Stephen Strasburg Blockbuster Would Be Yankees' Road Back to the Top

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 3, 2015

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Now that all the actual baseballing is over, we can finally turn our attention to the possibility of a Washington Nationals star heading to the Bronx and transforming the New York Yankees.

No, not that one. The other one. Stephen Strasburg.

Yeah, that one. Though the Nationals could lose Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister to free agency this winter, word is they might shop Strasburg anyway. As Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported in mid-October, there's a "lot of buzz" that the Nationals could make the 27-year-old right-hander available.

As for which teams could pursue Strasburg—who only has one year to go until free agencyif the Nationals put him out there, Cafardo had nothing to say. However, one need not jump through hoops or do any rocket surgery to be able to draw a straight line from Strasburg to the Yankees.

The Yankees had a mostly successful 2015 season, winning 87 games and making their first postseason since 2012. But among the reasons why they fell short of the AL East crown and failed to move beyond the AL Wild Card Game was their mediocre starting rotation. It finished with just a 4.25 ERA.

Hence why Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors highlighted starting pitching as an "an area of focus" for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman this winter. And if you ask Mike Axisa of River Avenue Blues, he'll say the Yankees should make a pursuit of Strasburg a part of that focus.

He's right, you know. And here's why: While the Yankees do have the makings of a solid starting rotation, they lack a guy who stands out as a true ace.

Take a wild guess who could be that guy.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Using the word "ace" in conjunction with the name "Strasburg" is not as easy as we expected it to be.

Strasburg was heralded as baseball's next great starting pitcher when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009. But a promising breakthrough in 2010 was cut short by Tommy John surgery, and Strasburg hasn't been untouchable since becoming a regular in Washington's rotation in 2012. 

But now comes the part where we stop kidding ourselves and get into the truth of Strasburg's career. He's been really good, has arguably been even better than really good and might now be on the verge of the elite ace-like season we've been waiting for.

Though there's no ignoring Strasburg's durability issues—he's pitched over 200 innings only oncehe has indeed been one of the league's most effective pitchers when he's been healthy in the last four years. His 3.17 ERA may not sound especially impressive, but that darn near qualifies him as a top-10 starter.

Top Starting Pitcher ERAs (min. 600 IP): 2012-2015
RkPlayerTmIPERA
1Clayton KershawLAD894.22.07
2Zack GreinkeMIL-LAA-LAD815.02.61
3Johnny CuetoCIN-KCR733.12.80
4David PriceTBR-DET-TOR866.12.90
5Felix HernandezSEA874.02.91
6Chris SaleCHW789.02.95
7Adam WainwrightSTL695.12.99
8Madison BumgarnerSFG845.13.01
9Max ScherzerDET-WSN851.03.12
10Jordan ZimmermannWSN810.13.13
11Hisashi IwakumaSEA653.23.17
T-11Stephen StrasburgWSN684.23.17
Baseball-Reference.com

Strasburg comes off looking even better in the eyes of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP). According to FIP, he's MLB's eighth-most effective pitcher since 2012. According to xFIP, the top of the 2012-2015 leaderboard looks like this:

  1. Clayton Kershaw: 2.59
  2. Stephen Strasburg: 2.80

Why do FIP and xFIP like Strasburg so much? Primarily because they love pitchers who rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Nobody has ever questioned Strasburg's ability in those two arenas. His mid-90s fastball and wicked curveball and changeup have allowed him to compile a 10.3 K/9 over the last four seasons. His excellent control, meanwhile, has allowed him to compile a 2.3 BB/9.

Though the 3.46 ERA Strasburg posted in 2015 would seem to suggest otherwise, these skills are still very much intact. His fastball velocity is doing just fine, and Brooks Baseball can vouch that his curveball (see below) and changeup remain extremely difficult to hit. And in throwing 67.1 percent strikes, he found the strike zone exactly 50.0 percent of the time in 2015.

Of course, strikeouts and walks alone don't tell the whole story of a pitcher's talent. By extension, neither do FIP and xFIP. There's something they miss, and this particular something has been Strasburg's true weakness.

Two words: contact management. 

