The Nationals Without Strasburg

I’m honored to have been selected to write for High Heat Stats, where some of my favorite bloggers, like Adam Darowski, Graham Womack, and Dan McCloskey have joined Baseball-Reference veterans Andy Kamholz and John Autin to bring some of the best baseball writing in the blogosphere to one place. Here’s the second piece I wrote for HHS (the first was a recycled piece I wrote here back in April):

Stephen Strasburg was shut down after pitching on September 7. The Nationals are 4-1 since then. This says absolutely nothing about Strasburg.

There’s been plenty of talk about the team’s decision to shut Strasburg down after nearly 160 innings. The dissenting opinion tends to revolve around the idea that the Nationals are much more likely to win the World Series with Strasburg pitching. This is probably true, unless we’re willing to attribute his late-season struggles to incurable fatigue. But just how much worse are the Nationals without Strasburg?

Baseball-reference credits Strasburg with 2.7 WAR this season. Fangraphs gives him 4.3, since he’s been outstanding from a fielding-independent standpoint, but only very good in terms of run prevention. John Lannan has been a hair above replacement level (.9 rWAR/2.5 fWAR) over the last three seasons, while Chien-Ming Wang is a replacement-level pitcher (-2.5 rWAR/0 fWAR since ’09). Put Lannan in Strasburg’s rotation spot, with Wang pitching a little more as a spot starter, and the two versions of WAR tell us that the Nationals would be somewhere between 85-58 and 86-57, still winning the NL East and at least 12 games clear of the final Wild Card spot.

Looking at it a different way, the Nationals have outscored opponents by 134 runs, the best figure in baseball. The average ERA in the NL is 3.97. Strasburg’s 3.16 is .81 runs better than average and .83 runs better than Lannan’s career ERA. That means that over 159 1/3 innings, Strasburg saved between 14 and 15 runs. Round it up and add those 15 runs to the wrong side of Washington’s ledger and they’re tied with the Rangers for the best run differential in baseball (+119), 33 runs better than the Reds and Cardinals.

In the playoffs, of course, fifth starters and replacement level don’t matter much. The Nationals will lean heavily on Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson, with Ross Detwiler starting as needed. Those four pitchers have thrown 671 1/3 innings this season. They’ve struck out 566 hitters, walked 199, and given up 56 home runs, giving up a total of 242 earned runs. That equates to a 3.24 ERA and a 3.49 FIP.

Aside from the Nationals, the best rotation ERA in the NL this season is the Dodgers’ 3.51. The best FIP is the Cardinals’ 3.51. Granted, these numbers include fifth starters and fill-in guys, very few of whom will start in the playoffs, but the Nationals can counter that some by giving more starts to Gonzalez and Zimmermann, who have been two of the best pitchers in the league, than to Jackson and Detwiler.

Neither ERA nor FIP is park-adjusted, and the Nationals play in a bit of a pitcher’s park. Let’s use fangraphs’ ERA-, where the second best figure for a National League rotation is 92, by the Dodgers and the playoff-bound Reds. The Strasburg-free Nationals ERA-? 85.

With Strasburg, the Nationals would probably be favorites to reach the World Series in the NL. Without him, they’re probably still favorites.

Check out the comments at High Heat to see how this may all be a part of Dusty Baker’s diabolical plot.

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