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No Cy Young for Stephen Strasburg, but he finally lived up to the hype

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The Washington Nationals’ No. 2 starter stayed relatively healthy and turned in the best season of his career.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn’t the Stephen Strasburg we’re used to seeing. Sure, the typical signs were there. He missed a few starts with a nagging injury, struck out hitters at an exceptional rate and didn’t give up very many home runs. This year, however, Strasburg took his game to another level.

“He’s been great this year,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in September on 106.7 The Fan in D.C.’s Sports Junkies. “Four-pitch stuff, power stuff, around the plate. He’s really been in attack mode this year”

Once Max Scherzer closed the month of June leading the majors with a 2.06 ERA and averaging just under 12 strikeouts per nine innings, it was clear the NL Cy Young Award was his to lose. A DL stint cost him two turns of the rotation in August and he had a few rough September starts, but Scherzer was undoubtedly the best pitcher in the National League this year.

The fact that Strasburg didn’t bring home any hardware shouldn’t take away from his exceptional season. He led the NL in HR/9 (0.7) and FIP (2.72) and finished with an fWAR above five for the first time in his career.

Over his final 10 starts after the All-Star Break, Strasburg owned a 0.86 ERA and .171 BAA. The last time he posted a contact percentage as low as his 73.7% mark from this season was his rookie campaign in 2010 — when he only made 12 starts.

All of that doesn’t even include the 14 innings he tossed against the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS without allowing an earned run. He struck out 22 batters in the series and allowed just three free passes.

“He was the best pitcher I've seen probably,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said after NLDS Game 1. “Today, you just tip your hats. First two at-bats, made me look silly, the whole lineup looked silly the first couple times through.”

His traditional statistics like ERA (2.52) and win total (15) don’t necessarily jump off the page, but advanced metrics like WAR and FIP suggest Strasburg had a far better season than those numbers indicate. Win Probability Added is another sabermetric stat that measures how much a player contributes to his team’s chances of winning. It’s a cumulative statistic that, when added up over the course of a season, paints a picture of how vital a player is to his team’s success.

Strasburg’s WPA was 3.13, according to FanGraphs. That number marked a career high for the right-hander and ranked fourth in the NL behind only Scherzer (4.14), Clayton Kershaw (3.88) and Gio Gonzalez (3.28).

MLB: All Star Game-Batting Practice Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest key to Strasburg’s success was his changeup. According to Brooks Baseball, he had only used it about 13% of the time from 2015-16. This season, however, Strasburg kicked that up 18% — and the results were devastating. Opponents hit just .107 off the pitch, whiffing on it completely nearly 27% of the times he threw it.

With just one dominant season, Strasburg validated both his No. 1 overall draft selection in 2009 and the seven-year, $175 million contract extension he signed during the 2016 season — for now. His batting average on balls in play was .274 and hitters owned an 8.7% HR/FB rate against him, indicating that Strasburg’s numbers could regress next season. He also failed to reach the 200-inning threshold, a mark that has escaped him in all but one of his eight seasons.

Yet those luck-detecting numbers don’t stray too far from their means of .300 and 9.5%, respectively. His inning totals have also increased each of the past two years. Strasburg wasn’t considered one of the biggest pitching prospects of the decade for no reason. This very well could just be the beginning — and history is on his side.

For a possible preview of what the future could hold for Strasburg, look no further than his Cy Young-winning teammate. Scherzer broke onto the scene as an All-Star-caliber starter in his age-28 season, the same age Strasburg was this past year. It was at that age when both pitchers finished in the top three of Cy Young voting, highlighted by Scherzer capturing AL honors in 2013.

Comparing Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer’s career progressions

Name/Season GS IP W-L ERA WHIP Ks fWAR
Name/Season GS IP W-L ERA WHIP Ks fWAR
Stephen Strasburg (ages 21-27) 156 924.1 69-41 3.17 1.094 1,084 22.7
Max Scherzer (ages 23-27) 133 804.2 52-42 3.88 1.297 829 14.3
Stephen Strasburg (age 28) 28 175.1 15-4 2.52 1.015 204 5.6
Max Scherzer (age 28) 32 214.1 21-3 2.90 0.970 240 6.1
Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Scherzer obviously had a better track record of health than Strasburg does, but Strasburg was a much better pitcher prior to their age-28 seasons. Scherzer hadn’t ever cracked an All-Star team before winning his first Cy Young, whereas Strasburg already had two selections prior to this year and finished ninth in the 2014 NL Cy Young voting.

It’s entirely possible that Strasburg continues his development, tops even players like Scherzer in future Cy Young races and takes one of his two opt-outs that follow the 2019 and 2020 seasons in favor of greener pastures.

Yet he’s still a National for the time being, and D.C. is looking to be in good shape with its prized arm locked into the rotation. Health will always be an issue with Strasburg, but there’s no telling what he has in store next if he can stay on the field.