By Cam Ellis
When Stephen Strasburg signed his 7-year, $175 million contract extension almost a month ago, the immediate reaction was mixed. On one hand, here were the Nationals, spending $175 million on a 27-year old pitcher who has already had one Tommy John surgery who only averages about six innings per start. FanGraphs suggests that the average lifespan of a surgically repaired elbow is about 650 innings pitched. It's now been almost 700 innings since Strasburg's surgery.
On the other hand, there were those are looked at the signing as the team locking up the 2009 #1 overall pick with a career 2.83 FIP, 855 strikeouts and a career 20.8 WAR for a sizeable discount considering what any other pitcher with similar stats that hadn't had Tommy John would get.
So far, getting the extension done in the middle of a season -- something out of the norm for someone represented by Scott Boras - looks like a savvy move for the Nationals. Strasburg is in the middle of a career year, as his anecdotal but not-really-all-that-meaningfull record of 9-0 would suggest. A look at his numbers and a couple things jump right off the page:
The emergence of another plus-pitch
Straburg has been throwing his slider for three years now, and it's continuing to evolve into another useful pitch for him.
As shown above, this is the first year that Strasburg has heavily leaned on his slider. His moving away from a curveball (a pitch that, by FanGraphs numbers, was never a strong pitch to begin with) towards a slider could in part help explain why his K/9 (11.39) is the highest it's been since his rookie season (12.8). Considering he only pitched 68 innings that season, it's safe to argue that this year is the most effective one of his career so far in that respect.
Not only is the pitch better, but Strasburg is trusting it. Per BrooksBaseball, below are his usage charts from last season to now.
Now this season:
First off, he's finally throwing it against lefties this year. Against righties, he's throwing it 23% more in general as well as 23% more while he's head. Interestingly enough, he's also using it more against both lefties and righties when he falls behind in the count. Using it when your ahead is one thing - a jump in usage when behind in the count is a better indicate of how much he trusts the pitch. You'll also notice how quickly it's replacing his curveball as the primary breaking ball.
He's missing more bats.
Which obviously makes sense, considering point #1. Yes, his 2016 K/9 is one of the best of his career, but a handful of other numbers help point out that Strasburg's strikeout numbers are rising. For starters, batters aren't hitting the ball nearly as hard as they usually do off him.
His Soft% continues to rise while his Hard% continues to fall. Batters are having a harder time squaring up against Strasburg over the last three years - the same three years that Strasburg has been throwing his slider. But that's not all:
Since beginning to throw the pitch, Strasburg has been steadily throwing it faster. He's added almost three miles an hour to it; if there's anything that helps cover up for the loss of velocity when pitchers reach their late 20's, it's the emergence of improved off speed stuff - a slider right under 90mph ain't the worst thing to fall back on.
All in all, it's not just the slider that's giving Strasburg career numbers. He's allowing less line drives, inducing more ground balls and stranding more men on base. He's basically been the Stephen Strasburg that Nats fans have come to expect, just with a new slider to go along. And 175 million more dollars.