Stephen Strasburg Who? How the Nationals Will Be Fine Without Their Ace – Part One


What if I were to tell you the Washington Nationals could – and should – be World Series favorites even after the team shuts down their ace, Stephen Strasburg?  Is that something you’d be interested in?  OK, legendary Entourage lines aside, all the talk has been about the doomsday ahead for the Nationals when Strasburg hits 160 innings or 180 innings or whatever magical number GM Mike Rizzo picked five months ago.  But why?  Strasburg is good, but so is the entire Nats team.  No team wants to lose their ace, but let’s take a step back and consider the success of this team as a whole.

Before we look at the rest of the pitching staff and the team, we’ll need to know what’s being lost when Strasburg throws a towel around his arm for the final time this season and takes his permanent spot on the bench.  Forget about wins – we don’t talk about wins – and focus on the peripheral numbers for a minute.

Strasburg is striking out an incredible number of batters.  He trails R.A. Dickey in the National League by two strikeouts despite throwing 29 less innings.  He trails Max Scherzer by five strikeouts (Scherzer has pitched one more innings this season) and Justin Verlander by one (Verlander has pitched 26 1/3 more innings this season).  If we refigure the strikeout rankings based on strikeout per inning, Strasburg blows past  Dickey and Verlander with 1.24 K/IP. Dickey is at 1.04, and Verlander is at 0.99.  Max Scherzer beats out Strasburg ever so slightly when we figure things this way.  Scherzer is at 1.27.

Stephen Strasburg has command unlike most other strikeout pitchers.  He’s only walked 42 batters this season.  That gives him a K/BB ratio of 4.12 – good enough for ninth in all of baseball behind Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Madison Bumgarner, R.A. DickeyMatt Cain, Chris Sale, Jordan Zimmermann, and Justin Verlander.  That’s pretty good company.  But again, let’s break it down to BB/IP.  Strasburg is at 0.30 walks per inning pitched.  The other names mentioned above have a lower BB/IP ratio but only one (Verlander) has more strikeouts.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at Strasburg’s FIP.  His ERA sits at a majestic 2.91.  However, his FIP is even better at 2.72.  His xFIP is at 2.80.  So what’s it all mean?  Well, while he has a pretty decent defense behind him – the Nationals have made the ninth fewest errors in the Majors this year – they could actually do better by him.  Strasburg’s raw pitching, taking out the defense from the equation, shows him to be slightly better than his ERA indicates.

So, Strasburg is good.  We knew that already though, right?  Yet, I’m going to somehow convince you that the Nationals are alright without him heading into the play-offs (barring any meltdown of Braves or Red Sox proportions).  I know I’ve got my work cut out for me on this one, but let’s give it a shot.

Here’s the Nationals rotation as it stands now without Strasburg:

Gio Gonzalez
Jordan Zimmermann
Edwin Jackson
Ross Detwiler

Listen, if you put those four pitchers on any other team in baseball, no one is going to care who the odd man out is, who the fifth pitcher is.  Those are some good pitchers.

Gio Gonzalez

Gonzalez has actually pitched better than some of his numbers would indicate, which has to be frightening to any team facing him because his numbers are already pretty darn good.  Gonzalez’s ERA is 3.29, but his FIP is 2.79.  He’s giving up less home runs than he has at any other point in his career which is helping both his ERA and his FIP.  This is an interesting change considering Nationals Park has consistently ranked higher than Oakland County Coliseum in HR Park Factor.  But it’s been more than just his ability to keep the ball in the park this year.

Gonzalez is striking out more batters per nine innings this year than any year aside from his first full year in the big leagues.  In 2009, Gonzalez’s rookie year, he only pitched 98 2/3 innings.  This year, he’s already thrown more than 147 innings.  So far in 2012, Gonzalez has a 9.63 K/9 ratio.  Part of his ability to rack up the strikeout this year, Gonzalez has been getting batters to swing more this season.  And not just swing and miss – swing in general.  Gonzalez is getting an average of 44.2% swings this year, the highest percentage of his career.  Of course, this helps translate into a higher than average swinging strike percentage of 9.6%.  Basically, Gonzalez is more deceptive with his pitches and enticing batters to swing more and to swing and miss more.

Finally, let’s talk about Gonzalez’s fastball.  First, he’s throwing it at an average velocity of 93.2 mph – the highest of his career.  Not surprisingly, he’s throwing it more as well.  He is throwing his fastball at a 70.6% clip.  This of course means he is using his other pitches (curveball, change up) less.  Gonzalez is developing himself into a straight power pitcher.  The bigger increase in fastball usage can be attributed almost exclusively to his four-seam fastball.  And it’s worked for him.  He’s possibly the Nationals second-best pitcher.

Jordan Zimmerman

Zimmerman posted his highest fWAR total of his career last year with 3.4.  So far this season, over ten less innings than last year and two less starts, he’s already posted 3.2 fWAR.  A big reason for this is his National League-leading 2.38 ERA.  His ERA, though, may actually be a bit deceptive.  If we delve deeper, it appears the Nationals defense has played better than average in Zimmerman’s starts, leading to a 3.25 ERA.  In addition, Zimmerman, like Gonzalez, has managed to keep the ball in the park better than league average.  His xFIP of 3.56 tells this tale.  But no matter the relative luck Zimmerman has experienced this season, he’s also shown a great deal of skill.

