What is Stephen Strasburg’s value?

Now that Zack Greinke is off the board, locked up in Arizona for the foreseeable future at $34.4 million per year, let’s turn our attention to one more elite right-handed pitcher. He will be coming onto the free-agent market in 2016 and is four years younger than Greinke. He is a guy surrounded with a weird, enigmatic vibe, a guy with phenomenal numbers, and “seems” to be either hurt or underperforming expectations.

The guy I am talking about is Stephen Strasburg.

I find comps are a useful way to begin any discussion so let’s start with three of ’em.

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Player A is Max Scherzer; Player B is Greinke; Player C is Strasburg. To wit:

  • Strasburg has thrown more innings than Scherzer; he was in the big leagues at 21, Max at 23. Greinke was a major-leaguer by age 20.
  • Strasburg’s FIP is better than both, and almost a full run better than Scherzer’s.
  • Strasburg beats them both handily in WHIP and strikeouts per nine; he’s on par with Greinke’s walks-per-nine, and nearly a full walk better than Scherzer.
  • Strasburg has struck out fewer than 10 batters per nine in only two of his first six seasons.

By no means should these facts discredit the brilliance of Max Scherzer, who turned a corner in his age-27 season in Detroit, and has been brilliant since, nor should it impugn Greinke’s dominance. It is to point out, though, how incredibly good Strasburg has been over the course of a young but still deep career, a career where only now is he entering his best years.

Over the 2012-2015 span, Strasburg:

  • Has posted 11.2 WAR, 15th best in the game, and never less than 3.3.
  • Has posted the 4th best K/9 rate in the game, behind only Chris Sale, Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw.
  • Has posted the 10th best FIP mark, nearly a half-run better than Johnny Cueto and a quarter-run better than Cole Hamels.

He only ranks 39th in innings pitched over that time, but some asterisks are needed here. That innings-pitched figure includes his shortened 2012 season. Heading into 2015, Strasburg had set back-to-back career marks in innings pitched: he threw 183 frames in 2013, and 215 in 2014.

Strasburg certainly seemed poised for a monster 2015. Instead, he got a weird, injury-riddled, hard-to-decipher season. A deeper look is worth one’s time.

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Player A? Strasburg’s first half. Player B? Strasburg’s second half. One of these is different than the others, no?

His awful first half was not just bad, it was bad in strange ways. His strikeouts were down and walks were up compared to his second half, but both were near his career norms. (In 2013, for example, Strasburg struck out 9.39 per nine and walked 2.75.) I wondered if his velocity was down, but that was not the case. His fastball averaged 95.4 mph in 2015, exactly his career mark. His secondary pitchers were all at or near their career norms, too.

What really stands out to me is that massive first half .355 BABIP, a number forty points higher than the next highest BABIP of his career, a number which came back to Earth (.252) in his monster second half.

To me, these numbers align neatly with what actually happened: he was hurt, he was mechanically screwy, and he suffered from awful luck. It seems reasonable to conclude that his health issues became mechanical issues and they probably conspired in unison to make him more hittable.

His second-half split shows a much improved ratio of ground balls to fly balls (more grounders) and we see that opponents made less hard contact against him – both signs indicative of a healthier, sounder pitcher.

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Player A? Second-half Strasburg. Player B? Wade Davis. To wit: in his less interrupted, steady, consistent second half, Strasburg was equivalent to the best closer in the game, for six or seven frames at a time.

So, economically, what does this mean?

First, in the nearest term, assuming Washington does nothing, it means that the Nationals head into the 2016 season with a ferocious 1-2 starting pitching punch. The Scherzer-Strasburg duo is as good as any in the game. Whether it came down to a Wild Card game or a playoff series, having both Scherzer and Strasburg is a huge advantage.

The Nationals could opt to trade him; he would be worth a small fortune in prospects. There was some speculation the Yankees were asking for Strasburg in a deal for Andrew Miller. As great as Miller has been, we’ve seen that Strasburg as a starter can be as effective as the best closers. Any one-for-one deal like that should be for a reliever. Also, trading Stras leaves a huge hole for Washington in the rotation behind Scherzer.

In a worst-case scenario, he could be a trade-deadline move, but that would mean 1) 2016 was going terribly wrong for the club, and 2) a team would only be paying for a half season of a great pitcher at the end of a contract. In other words, it would be a poorly timed “sell” for Washington.

Ideally, the Nationals either extend him or let him walk. How much money will his services cost? (Here I admit I am not a financial analyst and that my work is based largely around reading and synthesis, not actual financial modeling.)

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Greinke and Price had mega-seasons by WAR value. Strasburg didn’t, but otherwise, he is in the same rarified air.

As I see it, there are two big issues clouding the Strasburg market. The first is his medical history and the second is the fact that the 2016 free-agent starting-pitching market is really poor.

Strasburg’s health (if one only measures health strictly by innings pitched) was trending upward through 2013-to-2014, but took a step back in 2015. However, none of those injuries were arm-related; they were ankle and back related and his velocity was as good as ever.  Greinke’s elbow requires some medical work on it each spring. Trying to project the future of Strasburg’s arm or the health of any pitcher is, at best, extremely difficult.

Jordan Zimmermann, a good but generally inferior pitcher, would be the absolute bottom of the Strasburg market. There is next to no chance Strasburg is less than a $25 million/year pitcher.

Whether Strasburg breaks Greinke’s $34.4 million/year figure is a little more questionable, but with Boras behind him, and Strasburg being years younger, and with Strasburg being hands down the best available pitcher – I will predict a bidding war ensues and Strasburg elicits a 5-year, $170 million deal.

Here, I admit – freely, happily, unreservedly! – that I am a huge Strasburg fan. He’s had an exemplary career to date. But there’s this weird cloud of suspicion that seems to follow him. Between the 80-grade hype and the long-ago “shutdown” situation, a frankly tired and irrelevant subject, Strasburg just seems to elicit shrugs and mutterings of “why isn’t he better?”

We can see in so many ways how totally unfounded these whispers are, and yet they persist.

It is true, I’m sorry to report, that Strasburg is a human being after all, a human who is not infinitely unhittable, who has had to learn the craft as well as develop his innate talent. It takes time; it has blips; it is not always pretty or coherent. He’s run into injuries because pitching is an incredibly harmful thing to do to the human body.

It’s tragic that these elements – the most tired, superficial and uninteresting parts – seem to have formed the core of the Strasburg mythology. Because, in stripping away the noise, we see an exceptional pitcher who will be paid as such, and will deliver as such.

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