After posting a 3.18 ERA with 44 strikeouts over 39.2 innings in July, Strasburg kicked off August with his best start of the season, striking out 10 batters and scattering three hits over seven shutout innings versus the Phillies.
And considering he was scheduled to face a Braves squad mired in an eight-game losing streak, all signs pointed to the 26-year-old right-hander having another strong outing.
However, Strasburg was anything but dominant Friday night, allowing seven runs on seven hits in five innings. The Nats mounted a valiant comeback late in the game, but ultimately fell to the Braves 7-6.
It was the second time this season and third time in his career that he gave up seven earned runs in a start. To make matters worse, four of the seven hits against Strasburg were home runs, which represents the most he’s allowed in a game over 100 starts in the major leagues. Basically, the only good news to emerge from the outing was that Strasburg struck out nine batters.
Overall, Strasburg’s season has been as inconsistent as his past two starts suggest, with his performance varying from month to month and start to start.
Strasburg has shown glimpses of putting everything together all year, but the reality is that he’s posted an ERA above 5.00 twice (June and so far August) and has one month with a sub-3.00 ERA (May).
So what’s to make of Strasburg’s inconsistent season?
Here are some possible explanations for the right-hander’s struggles.
One of Strasburg’s biggest issues this season has been his pitch execution early in games, as he has a tendency to struggle through the first few innings before finally settling in around the third or fourth.
Unfortunately, Strasburg’s struggles were on full display Friday, as he yielded a pair of runs with two outs in the first inning on a home run by Justin Upton. He had trouble getting the third out in the second inning too, as he surrendered two more two-run shots to B.J. Upton and Freddie Freeman, respectively.
However, after a disastrous first two innings, Strasburg bounced back to retire the next seven batters, five via strikeout, before Tommy La Stella opened the fifth inning with a solo home run, his first big league homer. Strasburg went on to finish the inning and outing with swinging strikeouts of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis.
Though frustrating, Strasburg’s struggles during the first and second innings aren’t overly concerning in terms of his performance over the duration of the regular season; the right-hander has proved he can still miss bats and hang around for at least five innings when he’s at his worst, which is still better than 90 percent of all big league starters.
That being said, Strasburg’s situation will be discussed more and more leading up the postseason, as a rough start in Game 1 or 2 of a five- or seven-game series could potentially crush the Nats’ World Series dreams in a hurry.
Strasburg really, really likes pitching at Nationals Park.
In his 13 home starts this season, Strasburg has pitched to a 7-2 record, 2.41 ERA and 112/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 86 innings while also holding opposing hitters to a .234 batting average.
In general, the 26-year-old has always pitched better at home, though he’s also never struggled as badly on the road as he is this season. However, that’s not completely his fault.
Opposing hitters have an unsustainable .361 batting average on balls put in play against Strasburg this year over his 12 road starts, meaning that his unattractive stat line is at least partially driven by poor luck.
Yet, Strasburg’s road walk rate this year is actually better than his career average, but he’s striking out roughly two fewer batters per nine innings and getting hit around more often.
Fastball Velocity and Effectiveness
Strasburg’s fastball velocity has been declining over the last three seasons, as he’s averaging 95.59 mph with the pitch this year after sitting at 96.32 mph in 2013 and 96.77 mph in 2012. It’s not a significant or particularly concerning dip in velocity, but still a dip nonetheless.
However, part of that simply could be Strasburg sacrificing power for command, which makes sense considering the right-hander also has spent time this season adjusting his setup on the rubber.
"It just kind of dawned on me,” Strasburg said. “I was talking to [pitching coach Steve McCatty] about it. I was like, ‘I’ve done this for such a long time. It was like, will this help things if I make the adjustment?’ I’m seeing a bunch of other great pitchers do that. A lot of the control pitchers and a lot of the elite pitchers in the game — I’d say the majority of them — don’t have their foot on top of the rubber.”
“It’s just little things like that,” Strasburg said. “I noticed a lot of the command pitchers, they’re able to control their delivery down the hill, and they get to a better balance point. In the past, for the longest time, when my foot’s on the rubber, it’s harder for me to control the delivery and have the same tempo.”
While it’s hard to say with any sense of certainty whether Strasburg’s mechanical and/or philosophical adjustments have affected his fastball, it is clear that his heater has become increasingly hittable over the last year, and more and more players are driving the pitch for extra bases.
The only reason we scrutinize Stephen Strasburg’s every pitch is because we all recognize his potential to be the best pitcher in baseball. It might seem like he’s having a down season—if only because his career-worst outing on Friday is still fresh on everyone’s minds—but Strasburg actually ranks among the MLB leaders in numerous categories.
Per FanGraphs, the right-hander’s 10.71 K/9 ranks third among all qualified starters behind Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw; his 2.53 xFIP ranks third behind Kershaw and Felix Hernandez; and his .341 BABIP is the highest among all starting pitchers with at least 150 IP.
Additionally, Strasburg’s 23 percent K%-BB% is the highest rate of his career and ranks fifth in all of baseball, per FanGraphs, while his 36 percent OSwing% (pitches swung at outside the strike zone) and 11.9 percent SwSTR% (swinging strike rate) rank fifth and seventh, respectively.
And I’d be remiss not to mention that Strasburg has 11 outings this season with nine-plus strikeouts, and he’s yet to unintentionally walk more than three batters in a game.
Strasburg already has put together a great season, but the next two months will determine whether he’s a front-of-the-rotation arm or a legitimate ace.