September 16, 2019

Statistically Speaking: Stephen Strasburg and Bearing Down

As frustrating and mercurial as Stephen Strasburg can be, he does provide a wealth of topics to cover, especially when they pertain to the statistical application and translation of potential to performance. Never short on talent, the righthander has shown to be a day late and a dollar short when it comes to the final box score numbers, with this season proving to be particularly challenging for Strasburg to make the most of his health and talent.

Adept at compiling a number of impressive stats, both of the traditional and sabermetric variety, the results often fall short of victory for the Washington Nationals, with nothing but above average fielding independent pitching numbers to show for his efforts. With this also comes the mutterings of Strasburg not being ‘clutch’—unable to perform at or above expectations when the stakes are high—and it is this trait that hinders his progress towards the staff ace that has been expected of him since he was drafted with the first pick of the 2009 amateur draft.

While many debate on whether clutch exists (myself included), there is no doubt that Strasburg’s 2014 has been equal parts dominating and disappointing. Does this disappointment arise from his inability to get suppress run scoring in stressful situations?

There are many ways to dissect this; for our purposes, let’s define clutch as situations with runners in scoring position (RISP) and look at a number of variables with RISP and with no runners on as a control, with the idea that if Strasburg’s issues arise from poor execution—being ‘un-clutch’—we will see significant differences in his stats between the two states.

To remove (or at least attempt to) additional confounding, we will look at a number of stats, but will focus on fielding independent pitching (FIP) and expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) numbers, as these theoretically are indicative of his true talent and ability to focus and execute pitches, with the fielding talents of the player behind him removed from consideration. We will also briefly compare his 2014 stats to his career numbers.

First, the basics; innings pitched (IP), weighted on-base average (wOBA), and the FIPs:

Season Base State IP wOBA FIP xFIP
2014 Bases Empty 99.2 0.291 2.59 2.46
2014 RISP 36.1 0.300 3.32 2.79
* * * * * *
Career Bases Empty 363 0.265 2.44 2.46
Career RISP 124.2 0.297 3.35 3.49

Here, we find broadly that Strasburg’s RISP numbers, per our definition, are a bit elevated compared to his numbers with no runners on. However, his wOBA doesn’t differ drastically between the two states in 2014, but is elevated in comparison to his career averages. 2014 has also shown Strasburg to perform below expectations with respect to his FIP numbers, responsible for a half-run more of FIP that what his xFIP had him pegged for, indicative of his home runs numbers possibly being a bit elevated. With this in mind, let’s look at some more advanced stats and batted ball data, again between the two states:

Season Base State K% BB% BABIP LD% GB% FB% HR/FB IFH%
2014 Bases Empty 29.30% 5.20% 0.323 25.10% 43.80% 31.10% 10.80% 6.00%
2014 RISP 28.00% 8.70% 0.330 18.10% 54.30% 27.70% 15.40% 11.80%
* * * * * * * * * *
Career Bases Empty 30.80% 6.30% 0.295 22.60% 47.30% 30.10% 10.10% 6.70%
Career RISP 24.40% 8.90% 0.310 17.90% 46.70% 35.40% 9.20% 10.80%

Lo and behold, Strasburg’s homer numbers—HR/FB%—are up in 2014, reflecting what we saw with his FIP-xFIP disparity. Strasburg also has had some increases in ground ball rates (GB%), BABIP, and infield hits (IFH%) in RISP situations this season compared to when the bases are empty, as well as in comparison to his career averages.

RISP situation walk rates are higher compared to when the bases are empty this year, but trend similar to his career numbers. Overall, we get the impression that while Strasburg doesn’t necessarily get hit very hard in RISP situations, as judged by wOBA, he has suffered a little due to some balls—particularly grounders—finding holes in 2014 that were typically outs on previous seasons; this trend is compounded by Strasburg’s issues with the longball this year, giving the impression that his ability to bear down in higher leverage situations has declined.

Let’s now look at pitch selection; perhaps this can shed some light on why Strasburg is having the problems he is with home runs and an increase in grounders. First, pitch selection for 2014 situations with no runners on:


…and here, for RISP:

SS_RISPWith RISP, Strasburg appears to go more to his offspeed offerings—the curveball and changeup—than he does with no one on; this finding does not include the additional layer of count of the at bat, but it is interesting that he goes softer, the higher the leverage. In terms of velocity, much has been made of Strasburg’s velocity declines in recent seasons, but his fastball still remains well above average in terms of velocity and this trend is reflected in both base states considered, with no significant deviations in velocity of velocity difference between his pitches, either with no one on or with RISP (data not shown).

As for pitch locations of his respective offerings in each of the states of interest:

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 9.28.56 PM…we find that Strasburg’s hard stuff—the two-seam (FT) and four-seam (FF) fastball—does appear to get more of the heart of the plate in the RISP situation, with the soft stuff staying out of hitters’ power zones for the most part. Perhaps this is the reason for Strasburg’s reliance upon the curve and change with RISP, which seems out of place, given his abilities and success with his hard stuff.

In the end, there is some shred of merit that Strasburg does indeed have problems with maintaining success in higher leverage situations as compared to when the proverbial slate is clean, at least as measured by fielding independent measures for this season.

Looking deeper at the issue, it does appear that perhaps a waning confidence in his fastball offerings is at the root of the hurler’s problems, with the once (and still) mighty pitch being a less desirable offering, at least in Strasburg’s eyes. Whether the remedy to these disparities is more fastballs or more offspeed offerings remains to be seen; it also remains to be seen if his problems keeping the ball in the park continue this season into next, with or without a change in approach with potential runs on the base paths.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant and current as of 8/18.


Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor at Camden Depot and Gammons Daily. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.


About Stuart Wallace

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow Stu on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

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