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Stephen Strasburg Is Finally Pitching Like the Ace He Was Supposed to Be. You Just Might Not Be Able to Tell.

After an electric start to his career, the one-time Nationals phenom never again matched the hype. Now, in Max Scherzer’s shadow, he’s finally delivering a career season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

According to Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, the most valuable pitchers in baseball this year have been Nationals right-handers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Scherzer is usually at or near the top of such lists: He’s finished no worse than second in Cy Young voting in the past three years, and since joining the Nationals in 2015, Scherzer has finished third, first, third, and second in MLB in pitcher WARP. If Scherzer isn’t the consensus best pitcher in baseball, he’s close.

Strasburg is certainly a household name, but he doesn’t usually produce such Scherzerian numbers. Even in 2019, his traditional stats aren’t exceptional: He’s just 24th among qualified starters in ERA (3.52), 11th in K% (29.0), ninth in K-BB% (22.9), and tied for ninth in innings pitched (127 2/3). Strasburg’s K/9 ratio (10.6) and BB/9 ratio (2.3) are exactly in line with his career averages. But the former no. 1 pick, who turned 31 over the weekend, is suffocating hitters who make contact in a way he never has before.

As hitters look more and more to put the ball in the air, Strasburg is running the second-highest ground ball rate of his career, 51.4 percent, and according to Baseball Savant, he’s held opponents to an xwOBA of .259, second-lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 250 batters faced, behind only Scherzer. Combine that with strikeout, walk, and home run levels that were already among the best in baseball, and Strasburg is putting together the best season of his career by advanced metrics.

Strasburg has always had the talent to become one of the best pitchers in baseball, but while he’s avoided serious injury since the Tommy John surgery he underwent as a rookie, he’s struggled to match the innings totals required of a Cy Young contender. In 2014, Strasburg posted his only 200-inning season to date, led the NL in strikeouts, and finished third in WARP, but he’s finished in the top 10 in WARP only one other time (a ninth-place finish in 2017, when he ended up a distant third behind Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw in Cy Young voting).

This year, Strasburg is on pace to throw more than 200 innings for the second time in his career. Not only that, but those innings are of exceptional quality. Strasburg is pitching like the ace he was always supposed to be, even if the traditional numbers are obscuring or understating his success.

Over the first 10 seasons of his career, Strasburg has been a good pitcher, even an All-Star three times, but rarely if ever among the very best starters in the game. It’s a surprisingly middle-of-the-road outcome for someone who entered pro baseball with so much hype. A time-traveler from 2009 would be astonished at how Strasburg has just blended into the scenery, that an entity of mythic proportions 10 years ago is just part of everyday life now, like Miley Cyrus or cars that accept voice commands.

Once upon a time, Strasburg looked like the future of baseball. Before prospect analysis was an integral part of mainstream baseball coverage, Strasburg generated Zion Williamson–like superlatives and hyperbole as the most famous player in college baseball. In 2008, Strasburg struck out 23 batters in one start as a college sophomore, and was the only amateur player to make Team USA for that year’s Olympics. There he took home a bronze medal alongside future All-Stars Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, and Trevor Cahill.

In March 2009, Sports Illustrated sent Lee Jenkins to watch Strasburg at San Diego State, and all the makings of the Strasburg myth are in the first four paragraphs of that story: His height, his broad shoulders and long arms, the fact that he was coached by Tony Gwynn, the Aztecs’ head-to-toe black uniforms, fawning anecdotes from opponents and MLB executives, and the number 102—i.e. Strasburg’s fastball velocity.

Strasburg won 13 of his 15 starts as a junior, one of them a no-hitter over Air Force in his final home start. He posted a 1.32 ERA and struck out 195 batters in 109 innings. That June, the Nationals made him the first pick in the 2009 draft and gave him a $15 million major league contract. It took Strasburg 364 days to reach the majors, and in his first game he struck out 14, the most by an MLB debutant since a 21-year-old J.R. Richard punched out 15 Giants in 1971.

This electrifying opening act came one day after the Nationals used another no. 1 overall pick on 17-year-old Bryce Harper. It was not a fait accompli that these two extraordinary prospects would become Washington’s Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, or Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn, but that was the hope. And if one or both failed, even that would be remarkable given the hype surrounding the two.

For example: One of the best comparisons for the young Strasburg was another big college righty from Southern California, Mark Prior, who was briefly one of the best pitchers in baseball before all the connective tissue in his throwing arm exploded like a rubber band ball under a hydraulic press. Prior threw his last MLB pitch shortly before his 26th birthday and became legendary as a what-if case. Strasburg was so talented coming out of college that the normal developmental concerns didn’t apply to him: Even at age 21, he had the fastball velocity, the command, the secondary pitches, and the body to start in the big leagues. The reasonable conclusion was that it would take something like the injuries Prior suffered to keep Strasburg from realizing that potential.

