Mike Rizzo offering you a multi-million dollar contract tomorrow than there is of Strasburg becoming the next CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle or Matt Cain.

We've seen those three veterans struggle badly at times in 2013, looking nothing like the reliable workhorses that they once were. It's impossible to argue against the theory that the heavy workload that trio has carried over the years is finally catching up to them.

Washington has seen what happens to workhorses as they age, and it's not pretty.

With no desire to put Strasburg out to pasture anytime soon, the Nationals will let someone else do the heavy lifting, keeping him right around the 180- to 190-innings range—just below the level of a workhorse.

 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference's Play Index (Subscription required).

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