Why Stephen Strasburg Is Being Passed Up by MLB's Other Young Aces

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 16, 2014

Alex Brandon/AP Images

Remember when Stephen Strasburg was The Next Big Thing in Pitching? The way the Washington Nationals right-hander is throwing these days, it's getting harder and harder to recall such a time, even though it wasn't all that long ago.

The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009, Strasburg was considered the best prospect to come along in a decade (Mark Prior, anyone?), and he rocketed through the minors in less than a full year after signing his pro contract, breaking into the bigs with a masterful, must-watch 14 strikeouts over seven innings in his MLB debut in June of 2010.

Cut to Tuesday night in Miami, where Strasburg was shellacked, giving up six earned runs on eight hits—including a monstrous 457-foot homer to Giancarlo Stanton—over a mere four innings against a Marlins club that had lost eight straight games while scoring only 22 runs, and the same team Strasburg had just dominated in his previous game last week.

The roster might be slightly different and improved, but in case you forgot, the Marlins finished dead last—by a very wide margin—in runs scored at 513 overall, which translates to fewer than 3.2 per game.

While it's silly to put too much emphasis on one start by any pitcher, the outing was Strasburg's third subpar showing out of four so far in 2014.

Stephen Strasburg's 2014 Game Log
Baseball Reference

Put all of the above together, and you get a pitcher with an unsightly 6.00 ERA and 1.57 WHIP through 21.0 innings across four starts. Certainly, that's not a great beginning to what many expected to be the Summer of Strasburg, who was a popular preseason pick to win, or at least contend for, the NL Cy Young Award.

Those kinds of expectations, which Strasburg has been dealing with since he surged onto the national scene as a stud for San Diego State a handful of years ago, are one big culprit in the general sentiment that he's been underwhelming thus far, both this season and even in his four-plus years in the majors.

The other problem, though, is that there are just so darn many elite young arms in baseball today that it seems the occasionally enigmatic, inconsistent Strasburg is pitching in place—if not going backward—in comparison to ever-improving hurlers like Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, David Price, Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and even breakout youngsters like Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole. Really, the list could go on.

Now, to head off any exclamations that the sky is falling around Strasburg—hey, we are talking about only four starts—it should be noted that his stuff still looks good. After all, he is whiffing an MLB-best 14.2 per nine and 33.3 percent of the batters he's faced so far (third-best among starters).

Beyond that, Strasburg's .396 BABIP (eighth-highest), 57.1 percent LOB percentage (third-lowest) and 16.7 HR/FB rate indicate he's been mighty unlucky in those respects. His ERA might be 6.00, but his FIP is 3.28 and xFIP is 2.65.

And while the popular belief was that last season was a disappointing one for the big right-hander, that's only really true if one is still so inclined this far into the 21st century to gauge a pitcher's performance based on wins and losses: Strasburg had eight of the former and nine of the latter. Otherwise, he sported a 3.00 ERA to go with a 1.05 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 over a career-high 183.0 innings. Disappointing? Um, no.

Strasburg, let's not forget, had almost all of the 2011 season wiped out by Tommy John surgery in September of 2010. This past offseason, following a bout with elbow soreness late in 2013, he had another procedure to clean out bone chips from his right elbow, as James Wagner of The Washington Post reported last October:

Given the care with which the Nationals have handled Strasburg since his Tommy John surgery, any pain or injury to his right arm raises alarms. Strasburg’s cleanup procedure was performed in Los Angeles by Neal ElAttrache, the Dodgers’ team physician and a well-known orthopedic surgeon. Strasburg is slated to resume his offseason throwing program in four to six weeks.

Perhaps Strasburg's shaky start to the season can be attributed in part to his dealing with the after-effects of that. Certainly, none from that batch of elite pitchers mentioned above has had to endure ulnar collateral ligament replacement, let alone a second surgery on the same area three years later.

And as with any pitcher, everything starts with fastball command. Even for Strasburg, who is still hurrying it up to the plate in the mid-90s, leaving four-seamers over the middle—as he's done this season, based on his heat map for fastballs via Brooks Baseball—is going to lead to bad results against Major League hitters.

Even such luminaries as Andrew Brown, the backup outfielder on the fringes of the New York Mets' 25-man roster, who smacked a three-run homer off a 94-mph Strasburg fastball right down the middle in his first start:

Control and command can be impacted when a pitcher goes under the knife, which Strasburg did this offseason, so while his poor start looks worrisome, particularly Tuesday's disaster against the Marlins, Strasburg simply might not yet be quite up to speed or as sharp as he needs to be.

Still, with all the expectations that accompany every single Strasburg start, as well as the fact that other starters are making rapid adjustments and improvements, it's hard not to feel like Strasburg's time as The Next Big Thing in Pitching has passed. That is, if it ever really arrived at all.

The stuff and repertoire still remain for Strasburg to get there, but at this point, he has some work to do if he's going to catch up to the other arms that have passed him by.


Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

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