In each of his first three years, Zimmerman has reduced his BB/9 ratio.  A big part of being a successful

pitcher (like I know) is keeping unnecessary runners off the base paths.  Walks do not help this goal one bit.  Zimmerman’s BB/9 ratio of 1.61 this season is the lowest of his career.  The reduction in walks is almost certainly not a result of Zimmerman throwing more balls in the strike zone.  He has posted his lowest Zone% of his career this season (the overall percentage of pitches in the strike zone).  However, batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone more often and making contact with those pitches more often.  Contact on pitches outside the zone doesn’t usually equate to hits.

Perhaps the biggest change Zimmerman has made is getting batters to hit the ball on the ground more often.  He has induced flyballs 5% less frequently than his career average while increasing his ground ball rate to over 3% above career average.  This, of course, leads to his reduction in HR/9 and his ERA vs. xFIP.  Currently, Zimmerman is allowing 46.7% of balls to be hit on the ground and only 30.6% to be hit in the air.  Say what you will about things a pitcher can and can’t control, but getting ground balls is absolutely within a pitcher’s power.  This can, and probably does, come back to getting hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone.

Edwin Jackson

Jackson is a strange player in the fact that he is almost unanimously thought of as having the tools to be a great pitcher, but he’s just not there yet.  He’s running out of time though.  Jackson is 28 – he’s be 29 before the end of the year – and his shine will wear off if he can’t keep build upon seasons like his last two.  So far this year, he is not on pace to match his fWAR from 2011 or 2010.  He’s currently at 1.8 while he finished with 3.8 in both of his previous two seasons.  However, this does not mean he’s been bad.  Jackson has a 3.74 ERA, he’s striking out 2.98 batters to every walk he issues, he’s stranding 76.2% of the runners he allows on base, and he’s improved his ground ball percentage compared with his career average.

Jackson could be better this by simply keeping the ball in the ballpark.  Unlike Zimmerman and Gonzalez, Jackson has managed to allow more home runs per nine innings this year than any year since 2004 (that’s right, he’s been pitching that long – since 2003 to be exact).  So far this season, Jackson is allowing 1.18 HR/9 innings.  For some reason, the fly balls he gives up are leaving the yard with more frequency than they ever have since 2004.  His HR/FB 12.1%.  That mean slightly more than one out of every ten fly balls allowed by Jackson is heading for the seats.  The good news is that he is allowing more ground balls than his career average, but not by much – 45.0% compared with 43.4%.  The bad news is that Jackson is allowing his highest percentage of fly balls in three years at 37.3%.

Much of the fly ball result could be related to Jackson’s usage of the curveball.  He is using that pitch far more than he has ever used it in the past.  His career average usage is 2.8%, and this season he’s throwing is 4.9% of the time.  Along those same lines, he’s throwing his change-up more as well.  His career average is 8.2% while he is throwing it 9.6% of the time this year.  It’s interesting, since 2009, Jackson has not thrown his fastball more than 60% of the time while prior to that year he never threw it less than 64% of the time. His slider is his best pitch, but by switching to more off-speed pitches rather than the fastball, Jackson may be costing himself home runs.

Ross Detwiler

Detwiler is another young Nationals pitcher – home grown too – who could help the team for a long time. So far this season, Detwiler has a 3.18 ERA in 116 innings-pitched.  Last year he got his feet wet (or wetter I guess. He came up in 2007, 2009, and 2010 for a total of 131 1/3 innings) by tossing 66 innings to the tune of an even 3.00 ERA.  He’s still yet to have a season where he has started every game he appeared in, but he’s got 18 starts this year, the most of any Major League season for him.  Since Detwiler has come on late, his WAR is probably not a good measure of how well he’s pitched for the Nationals as a starter.  His fWAR is 1.5 – lower than Jackson although I would argue that Detwiler has been a better pitcher than Jackson this year.

In 102 2/3 innings-pitched as a starter, Detwiler has posted a 3.42 ERA.  While it’s higher than his all-inclusive ER of 3.18, it’s not uncommon for relievers to have lower ERA’s than starters just based on the limited number of innings they must pitch.

Like the other successful Nats pitchers on the staff, Detwiler has lowered his HR/9 ratio to the lowest of his career at 0.70.  His HR/FB percentage is also lower when compared with last season.  This year he is allowing a home run on 7.8% of his fly balls. Last year, that number was 10.6%.  Of course, this leads to a higher xFIP because Detwiler’s HR/FB% is replaced with the league-average percentage.  However, we care about this season and this season alone in this article, so xFIP has little bearing on predicting his ability over the final month and a half of this season and the postseason.

The final thing I’ll point about Detwiler, is that guys just aren’t hitting the ball as much.  He has posted his highest strikeout percentage of his career at 15.5% (excluding his 2007 call-up in which he pitched one inning).  Couple with his BB% of 6.9% – also a career-low, Detwiler has been able to post a respectable 2.24 K/BB ratio.  Whether the success he is having this season will carry through to next year and beyond is unknown, but also irrelevant.  As long as he can keep doing it this year, the Nationals are in good shape.

Why they can win

These pitchers – you know the incredible, Strasburg-less rotation I have listed above – would be the envy of just about any team entering the postseason.  Teams don’t generally need or like to carry a full five man rotation into the postseason.  In the World Series, they may even run with a three-man rotation.  That being said, the above four pitchers would make just about any play-off contender the favorite in a five-game or seven-game series.  Obviously, it’d be great to see Stephen Strasburg in there too and maybe have Jackson pitch from the bullpen or Detwiler come in for some relief work if needed, but that’s not possible.  This team can win, and should be favorites (at least from a pitching standpoint) against any of the contenders out there.

This is a two-part series analyzing the Washington Nationals and their play-off hopes without Stephen Strasburg.  Check back soon for part two of the series.