This was the blog post I was hoping to not write this off-season and honestly I felt that the ‘Strasburg is not an Ace’ talk would come from the other side of the spectrum. That the talk of Strasburg not being an Ace would be due to his perceived mental issues and 8-9 record. Instead it came from courtswift over on Nats 101. I will say that I do have some issues with the methodology before getting into my opinion on why Strasburg is an Ace, but I can sum it up quite simply by saying that by using simply fWAR to define what an Ace is eliminates Tom Glavine. Tom Glavine average 3.215 WAR over a 20 year career. Glavine should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame and I have a hard time saying a Hall of Fame pitcher is anything but an Ace.
Defining an Ace is a funny thing. It is kind of like defining peace. It is term that is going to mean something different to everyone. I should say here that courtswift tends to be a small Ace person whereas I am a large Ace person. In my opinion there are 30 Aces in baseball because there are 30 teams and if the world were fair every team would have their own Ace. As we all know the world isn’t fair and some teams like the Mariners, Phillies, and Tigers end up with more than one Ace whereas others like the Braves and Orioles have none.
By this time you’re probably wondering how I define an Ace and I’ll get into the baseball specifics of it in a minute but first watch this video of Jordan dunking on Dikembe Motumbo.
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This is what I believe an Ace is. Mutombo tells Jordan that he’s never gotten him and what does Jordan do? He goes and gets him. He puts Mutombo on a poster. That is what an Ace starting pitcher does. He is the guy you want on the mound. The guy you believe can shut down the opposing team every time he takes the mound, and this is why when it comes to what an Ace pitcher is I am more inclined to look at rate stats like ERA and FIP. Is this pitcher one of the best in baseball when he is on the mound?
Over the last two seasons Stephen Strasburg is eighth in baseball in FIP with a 3.03 FIP and a tied for eleventh in baseball with Madison Bumgarner with a 3.08 ERA. This is flat out dominance over two seasons. Over the last two seasons Strasburg is a top ten pitcher when he has been on the mound. The issue here seems to be that Strasburg had Tommy John’s surgery in 2010 and was on a 160 innings limit in 2012 and a 190 innings limit in 2013. Yes, Strasburg spent time on the DL in 2013 but it would have been unwise for the Nationals to have pitched him at any more than a 30 innings increase in his age 24 season. That is one more point in Strasburg’s favor, he is 24.
Masahiro Tanaka could be posted this season, and if he is he is expected to garner a better than $100 million contract with a $20 million posting fee on top of that. So if baseball values a 25 year old that has never pitched in the majors at $120 million plus imagine what they would value a 24 year old who has a career 3.08 ERA and has proven he can get major league hitters out at an elite level. Think about this for a second. If Strasburg were a free agent today he could easily break the record deal Zack Greinke got last season as a free agent pitcher. Strasburg as a free agent would give teams the chance to pay for potential and projected production instead of paying for past services rendered to someone else as most free agent contracts tend to be. In the case of Tanaka and Strasburg, teams would get the chance to pay for the value they project a starting pitcher will give to them.
Speaking of value let’s look at where Strasburg’s stuff ranks in baseball using Fangraphs pitch values. Strasburg may be known for his high 90s fastball but that is his third best pitch. When it comes to Strasburg’s real stuff his secondary pitches are where it is at and over the last two seasons his curve ball is ranked as the third best curve in baseball behind AJ Burnett and Adam Wainwright and tied with Clayton Kershaw. His change-up is ranked as the eleventh best change-up in baseball behind David Price and ahead of Jeremy Hellickson. And while the fastball ranks as the 20th best in baseball no one has average velocity higher than Strasburg’s 95.5 MPH over the last two seasons. That right there is three plus pitches. Three pitches that rank in the top 20 for their type in baseball and the one that is ranked the lowest happens to be the hardest fastball in the game. Again I would like to point out that Strasburg is 24, is perceived to have struggled in 2013, and still ended up with a flat 3.00 ERA and 3.21 FIP.
Strasburg did have some minor issues in 2013. At times his mound presence wasn’t quite there. Early in the season he was too concerned with errors behind him and appeared to forget that he was Stephen Strasburg. He gave too much respect to the batters and didn’t appear to be convinced that he was the danger. As the year went along these issues ironed themselves out. Of the ten unearned runs Strasburg allowed nine of them were allowed before May 17. Starting with the May 16 game where Strasburg motioned to Zimmerman that he had him Strasburg pitched to a 2.96 ERA with 140 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings averaging over six innings a start and holding opposing batters to a .197/.274/.289 batting line. That is flat dominance. Those are numbers an Ace puts up.
What an Ace is, is a subjective thing. You may only want to put the label on 10-15 pitchers at a time or you may want to imagine that in a perfect world every team would get their own Ace and there are always 30 of them or you may want to look at the current environment of baseball with a seemingly endless explosion of young pitching talent and say there are even more than 30 Aces. Whatever camp you fall into my summation of what an Ace is, is the pitcher you want starting game one of the World Series for you. The pitcher you think gives your team the best chance to win day in and day out and every time they are on the mound they have a chance to shut down the opposition. Stephen Strasburg has been that guy when he’s been on the mound for the Nationals and there is no reason to believe he cannot continue to be that guy.
If you still don’t believe it here is a GIF from cbssports.com of Stephen Strasburg making Joey Votto look ridiculous with a change-up.