At this point in the Major League Baseball Season if I were to ask a group of people to name the best pitcher in the league I’d get a smattering of similar answers; Jacob DeGrom, Justin Verlander, Hyun-jin Ryu, Blake Snell, Max Scherzer, etc. All of those guys would be great picks and they are to a man having great years. There’s one name that doesn’t get mentioned, but in actuality, he has been the best pitcher in baseball this year. That man is Stephen Strasburg, and very quietly and without much recognition, he is putting together possibly the best season of his career.
The way that Strasburg is excelling in 2019 is unique because he’s changed into a different pitcher than he used to be. The image people have of Strasburg is of the fireballer. That’s understandable seeing as how Strasburg has always thrown hard and could regularly touch triple digits on the radar gun. Those days are over, and whether it’s from multiple arm injuries or simply old age Strasburg can’t throw the heat in the same manner as years past. That’s okay though because the pitcher Strasburg has slowly morphed into over the last two years may be the best possible version of himself.
The Washington Nationals star has seen his fourseam fastball velocity decline every year, save for 2012 and 2017 when he increased said fourseam velocity by slight increments from the previous season. Still, Strasburg’s fourseam velocity decreasing on a regular basis isn’t news because it’s not unusual for fastball pitchers to lose velocity the longer their careers go. In 2019 Strasburg is down across the board, for the first time in his career every single pitch he throws is coming in slower than the year before. That should be concerning, but when it comes to Strasburg it hasn’t played out that way.
What is most interesting is the velocity change has caused Strasburg to change his pitch selection. From 2015 through 2017 Stras averaged 90mph on his slider. It was a welcome addition to his pitching repertoire. It was, however, a lot like his fourseam fastball and his sinker. It came in hard and with plenty of bite. What Strasburg has done in 2019 is to virtually abandon his slider. When he does throw it the average velocity is down to 88mph, but he’s only throwing it 0.85% of the time as compared to 8.62% of the time last season. The right-hander went from throwing his fourseam 44.93% of the time in 2018 to 32.34% of the time this year. That is by far the least he has ever thrown that pitch, and he’s done so while drastically upping the usage of his sinker and curveball. He’s throwing his curve a career-high 30.56% of the time, while his sinker is back up to 2010-12 levels at 17.66% The only pitch that hasn’t been affected is his changeup, but really, why mess with one of the best pitches in all of baseball?
All of these changes have resulted in a Stephen Strasburg who is focusing more on sequencing and selection rather than velocity and motion. His Exit Velocity is right near his career low, while his Launch Angle is easily the best of his career at 7.4. His K% of 30.3 and BB% of 6.3 are the second best he’s ever been in either category. Where the new Strasburg is showing up the most is in his expected outcomes. His xBA of .193, xSLG of .299, and xwOBA of .245 are all career lows. He’s pitching to the tune of a DRA of 1.67 and DRA- of 35.3 and his expected outcomes are right in line with those terrific numbers.
Having already amassed a bWAR of 4.0 on the young season Strasburg is well on his way to eclipsing his career mark of 7.0 set back in 2014. This new Strasburg is fun to watch, even more so than the Strasburg that used to pump 99mph heaters over the plate. The results are there, the pitch mix is the best he’s ever thrown, and Strasburg is dominating like never before. At some point, the rest of the baseball world will jump on board with this new Strasburg, and man, will they be in for a treat.
Lead photo courtesy of Brynn Anderson – Associated Press