In his excellent article on Stephen Strasburg’s contact conundrum, ESPN’s Tony Blengino puts forth a compelling argument for what is holding Strasburg back from becoming a truly elite pitcher of his generation: When he allows contact, an inordinate amount of damage is done with those batted balls in play (BIP).
Blengino shows that while Strasburg is exceptional in his K rate (he was in the 97th percentile and only Kershaw was ahead of him as an NL qualifying starter), and his BB rate (71st percentile) is quite stout–especially when considering how many K’s he racks up–he manages to give up a disturbing amount of damaging contact.
Strasburg’s high K/low BB profile leads to a more than respectable FIP (2.94 in 2014). He led the NL in K’s last season, and had his lowest walk rate in a season where he pitched over 150 innings (1.8BB/9). While he HR/9 rose to to 1.0, in the categories that he “controls” according to FIP, he is a superior pitcher.
The problem for Strasburg, as Blengino points out, is that though he limits contact quite well, when a batter is able to put bat to ball, a surprising thing happens: Strasburg’s heroic stuff looks more than mortal. Blengino was able to tabulate the “relative production” for the BIP for Strasburg’s 2014 season, and then normalized that for park factors, recalculated what those BIP would have done in a neutral setting, and compared them to the rest of the qualifying pitchers in MLB.
The figures showed production on his line drives was 5% above league average, the production on his ground balls was 28% above league average, and the production on his fly balls was a whopping 32% above league average. When he is compared to other “elite” pitchers possibly vying for post season awards, Strasburg is the only one that allows above average production on every batted ball type, and most of this upper crust of the pitching world don’t allow above average production on any type of BIP.
Blengino believes he has zeroed in on the problem when he says Strasburg has, “a knack for finding the fat part of the bat.” Basically when Strasburg misses within the zone, he misses in the middle of the plate, which is obviously a recipe for strong contact. Blengino postulates Strasburg’s issue is not control (throwing balls or strikes), but command (where those strikes specifically go in the zone).
I tend to agree with Blengino, but I don’t think he completely encompasses the entire issue for Strasburg. He has found what is occurring, and maybe a portion of the why, but I think he has missed a key component, especially on Strasburg’s fastball.
When he came up to the majors, and through his 2012 season (the infamous year of the “Shutdown”) Strasburg threw two types of fastballs: a straight 4-seamer and a 2-seam sinker. As you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball, in 2011 he threw his 4-seamer 54% of the time and his 2-seamer 19% of the time. In 2012 he hurled his 4-seamer 49% of the time and his 2-seamer almost 16% of the time. What you can see here though is Strasburg had an issue keeping his 2-seamer in the zone, sometimes by design, and sometimes not.
Fans who watched Nationals games in that 2012 season would see Strasburg struggle at times to throw his 2-seamer for strikes because there was so much horizontal movement on the pitch it would oftentimes run right out of the zone into the right handed batters’ box.
Fast forward to the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Strasburg now was throwing his 4-seamer a consistent 57.5% of the time, and his 2-seamer an anemic 3.5% over those two seasons—a drop of 14% in usage rate when compared to 2011-12.
What does this portend for him? Well, Blengino argues Strasburg lacks a “go to…ground ball generation skill” or a way to “significantly minimize contact authority for one or more of the major BIP types.” My theory is a renewed use of his 2-seamer—that is, a controlled renewed use of his 2-seamer, would give Strasburg both that “ground ball generation skill” and a way to “minimize contact authority” because his 2-seamer has a horizontal movement component second only to his devastating change-up and 33% or more movement compared his 4-seamer. Not only that, but his 2-seamer has a far lower ratio of what Brooks Baseball deems “grooved pitches.”
In short, if Strasburg can harness the greased horizontal running pig that is his sinker, he will open himself up to reduced contact both in frequency and in damage, and, as Blengino has clearly demonstrated, that will catapult him into rarified air amongst pitchers of this generation.