Pitchability sometimes can be either and extremely damning or complimentary word to bestow on a pitcher, especially when he’s a prospect fighting his way through the minor leagues. If used as the latter, he’s seen as a gamer, a bulldog, or some other herculean adjective. When he fails it was because of bad luck or because balls found holes. If used as the former he’s seen as soft, pitches with passivity, or some other onerous adjective. If a pitcher with pitchability issues struggles it’s because his head was out of the game or he didn’t “want it” enough. I think saying a pitcher lacks pitchability is usually an oversimplification and is usually said without much thought. However, after seeing Stephen Strasburg’s last start I believe he doesn’t have pitchability.
On Sunday he gave up four earned runs (and two home runs) in four innings against the Giants. The home runs he gave up were to Gregor Blanco and Travis Ishikawa. That’s not a misprint. He allowed Quad-A (or AAAA) hitters to take him deep. He was drafted as the seventh starting pitcher in ESPN drafts this year. A player drafted that high should never allow multiple home runs to players like that in a one game (if he’s healthy).
When I watch him pitch it seems as though he’s a different pitcher when men are on base. It’s almost as if when things begin to snowball he can’t stop it from getting bigger. It seems as though he allows more runners to score than the average “great” pitcher. Over his career hitters have a .596 OPS when the bases are empty, but a .695 OPS when runners are on base. That’s a 100 point difference, which seems really high, but let’s put that into context.
I looked at starting pitchers with at least 20 starts from 2008-2014 and I wanted to see if the difference was comparable. When the bases were empty batters have a .718 OPS versus .752 with runners on base. Twenty starts may be a small threshold because it may have prospects that flamed out over a brief stay in the Major Leagues. Strasburg has 103 career starts so I then looked at pitchers with at least 100 starts since 2008. When the bases are empty batters have a .706 OPS compared to a .737 OPS. Regardless of the sample size, the difference in OPS is less than half the difference of Strasburg’s, which indicates he may not have pitchability.
If you own Strasburg you have to keep starting him regardless of the matchup (except for a start in Colorado). What I’m curious about is how he will be drafted in 2015. Entering this year I ranked him outside of my top 10 because his reputation didn’t catch up to his actual performance on the field. He’s currently 26th on ESPN’s Player Rater, which is about where I would rank him entering drafts next year, but I think he’s going to be drafted as a top 15 pitcher next year and I’m not going to be that person. Strasburg still has immense talent and he has the raw stuff to be the best pitcher in baseball, but I want to see more consistency before he’s in my top 15.