Strasburg did suffer a serious injury, a torn UCL, just 12 starts into his MLB career. By the time he returned to full strength, in 2012, the Nationals put him on an innings limit, even as they dove headlong into a pennant race, and even as Strasburg jumped out as the front-runner for the Cy Young. Strasburg’s innings limit turned into the definitive baseball story of the year, all the more so when GM Mike Rizzo actually followed through on his rhetoric and shut the big righty down in early September, with the Nats 6.5 games up in the NL East.

From 2008 to 2012, Strasburg looked like the future, and in many ways his early 20s presaged, in broad strokes, the shape of baseball in the 2010s: The explosion of public prospect analysis, pitcher workload management, the Tommy John epidemic, and the jaw-dropping combination of polish and physicality we expect from modern top pitching prospects. Since Strasburg, we’ve seen pitchers from Matt Harvey to Carlos Rodón to Noah Syndergaard to Shohei Ohtani to Chris Paddack to Casey Mize live out one or more facets of Strasburg’s youth.

But since returning from his truncated 2012, Strasburg himself has been remarkably unremarkable. Far from following one of the two binary options expected from a pitching prospect of his talent—either a cautionary tale or God’s Own Warhammer of Justice—Strasburg has settled down in the middle.

He hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2014, but he’s made at least 22 starts every season since returning from Tommy John surgery. He’s gotten Cy Young votes twice, but never finished higher than third. The seven-year, $175 million contract extension he signed in 2016 is a ton of money, but not as much as the $200 million-plus contracts signed by David Price, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw. Since 2013, Strasburg is 13th in ERA, sixth in strikeouts, fifth in K%, and seventh in opponent batting average (among starters with at least 500 innings pitched), all good but not best-in-baseball-type numbers. That 102 mph fastball from San Diego State was probably a combination of youth and the seven-day college rotation; this year, Strasburg’s four-seamer is coming in at 94.1 mph, 22nd out of 74 qualified starters, one spot behind Zach Eflin. He’s hit triple digits only once since 2010, and his fastest pitch this year didn’t even crack 97.

In fact, since the innings limit controversy, it’s almost always been fashionable to say that Strasburg isn’t even the best pitcher on the Nationals, that Jordan Zimmermann or Gio González or more recently Scherzer is the team’s true no. 1 starter. (In Scherzer’s case, this claim is not only fashionable but accurate.) And while Strasburg and Harper were supposed to take the Nationals to the World Series, they never escaped the first round in seven seasons together.

From 2013 to 2018, Strasburg has averaged 27 starts and 163 innings per season, with 188 strikeouts and an ERA+ of 127, good for 3.5 bWAR per year. That’s above-average production, if not ace-level, and by the start of 2019, Strasburg had existed as this fairly reliable no. 2 starter about as long as he was the best up-and-coming pitcher in baseball before that.

Strasburg might still be the second-best pitcher on the Nationals, but he’s made a few tweaks this year that have turned him into an ace by anything short of Scherzer’s lofty standards. After providing the career blueprint for dozens of young starting pitchers who have followed in his footsteps over the past decade, in 2019 Strasburg has borrowed from pitchers who came after him.

The major tactical innovation for pitchers in the past five years has been the realization that establishing the fastball isn’t a prerequisite for success. From Rich Hill to Lance McCullers Jr. to latter-day Clayton Kershaw, pitcher after pitcher has proved a new way to get hitters out: force-feeding them quality breaking balls.

Strasburg hasn’t gone to an extreme in this regard, but for the first time in his career he’s throwing more off-speed pitches than fastballs, if only slightly, as his average fastball velocity has dropped to a career low. Strasburg has always thrown his changeup somewhere between once every five pitches and once every eight pitches, but in 2019 he’s throwing 31 percent curveballs, a career high by far, and 31 percent four-seam fastballs, by far a career low. Early in his career, Strasburg also featured a sinker, but he essentially junked it in 2013 before reintegrating it late last year. This year, he’s throwing the sinker 18.5 percent of the time. After throwing 392 sinkers in 161 starts from 2013 to 2018, Strasburg’s thrown 376 sinkers in 20 starts this season.

The sinker has gone out of fashion in the age of “elevate and celebrate,” as pitcher after pitcher has found that two-seamers drop right into the bat path of hitters who are trying to put the ball in the air. But Strasburg’s sinker doesn’t actually sink that much—it has more than five inches of perceived rise from a hitter’s perspective. The major difference between Strasburg’s two fastballs is that the two-seamer has three or four inches of arm-side run than his four-seamer, while coming in at essentially the same speed.

The advantage of throwing multiple fastballs, plus a quality changeup, is that while hitters might make contact, they’ll have a hard time squaring the ball up if they don’t know exactly what they’re swinging at. The current master of subtle fastball manipulation is the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu, but Strasburg’s doing something similar, except while Ryu’s a finesse lefty, Strasburg’s a power right-hander. Ryu is playing a classical violin solo, and Strasburg is covering it on electric guitar.

Strasburg has played his entire career under expectations so high that what he’s accomplished through 2018—37.9 WARP, three All-Star selections, playing for four division champions—could be viewed as even remotely disappointing. He came into pro ball as a finished product with a top-of-the-line fastball, but after evolving his approach and even losing a bit of velocity, Strasburg is quietly pitching better than ever.