Just a few days ago, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote why Stephen Strasburg is not an ace. Schoenfield is not alone with this claim, as many fans and pundits alike have argued that Strasburg has failed to develop into the ace that many thought he would become when he was selected 1st overall by the Washington Nationals in the 2009 Amateur Draft. When looking at his career, Strasburg has been one of the best starters of all-time in rate statistics (K/9, ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), etc.). However, the largest knock on Strasburg has always been his inability to pitch deep into games. For his career, Strasburg has averaged just 5.9 innings per start, which is not ace-caliber production. When Strasburg is on the mound, however, he is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Aside from Strasburg’s lack of deep outings, many people look towards his ERA and see that he has yet to post a sub-3.00 ERA in a season with at least 150 IP and conclude that he is not a front of the rotation starter. His ERA of 3.39 in 2014 is a career high and much more than respectable. The flamethrower is still criticized for not being among the league leaders in run prevention, but other starters, such as David Price, James Shields and Jered Weaver, are considered to be undisputed aces, despite posting similar ERAs. These three starters certainly have longer track records, but Strasburg has actually been better than each of them, although Price does have a better ERA this season. Likewise, few people would argue that pitchers like Alfredo Simon or Henderson Alvarez are aces, but they both have sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014. Relying on any one statistic for evaluation is a very risky proposition and often leads to rather poor conclusions. Strasburg, however, excels in many categories and is certainly among the most elite pitchers in the MLB.
During his nearly 4 full seasons of MLB service time, Strasburg has made 99 starts and compiled 585 2/3 IP, which equates to 5.9 IP/start, certainly validating the claim that he does not work deep into games. While this is due to his own shortcomings, it is also due to the Nationals attempting to protect their prized investment. Strasburg actually underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, his first year of professional baseball, despite being on strict pitch counts and innings limits. The Nationals have remained incredibly cautious with their 26 year-old ace, as they imposed an innings limit on him in 2012, his first full season after surgery, that forced them to shut him down before their brief trip to the Postseason. The Nationals have since lifted Strasburg’s restrictions and he has averaged over 6 inn/start each of the past two seasons, still not among the elite, but he is improving. Even as he has averaged more innings per start, Strasburg is still lacking in complete games, as he has just one career CG. Strasburg is not among the top pitchers in the game in terms of innings pitched, but he does excel in just about every other facet of the game.
Criticisms of Strasburg are nothing new, as he entered the league as one of the most-hyped players in the history of the game. He had a fastball that could reach 100 mph with a devastating curveball and changeup. He breezed through the minors and then dominated MLB hitters in his 68 innings before going down to Tommy John. After just two Major League starts, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “National Treasure”. At that time, Strasburg’s fate was sealed; it would be almost impossible for him to ever live up to the otherworldly expectations that many had placed on him. While these expectations have always been there, they are leading to even louder critics this season, as Strasburg has posted the worst ERA of his career. The worst ERA of his career is 3.39, which is more than respectable, maybe not an ERA you would want from an ace, but there are plenty of flaws with using ERA. Strasburg has been hurt by an unsustainable Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), which sits at .341. It is not always bad luck that contributes to a high BABIP, and David Schoenfield does point out that Strasburg has been hit hard when he has fallen behind in the count. It is still not realistic to expect Strasburg’s BABIP to remain this high when his career mark is .302, which is right around league average. Despite these unspectacular numbers, Strasburg has excelled in the statistics he has the most control over, such as K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. Strasburg has a K/9 of 10.53, which ranks 3rd in the MLB. He has also been fantastic at limiting walks and home runs, as his 1.96 BB/9 is far better than league average and his HR/9 of .83 is also better than league average. All of these statistics culminate in Strasburg posting the 11th best FIP in baseball, ahead of bona fide aces Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, David Price and Max Scherzer, to name a few. Even in the midst of a down season in terms of run prevention, Strasburg is among the elite pitchers in the game when isolating his performance from his defense and luck.
However, looking at one season’s worth of data is not nearly enough data to substantiate a claim that any starter is an ace. Strasburg’s career numbers help to further strengthen his case as an MLB ace. Looking at pitcher’s career statistics for all starters with at least 550 career IP, Strasburg ranks among the best starters in the history of the game. There are 812 starters that have reached this benchmark and Strasburg has posted the best FIP of any of them. This is largely due to his ability to generate strikeouts, while also limiting walks and home runs. He ranks 2nd in K/9, but 1st in K% and K-BB%. His ranking as the best pitcher in terms of FIP shows how effective Strasburg is at all the things he has the most control over. But, even in terms of ERA, Strasburg has ranked among the top starters of all-time. He ranks 17th all-time in ERA, with a 3.07 mark. It may not be entirely accurate to compare Strasburg’s first 585 2/3 IP to other starters that have compiled more than 1500 IP. However, that is the only sample that we can look at and all of his advanced metrics point to this being a sustainable performance. He excels at the three statistics that are most under his control, which will help him to sustain this high level of performance. The real challenge for Strasburg will come when he begins to lose velocity, but with his ability to limit walks and generate so many strikeouts, he should continue to succeed at the level of an ace.
While Strasburg entered the league with unrealistic expectations, that does not mean that he should need to do more than others to be considered an ace. In statistics that he has the greatest control over, he ranks among the best starters in the MLB, not just in 2014, but also for his entire career. Even in terms of run prevention, Strasburg has matched the level of other elite pitchers. Despite what seems to be a disappointing season for Strasburg, he has remained among the best starters in the game. It is time to accept that Strasburg is never going to match the hype that was put on him when he was drafted, and realize that he has still developed into the ace that many would expect of a #1 overall pick. He has also done all of this by the age of 26, which leaves him plenty of time to continue to improve as an ace. He certainly needs to improve his ability to pitch deep into games, but now that he has graduated from the Nationals’ overprotective period, he will be free to throw more pitches per outing and more innings per season.
*All statistics as of August 7, 2014