Unless you live in a hole, you’re probably aware that Stephen Strasburg is a pretty good baseball player. In his three starts, he’s gone 2-0, with a hard luck no decision on Friday night. A lot has been made of Strasburg’s strike out totals, and rightly so. Strasburg struck out more batters in his first three starts than any other pitcher in MLB history. Currently, Strasburg’s strike outs per nine innings pitcher (K/9) sits at a preposterous 14.9. For some perspective, Tim Lincecum had a K/9 of 10.42, the highest for any pitcher who qualified for the ERA title. Looking at relievers, Jonathon Broxton led the way, with a K/9 of 13.50. In fact, Strasburg’s strike out rate is nearly identical to Eric Gagné’s MLB record of 14.98. Of course, Strasburg’s numbers are “au naturel”, unlike Gagné’s performance enhancing drug tainted numbers.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Strasburg has been his efficiency so far. In this era, pitch counts are heavily scrutinized from both ends – too few pitches and the old timers start to rant about back in their day pitchers would routinely throw 130, too many and you start to have people complain about a manager running a young arm into the ground. And that does happen; just look at the damage Dusty Baker did to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, both of whom had similar amounts of hype surrounding them as Strasburg. In order to protect their investment, the Nationals have played it safe and kept Strasburg on a relatively tight pitch count. In his three starts, he’s yet to top 95 pitches. That makes his strikeout totals even more impressive. You see, keeping a pitch count low and striking out a ton of batters simply don’t go hand in hand. From a common sense standpoint, you can induce a weak grounder with one pitch, but a strikeout takes at least three.
So far in his admittedly brief major league career, Strasburg is averaging 14.2 pitches per inning. That puts him in elite company, with some of the most efficient starting pitchers from 2009 – Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. But just how exactly does he do it? Swinging strikes, and lots of them. Batters are currently only making contact with 35% of his pitches out of the zone, compared to the MLB average of 66%. Unsurprisingly, Strasburg is leading the league in swinging strike percentage (15.8%, well ahead of second place Tim Lincecum). Not only that, but Strasburg is also top 3 in the league in generating swings on pitches out of the zone. Most guys that generate swings on pitches outside of the zone are command/control guys, who, if you’re feeling mean, could be labeled junk balers – Carl Pavano, for example. The intersection of guys who get batters to swing at a lot of pitches outside of the zone and guys who get lots of swings and misses when a pitch out of the zone is pretty much just Strasburg.
There are a couple of caveats, despite his amazing start. First, Strasburg hasn’t faced the strongest competition so far. The White Sox, Indians, and Pittsburgh are all in the bottom third of the league in terms of offense against right-handed pitchers, and the White Sox were without the benefit of a DH. Also, Strasburg doesn’t throw very many pitches in the zone. To a certain extent, this may be because he doesn’t have to, as evidenced by his ability to generate swings outside of the zone and because of his stuff, but the league may catch up to him a bit. Finally, we are talking three starts so far, but man, have they been impressive.
Update: Strasburg pitches on national television for the first time tonight, Monday, June 28, facing the Braves on ESPN 2. Sadly, Braves uber-prospect Jason Heyward will miss the game with a sore thumb. For those of you like me, who haven't had a chance to see him yet, this is a great opportunity.