In the last two years, I’ve taken an unpopular stance on Giancarlo Stanton: Do not pay full value (or make him your #1 keeper), because despite the potential elite talent, he can’t stay healthy and is never worth the cost. After writing this piece in April, 2016 proved me right yet again with an injury. Players with a lot of name value and hyped status will always have a hard time producing a profit for your team, and Stanton is the prime example. I then decided to turn my attention to starting pitching, and after looking at our upcoming dynasty rankings (which come out Sunday), I found my target: Stephen Strasburg.
The parallels are pretty obvious. Strasburg’s had elite status since arriving in the majors, and his skills have generally been top-10 or even top-5 worthy. However, he’s managed to miss time in three of the last four seasons, with five different issues. It goes without saying that your early draft picks (or top keepers) have to reliably produce solid value, and any starter who has trouble reaching even 180 innings means the risk is too high. If you’re relying on Strasburg as your #1 SP, it’s time to change strategies. Either target someone else, or make a trade.
The Good: Generally Massive Skills
The Strasburg lovers will quickly call out his elite pitching ratios. For the last four seasons he has raised his K/9 every year, from “only” 9.4 to 11.2. That’s elite territory, and you’ll be happy with him there. His walk rate is pretty great for his career at 2.3 BB/9, and in two of the last three seasons it was under 2.0. An above-average first pitch strike and swinging strike rate are the reasons for his success, and his dominance should continue.
Age-wise, he’s in his prime, so that’s a plus. He’s also on a current contender, so that can help with his win total. He’s improved his HR/FB for three straight seasons, though only slightly. And his FIP and xFIP are better than his ERA in recent years, so some speculators will claim he can only go up from here. The great control means he’ll always have a solid WHIP.
There’s not much else to say here. It’s not that there’s zero good — it’s that he’s simply very good at controlling the plate, and that positively affects the rest of his game. He’s not a bum, and he’ll keep putting up strong metrics.
The Bad: It’s Not Just Injuries
But just like Stanton, Strasburg has a hard time staying on the field, and for various reasons. Immediately I hear the argument, “But if they’re not the same injuries, it’s okay. As long as it’s not repetitive injuries to one area, then it’s simply bad luck, and there’s nothing to worry about.” That exact argument was made in the comments section of my Stanton article. But you can’t convince me of this, and I’ll point to many injury-prone players who simply have difficulty staying on the field due to various ailments: Tulo, Jose Reyes, Hanley, and fellow National Ryan Zimmerman. Let’s take a look at the injuries Strasburg has had since his TJS.
- 2013: strained right latissimus dorsi
- 2015: left oblique, neck strain
- 2016: sore elbow, strained back
Again, that’s five different issues over three seasons. That’s not a player you want to take as your #1 guy, because you can’t be sure he’ll make it through a full season. And don’t give me the “anyone can get injured” comment here, because it’s an empty argument. Simply because anyone can get hurt at any time, that means you can’t give any weight to it as a counterpoint. You can’t predict freak injuries, or even random major injuries. But you can look at two pitchers, see that one has been hurt frequently over the last four years, and opt for a comparable guy with a clean bill of health.
Unfortunately, injuries aren’t the only concern I have about Strasburg. For starters, let’s look at that shiny FIP and xFIP. At the surface, because his ERA is worse than those two stats, it means there is chance for improvement, right? But the fact remains that FIP and xFIP are better primarily because of his K/9 and BB/9. Therefore because he has elite numbers there, they will always say he could be better than his ERA. Yet his xFIP and SIERA have been on a slight rise for three years, indicating perhaps he’s not as elite as we’d hope.
Also, given that he’s so good at getting first pitch strikes, and making batters swing and miss, and controlling at bats — why can’t he improve his HR/FB and HR/9? He’s only league average (or slightly above) in HR/FB. In terms of HR/9, the NL average was 1.1 in 2016, and Strasburg managed a 0.9, so he was better than normal — but again, for someone allegedly so elite, that’s not an amazing stat for him, putting him at only 25th overall for full-time starters. When you add in the fact that his fly ball rate is on the rise from 31% in 2013 to 39% in 2016, it’s no wonder his ERA was an unimpressive 3.60 this last year. The dropping HR/FB is negated by the rising FB%. He may not allow a ton of baserunners, but despite the high K/9, he’s not doing a good job of keeping them from scoring, as confirmed by his dropping strand rate (76% in 2013, 70% in 2016).
The Verdict: Not Pennies on the Dollar, but Maybe 85 Cents
In case you think I’m the only one cooling on him, I’m not. In fact, I wasn’t even the lowest ranker of Strasburg in our upcoming dynasty rankings, but I’d have no problem dropping him further. Here are our four years of dynasty rankings, with his overall rank followed by the range of where he was ranked.
- 2014: 3 overall, 3-13
- 2015: 5 overall, 4-7
- 2016: 11 overall, 2-26
- 2017: 9 overall, 8-21 (spoiler alert)
Frankly, I think Paul was smoking something before 2016 when he put Strasburg #2, but it’s clear that now everyone else is cooling on the Washington ace. Yes, he has lights-out capability. Yes, he’s capable of great seasons. But a pitcher who’s only reached 185+ IP once in the last five seasons, and has been under 160 IP three times, is not worth the price tag that Strasburg requires. Give me Bumgarner, Scherzer, Kershaw, or Syndergaard for a full season of elite production. Give me Carrasco, Pineda, or McCullers, or pitchers with somewhat similar metrics, at less than half the price that Strasburg will cost.
I want to say this again: just like Stanton, I’m not saying that Strasburg is a bum, and that you should outright drop him because he has no value. He’s a good pitcher, for sure. However, he’s simply not on the same level as true #1 SP. If you can trade him away at top value, do it without hesitation. If you take a slight hit in value (say, only a comparable SP and no extra players thrown in), I’d still do it if the guy you’re getting has a track record of health and value. It’s time to stop spending time in Speculation Land and accept that Strasburg won’t quite live up to his optimistic ceiling. He’s good, but he’s not the overall #1 SP, and we should drop his projected value because of that.
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