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How Strasburg has lived up to the hype

Right-hander is fastest pitcher to reach 1,500 Ks
@SlangsOnSports
May 2, 2019

Stephen Strasburg reached a career milestone Thursday, notching his 1,500th strikeout in the Nationals' 2-1 win over the Cardinals in Washington, catching opposing pitcher Dakota Hudson looking to end the top of the fifth inning. Getting there in 1,272 1/3 career innings, he is the fastest pitcher to reach that

Stephen Strasburg reached a career milestone Thursday, notching his 1,500th strikeout in the Nationals' 2-1 win over the Cardinals in Washington, catching opposing pitcher Dakota Hudson looking to end the top of the fifth inning. Getting there in 1,272 1/3 career innings, he is the fastest pitcher to reach that mark, by a pretty decent margin, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The prior fastest was Chris Sale, who did it in 1,290 innings.

June will mark the 10-year anniversary of when the Nationals made Strasburg the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft, selecting the right-hander out of San Diego State. Roughly a year later, one of the most-hyped prospects in recent memory made one of the flashiest debuts in MLB history.

In the context of the expectations he had set, Strasburg may seem like a disappointment to some. But by any objective standard, including his prolific strikeout numbers, he has lived up to the hype. Let's break it down:

Piling up the Ks

While it's true that Strasburg is pitching in a high-strikeout era, he also has reached the 1,500-strikeout milestone quicker even than his peers.

Fewest innings to 1,500 strikeouts
Stephen Strasburg: 1,272 1/3

Chris Sale: 1,290
Kerry Wood: 1,303
Pedro Martinez: 1,337
Randy Johnson 1,365 2/3

If you’d rather consider it by games, as we did with Max Scherzer when he reached 2,500 strikeouts last week, Strasburg is second-fastest, according to Elias, behind Johnson.

Fewest career games to 1,500 strikeouts
Randy Johnson: 206
Stephen Strasburg: 213
Roger Clemens: 216
Clayton Kershaw: 218
Nolan Ryan: 219

It's not just the raw numbers. Strasburg had struck out 29.1 percent of batters he had faced in his career entering Thursday, tying him with Scherzer for the second-highest rate among 77 pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings since 2010. The only pitcher with a higher such rate in that span is Sale, at 30.0 percent.

Early success -- and setbacks

Strasburg’s career began at its peak. In his first career start, on June 8, 2010, he struck out 14 batters against the Pirates. That’s the third-most strikeouts by a pitcher in his Major League debut, behind only the 15 from Karl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in 1971. It’s quite the way to kick off a career, but it also served to confirm that his hype was justified, making it even harder to live up to that for every subsequent start of his career.

We all remember Strasburg's 2010 rookie season for his success (2.91 ERA in 12 starts), but also for how abruptly it ended. Following an August 21 start, Strasburg was diagnosed with a torn UCL and had to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. He didn't return until the following September.

The next year, 2012, saw the Nationals make the infamous decision to shut down Strasburg in early September, before the team's first postseason appearance since moving to D.C., in an effort to protect his arm. Yet there have been other injuries since, limiting Strasburg to 28 starts or fewer in all but two seasons -- 2013 and '14. Since those back-to-back years, the righty has averaged 24 starts and 145 innings, and he also had to sit out the '16 postseason due to injury.

An impressive body of work

Despite all of that, Strasburg's 3.15 career ERA is sixth in the Majors since 2010, among that group with at least 1,000 innings. The only pitchers ahead of him are Kershaw, Sale, Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Justin Verlander. As with the strikeout milestone, that’s pretty good company.

His 1.09 career WHIP is tied for fourth in that span with Kluber, also behind notables such as Kershaw, Sale and Scherzer.

Put that all together, and Strasburg has been worth more than 27 WAR in his career, per Baseball-Reference. Only Mike Trout has more among 2009 first-round picks, and Strasburg also stands up well in the up-and-down history of players selected No. 1 overall. Only 13 of the 45 No. 1 picks taken prior to Strasburg have more career WAR, and he is set up to pass at least four more former players this season or next.

Whatever your view of the 2012 shutdown, Strasburg missing that postseason -- and another four years later -- was unfortunate. But it shouldn't be forgotten that when he did get an October opportunity in '17, Strasburg threw 14 innings without allowing an earned run over two NL Division Series starts against the Cubs, including a dominant Game 4 performance while battling the flu. Had the Nats advanced, Strasburg would have been a huge reason why.

Looking good again

This may prove to be Strasburg’s best season yet. He had a 242-strikeout campaign in 2014 and finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting in '17 with a 2.52 ERA, but he is outpacing those seasons, and others, in certain ways this year.

Opponents are hitting just .207 against him, which would be tied for his second-lowest opponent average in any season where he made more than five starts, with the 2013 season. He had a .204 opponent average in 2017. He’s keeping players off the basepaths in general, to the tune of a .261 opponent on-base percentage, which would be his lowest for a full season.

Strasburg has a 32.0 percent strikeout rate after Thursday's game. The only year he’s had a higher mark was his 12-start rookie season in 2010, when it was 33.6 percent. It follows that he’s getting batters to swing and miss more than at any point in his career, inducing a 34.6 percent whiff rate on swings that is by far the highest of his career.

It remains to be seen how Strasburg holds up throughout 2019, and in future seasons. He hasn't always stayed healthy, which is one reason why he's never won a Cy Young Award, and perhaps seems to have come up short of the hype that defined his entry into the big leagues.

But if you really dig into the numbers, Strasburg has been very good. Now, in his 10th season, he appears to still be at the top of his game.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.