This is something Strasburg hasn't been particularly good at. He's excelled neither at getting ground balls (46.2 GB%) nor at getting pop-ups (9.1 IFFB%) throughout his career, and he has also failed to be a merchant of soft (18.1 Soft%) or hard (28.9 Hard%) contact.

As Shane Ryan of Grantland (RIP) pointed out, this is partially owed to Strasburg's inability to develop a reliable fourth pitch. As ESPN.com's Tony Blengino pointed out, it's also due to how Strasburg's plus control hasn't translated into plus command within the strike zone.

But while this has been the big knock on Strasburg to this point, it's possible that it may soon be history.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

When looking at Strasburg's 2015 season, it stands out that he rescued himself from mediocrity with a brilliant 10-start stretch at the end. In 66.1 innings, he posted a 1.90 ERA with 92 strikeouts, eight walks and an opponents' OPS of just .512. He was as good as he's ever been.

How did this happen? According to the man himself, it came from an adjustment between his ears.

“I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there,” Strasburg told James Wagner of the Washington Post. “There are times in the game when you can kind of let your focus slip just for a split second. And I made it a point to not let that happen, to just focus on each pitch and just let everything I’ve got go on that individual pitch and turn the page.”

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

This, certainly, is a worthwhile adjustment. There have been times through the years when Strasburg has fallen to pieces when confronted with adversity. If he's getting over that, great.

But something else was at play in Strasburg's hot finish. When diving into the finer points of how he got things done, one notices that he got better at managing contact. He got plenty of pop-ups (16.4 IFFB%) and outperformed his career rates in the Soft% (21.9) and Hard% (27.4) departments. 

As for what happened, there was a noticeable change in Strasburg's fastball location. Whereas he spent the early portion of 2015 working mainly across the middle of the zone, he spent the latter portion of 2015 working more up in the zone.

This wasn't the first time that a Nationals starter reaped the benefits of more high fastballs. Zimmermann took to living up in the zone with his own heat in 2014, and the result was a breakout year built on the strength of a career-best K/9 and career-best IFFB% rate.

Strasburg's move up in the zone might have been him taking after Zimmermann. The way in which that correlated with a marked improvement in his contact management without infringing on his mastery of strikeouts and walks makes him quite the intriguing pitcher for 2016. 

And if he so happens to become a member of the Yankees, their rotation in turn would also become quite intriguing.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Exactly how the Yankees would acquire Strasburg is as good a question as any, but there should be no doubt it's something they can do.

Even beyond the presumably untouchable Aaron Judge, the Yankees have an improving farm system they could dip into to pull off a deal for Strasburg. If the Nationals prefer more established players, the Yankees have a trio of starters they can deal from: Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Adam Warren.

Whatever the case, let's assume there's a deal to be made that sends Strasburg to the Bronx. If that happens, a rotation that was shaky in 2015 would suddenly look awfully solid for 2016.

Behind Strasburg, there would be Masahiro Tanaka and his mix of excellent command, a plus slider and a plus-plus splitter. Behind him, there would be 21-year-old phenom Luis Severino and his mix of plus-plus stuff and budding command. If all three were to live up to their potential in 2016, the Yankees' 2016 rotation would feature one of the league's best pitching trios.

Behind the front three could be Pineda and/or Eovaldi, who have nasty stuff of their own. If one of them were to go in the deal for Strasburg, bringing up the rear would be CC Sabathia. There aren't many reasons to believe in him anymore, but by far the most appealing is the notion that he might be a changed man after going through alcohol rehab.

Regardless, things would look very encouraging for the Yankees' starting rotation if Strasburg were to be placed at the head of it. The Yankees would be looking at going from having mediocre starting pitching to potentially elite starting pitching.

And that could indeed be enough for them to take the next step in 2016.

The awesome duo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller would still be at the back end of the bullpen after all. And though the Yankees can't expect more of the same from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira on offense in 2016, bounce-back years from Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, and Judge's impending arrival, could ensure that the offense as a whole remains an elite unit.

The way things are set up in those two departments, starting pitching is really the only missing link in the Yankees' plans for 2016. If pursuing Strasburg is how they choose to deal with that problem, they'll be making a bold play that could get them to the very spot they desire to return to: On top of everyone else.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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