I’m sorry for the title. I just…sorry.
Anyone who was watching the much ballyhooed pitching match up between the Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg and the New York Mets Matt Harvey saw the surface results of the game: Harvey dominated while Strasburg could not contain the Mets’ offense in the 6-3 Mets’ victory.
What might not have been so obvious was the peculiar way that the Mets were able to score those six runs. No, I’m not talking about the Ian Desmond error that lead to four runs in the top of the 3rd inning (3 of them unearned), rather I’m referring to the fact that the Mets were able to score six runs against Stephen Strasburg and serve him with the loss—all without the benefit of an extra base hit.
As I said in a previous piece Stephen Strasburg tends to give up harder contact and more extra base hits then one would expect from a pitcher with his caliber of “stuff.” So it would stand to reason that if he’s not giving up those extra base hits, he’d probably fare quite well in a start…except that he didn’t.
The first thing we should do is look at the pitching line for Strasburg from the game:
As discussed earlier, the first thing that should stand out to you is that the Mets had nine hits against Strasburg, and every one of them was a single. The other thing that stands out for me is the fact that Strasburg had only five strikeouts, low for someone who led the NL in SOs last year. Also, that of the 95 pitches Strasburg threw, only five of them were swings and misses. This number is quite low for a pitcher with Strasburgs’ stuff, especially for a pitcher with Strasburgs’ swing and miss off-speed offerings that contrast well with his mid 90s fastball. The other thing I’d point out is the three walks that were given up by Strasburg and a (not pictured) HBP.
So we have no extra base hits in a game for the Nats hurler, how common is this? Well I looked back on the last three seasons and found twelve other instances where Strasburg gave up four or more hits without allowing an extra base hit. I cut it off at four hits because, to me, if he gave up less than four hits it probably was a fairly exemplary start for him and there was little chance for a bump in the road, and in my brief parsing of the game logs this played out according to script.
I found 12 other times where Strasburg gave up 4 or more base hits without allowing an extra base hit—5 in 2012, 5 in 2013, and 2 in 2014. Here’s the pitching lines from all twelve of those outings:
Let’s start small and work our way up to big when it comes to some of those previously mentioned stats. First you’ll notice that the nine singles that Strasburg gave up is two more hits than he’s ever given up without give up an extra base hit (he did this twice previously, both in 2014).
Next we’ll look at the strikeouts. Remembering that Strasburg led the NL in SOs last year and had a 10.1 SO/9 rate, his less than a K per inning shows him below his average 2014 form. These five SOs also are tied for his lowest SO total in any of the games where he did not allow an extra base hit (he matched this twice in April of 2012, some of his first action in the season following his TJ surgery). Not only did he not have very many SOs, but he he tied for the fewest swinging strikes (5) with any of the other twelve starts (September 8, 2013, his second worst start of the thirteen by WPA).
Strasburg also gave up a ton of free passes in Thursdays’ contest. He had three walks (one which started the 3rd inning rally) and a HBP of Lucas Duda (which continued that 3rd inning rally and by WPA was the 4th most important play of the game). This matches his August 15, 2012 performance when he allowed 4 BBs, but in that performance he had more SOs (7) and gave up less hits (4) than he did in the start in question.
The other thing that I found interesting was his RE24 (for an RE24 explanation look here) rating for each of the starts. RE24 is normally more useful for relievers than it is for starters, but in the game against the Mets, Strasburg had a fairly hideous -4.39 RE24. In the other 12 starts where he did not allow an XBH in only two of them did he have a negative RE24, and in both of those games his negative RE24 (-1.29 on September 8, 2013, and -0.60 on May 20, 2012) was less than a third than it was this week. Those two games were also the only ones in which his WPA was a negative, and again his WPA in those two games was less than half as bad as it was in his first start of 2015.
Finally I’ll draw your attention to a less modern stat, but one that I think was indicative of this overall trend I have ben outlining: In his start this week we find the only time in the 13 games we’re looking at that Strasburg took the loss. In the other twelve instances were Strasburg did not surrender an XBH, he won eight and had a no decision in the other four, although the Nationals did eventually lose three out of his four no decisions.
Conclusion time: In the end, what I took from this start was Strasburg did something that normally puts him in prime position to have not only a good performance, but a good final outcome for the Nationals—prevent the other team from having an XBH. The problem in this specific case was he did other things that blunted the benefit of holding the Mets to nothing but singles: He had very few swinging strikes (something he’s quite good at), very few SOs (something he’s elite at), and a lot of free passes (something he’s becoming elite at for a pitcher with his SOs). To me, this says this start was more of an aberration for Strasburg—he was able to limit the type of hard contact that normally sinks his starting ship, but he was not able to have his truly plus swing and miss stuff that allows him to wiggle out of situations that lead to runs (thus causing that cringe worth RE24).
My conclusion this is a bump in the road for Strasburg, a perfect storm of negatives that swamped his boat of weak contact, and thereby made it a hopefully forgettable start for the Nationals’ hurler. Maybe his start Tuesday will show whether or not this is the beginning of a trend, or merely the wrong collection of negatives while facing one of the best pitchers in baseball. Hopefully for all the fans in the District they get more of the starter they need instead of the starter they deserve (I had to say it!).