Is Stephen Strasburg Underrated or Overrated?

Once the most ballyhooed young pitcher in the game, Stephen Strasburg is rarely mentioned as one of the game's best starters.

There are people, mostly Washington Nationals fans, who are disappointed in Stephen Strasburg.

I know "u" want to know the truth, too. So let's see what we can find out.

Of course, there are numerous fans and analysts who believe Strasburg is an "ace," as well as one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. When he was drafted number one overall in 2009, he was expected to be a perennial Cy Young candidate and one of the league's top five or 10 pitchers, year in and year out. Yet, after parts of five seasons in the Majors, he has never finished in the top 10 of National League Cy Young voting and has made just one All-Star team, in 2012.

So are the critics right, or are they misguided? Is Strasburg an underrated pitcher, whose counting statistics don't measure up to his peripherals? Or is he an overrated pitcher, one who has weaknesses in his arsenal that render many of those peripherals meaningless?

The game is afoot.

The Case for Underrated

Stephen Strasburg2.35 (2)2.9 (2)2.72 (2)10.73 (1)5.73 (2)2.59 (1)

In some of the most important statistics we look at to analyze a pitcher's true performance, Strasburg is among the best in the National League. As you can see in the chart above, Strasburg ranks in the top two of NL pitchers in nERD (which looks at how many fewer runs a pitcher would give up per 27 outs than a league average pitcher), fWAR, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), strikeouts per nine (K/9), strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) and SIERA (which incorporates batted balls in play along with how many strikeouts, walks and home runs a pitcher gives up).

All these numbers would indicate that Strasburg is at least in the conversation as one of the five best starters in the National League. Yet, he has made just one All-Star team in his career, was not among the 11 NL starters selected to this year's squad, and has never finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting.


The Case for Overrated

Stephen Strasburg3.46 (20)125.0 (10).258 (32)1.22 (22)0.86 (26)0 (T-21)

For all the gaudy peripherals, Strasburg has had a harder time getting results on the field. His ERA is only 20th best in the National League, he's 10th in innings pitched (more on that in a moment), has allowed opponents to hit .258 off him (22nd best in the NL), has given up 0.86 homers per nine innings, (26th best in the league), and has no complete games yet this year (although there are dozens of other starters who also have yet to throw a complete game).

So, he's overrated, right?

The Analysis

Much of the criticism against Strasburg in his career is that he hasn't been able to pitch enough innings for the Nationals. Part of that is because of the elbow injury he suffered in August of 2010 which required Tommy John surgery. After missing most of the 2011 season, Strasburg came back in 2012 and was on a strict innings limit (you may have read something about that in the papers). Since that time, however, the team has taken the reigns off him a bit, yet Strasburg has had difficulty pitching deep into games. He didn't throw his first complete game until August of last year, his 68th career start.

The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg has done an excellent job of breaking down Strasburg's issues this year, including problems in the early innings of games (1st inning ERA of 4.05, 2nd inning ERA of 4.50), as well as problems with his fastball, allowing opponents to hit .304 against it this season. His career average against his fastball is .258.

Some have even argued he's not even the ace of his own staff, with Doug Fister, Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann all posting lower ERAs than Strasburg. Of course, ERA isn't a terrific indicator of a pitcher's true value, as it ignores luck on batted balls in play (BABIP). When you factor that in (.347, 3rd highest in the National League), it's clear he has suffered from a lot of bad luck in 2014 as well. That's why we use FIP and SIERA, both of which are far better at telling how well a pitcher is truly pitching.

Strasburg has also given up more line drives than most NL starters this year, with 23.9% of all batted balls against him line drives. That's fifth-highest in the league, as well as a career high for him, and it's a number that should come down a bit in the second half of the season.

The Verdict

Certainly, any general manager would kill to have Strasburg on their staff. The man averages 94.4 mph on his fastball, with a slider, curveball and changeup that all miss a lot of bats. At some point, Strasburg's luck will improve and his counting stats will start to mirror his peripherals. He's also just 25 years old, leads the NL in strikeouts (149), and is on pace to pitch just over 187 innings this year (assuming 30 starts), which would be a career high.

He needs to fix his early inning woes and limit his pitch count early, which will allow him to pitch deeper into games. But the evidence seems to indicate that Strasburg is an underrated pitcher suffering from a bit of bad luck, and should be a perennial Cy Young candidate for years to come.

Put another way, if someone is trying to sell "low" on Strasburg, now's the time to buy.