Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Last night, Stephen Strasburg assured he's going to be a disappointment

... wait, what?

No, last night wasn't disappointing by any means. Last night a young and undisciplined Pittsburgh Pirates lineup spent seven innings getting played like a piano by Stephen Strasburg. And Strasburg didn't even get a lot of help from the home plate umpire, who was actually squeezing Strasburg on pitch calls quite a bit during the early innings. Strasburg got the Pirates to swing and miss pitches in the zone and got them to chase crisp breaking pitches out of the zone, ringing up 14 incredible strikeouts over 7 strong (to say the least) innings. Why would I claim disappointment is coming?

First, let's look down the road at his next potential outings.

- He's probably going to have another great game in 4 days at Cleveland during interleague play because the Indians are also awful.

- The White Sox come to DC after that, many of the ChiSox power bats are somewhat neutered outside of their bandbox home park and a lot of their mid-level bats are hackers.

- Then the Royals come to DC and the Nats will probably get him a home start versus yet another weak, hacktastic lineup.

- Then he goes to Atlanta's pitching friendly Turner Field and gets a relatively power-limp Braves lineup. It's here where he'll face his first actual test, as Atlanta currently leads the NL in walks plus has the 4th fewest strikeouts at the plate in the NL.

What's probably going to happen is Strasburg is going to throw two more terrific games, possibly a third against a somewhat respected (read: overrated) ChiSox lineup, building his already bloated hype machine as he did pitching against weakish Mountain West lineups in San Diego State's very pitcher-friendly home park during college.

But we're not going to see how relatively good Strasburg is until he offers his stuff to real, average-level MLB lineups laden with selective hitters, and he's not going to see one until he faces the Braves late this month.

The Nats planned the timing of his debut perfectly. The timing wasn't so much about starting his service time clock at the right time or controlling arb years, because they're just going to buy those out in a couple years by offering him a ridiculous contract to lock him up through his prime, as other teams have with their young phenoms (like Justin Upton with the D-Backs and Evan Longoria with the Rays). It wasn't even about ensuring several home starts: That could have been timed on several occasions during this season, and if it was about maximizing gate revenue they would have added him to the roster a month or two ago. Strasburg's hype would have assured a sellout in early April.

No, Washington's timing of Strasburg's debut was about ensuring his first starts came against crappy, beatable lineups that were easy for a talented pitcher to dominate. Instead of throwing him to the wolves and risking an up and down beginning that would undercut the hype around their now-franchise pitcher, they give him the best chance to come out looking dominant and make him look every bit like the pitcher he was hyped by everyone in the media, scouting community and blogosphere to be.

So how is he going to disappoint people? Pretty simple. As the season wears on, other teams are going to assemble scouting data on Strasburg, figure out how to attack him and maximize their chances of hitting and getting on base against him. Last night the Pirates were mostly blind squirrels, in part because they hadn't really seen Strasburg before and in part because, well, most of them aren't very disciplined hitters. Cleveland's hitters will likely suffer the same fate, as will Kansas City's.

Some of Atlanta's players will run into the same problem: Their rookie phenom Jason Heyward has struck out in over 21% of his plate appearances, not terrible but indicative that a deceptive power pitcher like Strasburg could own him. Veteran Troy Glaus has struck out in 20% of his PAs. If Nate McLouth (22% K's) plays, he could get owned. But everyone else in that lineup is fairly good at working the count AND avoiding the K. The key will be if Strasburg can induce a ton of groundballs if he doesn't rack up the K's.

And from there, Strasburg's opposition will get tougher. He gets the Mets at home to start July, and while they struggled early this season, they've got some good veteran hitters (David Wright, Jose Reyes, a surging Angel Pagan... and they might get Carlos Beltran back) that have seen the likes of power pitchers like Strasburg before and aren't going to be intimidated. Ditto with the Giants, who don't exactly have a vaunted lineup but do have a lineup of disciplined, productive veteran hitters (Bengie Molina, Juan Uribe, Aaron Rowand, Aubrey Huff et al) that aren't going to surrender like the Pirates did yesterday.

The tradeoff of the Nats giving Strasburg a soft landing is that, in dominating weaker lineups, Strasburg's going to elevate expectations so high that even if he does alright against better lineups and/or lineups that know when to attack him and when to back off, it's going to be deflating for fans when those outings aren't ownership-claiming 14 strikeout outings. That isn't fair, because Strasburg again could be effective against better lineups, but he will rarely if ever again be as good as he was yesterday and likely will be during his first 3-4 Major League starts.

Stephen Strasburg is good. Unfortunately, last night didn't tell us too much about exactly HOW good he is, other than he can dominate bad, intimidated lineups. A lot of good pitchers can dominate bad, intimidated lineups. Let's see how many batters Stephen Strasburg strikes out once the book's out on him and he's facing good MLB hitters that can get around on a 98 mph fastball and take pitches out of the zone. If he strikes out 14 batters against a lineup like the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals or L.A. Dodgers, then I'll cream my pants with the rest of the saber-fanboys. But I doubt he's going to do that well even in his prime. He might have more days like yesterday... if he faces more bad, dominable lineups like that Pirates lineup.

Meanwhile, I don't foresee him throwing every start as good as that debut, which went as perfectly as the Nats could have hoped... mainly because of how well they timed his debut and who they threw him against. And now that Strasburg's shown people a performance beyond many's wild imaginations, he's ensured he'll never live up to the hype that casual fans have bought into. What we saw last night, and what we may see over the next 2-3 starts, is an exceptional deviation from what he will bring to the table.

That is, unless...

a) Umpires bring the LeBron Rule to MLB, and start giving him superstar strike calls on pitches off the plate to help appease the hype MLB and the media have placed on him. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens and many other stars can thank umpires for a few hundred extra career strikeouts netted in part from marginally wider star pitcher strike zones.

b) He gets hurt. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Jake Peavy, Ben Sheets... many a phenom came out of the gates fast only to stumble headlong into obscurity once the injuries piled up. We have no assurance Strasburg will remain healthy and sharp even if the Nats are careful about deploying him.


c) He gets hit in one or more of his next three starts, which should in itself bring expectations back to Earth. (I'm not expecting it, though)

Anyway, I wouldn't pencil in Strasburg for 470 strikeouts a year. Or even 300. Let's see him strike out a few lineups with guys like Chase Utley and Manny Ramirez first... or at least a few lineups with better hitters than Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones.

In all likelihood, however, he's never going to be as good as he was last night, not over 32-34 starts a season. Analysts certainly wouldn't expect that, but a lot of casual fans might. And they're in for a letdown, even if Strasburg goes on to a Hall of Fame career.

Also, check out the Net Runs data for Strasburg's debut.

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