Stephen Strasburg’s postseason legacy was established before he threw a single pitch in a playoff game. In fact, his legacy is one of not pitching in the playoffs at all. In 2012, Strasburg was one of the most exciting and captivating young pitchers in baseball; three years earlier, Strasburg had been the no. 1 pick in the draft, and his Tommy John–enforced absence in 2010 and 2011 had only caused the hearts of the baseball world to grow fonder of the then-24-year-old right-hander.
Strasburg was probably the best pitcher in the National League through the first five months of the 2012 season; in 28 starts he struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings and more than four batters per walk. His 3.16 ERA actually undersold his performance; Baseball Prospectus’s deserved run average had Strasburg at 2.26. But because Strasburg was only just returning from a yearlong injury layoff, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo announced that his ace would throw only about 160 major league innings in 2012. Even as Washington surged to its first NL East title since moving from Montreal, Rizzo stuck to his guns, and after 159 1/3 innings, the Nationals shut down Strasburg for the year.
Washington lost a five-game NLDS to the Cardinals, with their best pitcher watching from the sideline even though to all outward appearances he was ready, willing, and able to pitch.
It was the most momentous baseball decision of the 2010s; in an instant, Rizzo normalized innings limits for good and all, irrevocably changing how pitchers are developed, influencing when and how they’re brought back from Tommy John surgery, and taking one leg out from under the 150-year-old idea that the greatest starting pitchers not only can but ought to throw as much as they can for as long as their arm will allow. When an ace is referred to as “a horse,” it’s no longer quite accurate to imagine a sturdy and reliable draught beast, but rather a fast-twitch thoroughbred, whose strength and physical fragility go hand in glove.
The Nationals are in the midst of their fifth playoff appearance of Strasburg’s career, but in addition to his controversial 2012 absence, he missed out on the 2016 NLDS after he tore the pronator tendon in his throwing arm. In the hours before Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS, Strasburg was questionable for his start while battling illness, which prompted a torrent of criticism from the tough-guy types who hold sway in the public sports discussion. Strasburg not only made his start, he single-handedly saved Washington’s season by striking out 12 in seven scoreless innings, but even that performance didn’t entirely drown out the question of whether he would once again be absent in his team’s moment of need.
The discourse around Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS is a fitting microcosm for Strasburg’s career, because as much as his reputation is for not pitching in the playoffs, when he has taken the mound he’s been one of the best postseason pitchers in the history of the sport. Strasburg allowed one earned run in his first playoff appearance, a 3-2 loss to the Giants in the Bryce Harper–Hunter Strickland tête-a-tête 2014 NLDS, then went five years and 24 innings before allowing his second in the 2019 NLCS against the Dodgers.
This regular season was one of the best of Strasburg’s career: According to BP, he was the best pitcher in baseball with 8.3 WARP; even Baseball-Reference, which was less bullish on Strasburg’s 2019 season, had him at 6.3 bWAR, second among NL pitchers and a tenth of a win shy of the total from his 2017 campaign, which earned him third place in NL Cy Young voting. Strasburg struck out a career-high 251 batters this season and led the National League in innings pitched, no mean feat for a pitcher who’d battled concerns about durability throughout his career.
That exceptional regular season has presaged an even more exceptional performance in the playoffs to date. Strasburg’s three scoreless innings in relief earned him the win in the NL wild-card game, and the Nationals have likewise won all three games he’s started since: He beat Clayton Kershaw in Game 2, held serve against Walker Buehler in a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5, and beat St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty in Game 3 of the NLCS to all but put the pennant in the bag. In 22 innings this postseason, Strasburg has held batters to a .220/.226/.341 line, struck out 33, and walked just one. If not for Gerrit Cole’s pair of ALDS gems, we’d instead be talking about Strasburg in near-Bumgarnerian tones right now. In fact, for all the hoopla over Cole’s 15-strikeout outing against Tampa Bay, Strasburg has one more strikeout this postseason in 2/3 of an inning less of work.
All told, Strasburg has allowed five earned runs in seven career postseason appearances spanning 41 innings, which is a 1.10 ERA. The only three pitchers with more career playoff innings pitched and a better ERA are Mariano Rivera, Sandy Koufax, and Christy Mathewson. Strasburg’s career playoff K/9 ratio is fifth all time (minimum 30 IP), behind Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, and Kenley Jansen, all relievers.
The one thing missing from Strasburg’s October résumé, and the thing that stands between him and lasting public adoration of his excellence this postseason, is a classic World Series gem, if only because he’s never had the opportunity to produce one until now. And what an opportunity, as this World Series has as much star pitching power as any in history. On the heels of the Game 1 showdown between Cole and Max Scherzer, Strasburg will test his mettle against Justin Verlander, one of the greatest pitchers of the 21st century, who filled the only gap in his own list of accomplishments by twirling a series of October masterpieces en route to a ring in 2017.
Not that Strasburg is any stranger to stiff competition; he’s faced Cy Young winners in three of his six career playoff starts, but none who was as on top of his game as Verlander is now. While that might be a detriment to the Nationals’ World Series hopes, it’s good news for Strasburg’s playoff narrative. After all, great World Series pitchers’ duels require two participants: The Josh Beckett–Andy Pettitte classic that won the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, Jack Morris’s 10-inning shutout against John Smoltz and the Braves in 1991, or Mickey Lolich’s complete-game victory—his third in eight days—to hand Bob Gibson his second and final postseason loss in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, just to name a few notable examples.
To beat Verlander, Strasburg will also have to navigate the toughest lineup he’s faced so far this October—indeed, one of the toughest lineups in recent baseball history. The Astros’ batting order is stacked with disciplined right-handed power hitters, who will face Strasburg in a park where the left-field foul pole is just 315 feet from the plate.
Verlander and the Astros offense represent a series of obstacles worthy of the final challenge in a heroic quest. Should Strasburg prevail, he’ll overcome his legacy of postseason absence by making his presence felt the most when the stakes are highest.