It's been a much quieter year for Stephen Strasburg in his first season following The Shutdown, although not one without news and not one without questions.
While the Nationals have been a colossal dud, Strasburg has pitched at a level similar to 2012. You can view that as a positive, because it's a very high level of performance. Or you can view it as a minor disappointment if your expectations were that Strasburg would win the Cy Young Award and rise to a new plane of dominance.
2012: 28 GS, 159.1 IP, 3.16 ERA, 3.50 R/9, .230 AVG, .649 OPS
2013: 25 GS, 156.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.58 R/9, .210 AVG, .600 OPS
In some ways, improvement: tougher to hit, lower OPS allowed, higher average innings per start -- 6.2 versus 5.7 (this would give him 175 innings over 28 starts, 16 more frames than last year). On the other hand, his runs-allowed-per-nine-innings mark has remained constant.
Strasburg's strikeout rate -- while still excellent -- also has dropped a bit, from 30 percent to 26 percent, while his walk rate has remained essentially unchanged. Some of that decline in strikeouts could be attributed to a desire to be more efficient in his pitch counts and to produce more ground balls; he has been slightly more efficient (15.6 pitches per inning versus 16.4) and he is getting more grounders, so I wouldn't be too alarmed about the strikeout rate, especially since it does rank ninth among qualified starters -- just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez.
Despite all those positives, I can't classify Strasburg as an ace just yet, although we all have various definitions of what that means. The goal for starters is to prevent runs and pitch deep into games. He ranks 22nd among MLB starters in ERA and lower if you look at runs per nine innings since he's allowed nine unearned runs. He's also just 41st in innings pitched -- 42 innings fewer than Kershaw, not that any pitcher compares favorably to Kershaw these days. He's had his bumps, missing two weeks with a strained forearm in June, and then the weird start five days ago when he plunked Justin Upton in the first inning -- likely as retaliation for the Braves' throwing at Bryce Harper -- but then threw three wild pitches in the second and got ejected after throwing behind Andrelton Simmons.
Strasburg had another bump Thursday when he took a 4-1 lead into the ninth against the Cubs, looking for his second career complete game, but he was unable to finish it off, as the Cubs scored three runs and knocked him out when Donnie Murphy hit a game-tying homer with two outs. I liked Davey Johnson's decision to leave him in the game that long, even if it didn't work out (the Nationals did eventually win 5-4 in 13 innings).
There are a couple of things Strasburg can improve on. Over the past two seasons, he's allowed a .206 average with the bases empty, .242 with runners on base. A lot of power pitchers allow a higher average with men on base -- Yu Darvish is 39 points worse, David Price is 25 points worse, for example -- but guys such as Kershaw and Hernandez don't see much if any drop-off.
Most importantly, however, remains the command of his fastball against left-handed batters.
Let me show you a couple of heat maps. First, his batting average allowed to left-handed batters off his fastball in 2013:
As you can see, he's pretty effective when he gets the fastball inside.
Now, a second heat map, this one of his fastball location against left-handed batters:
So, he is more effective pitching inside ... but more often pitches to the middle or outside part of the plate. I'll let the experts decide whether this is an issue of command or mechanics, but as good as Strasburg's breaking stuff is, you still have to use the fastball to set up those pitches. Eight of the 15 home runs he's allowed have been off fastballs to left-handers -- in fact, all eight of the home runs he's allowed to lefties. For the season, in plate appearances ending with a fastball, lefties have struck out 19 times but have drawn 23 walks and are slugging .452.
Look, these aren't Joe Blanton numbers or anything here. We're nitpicking over a very good pitcher. Questions about his durability still exist -- will he get to 200 innings this season? -- and he should eventually get better at pitching to both sides of the plate. Strasburg remains a dynamic young talent, but you do wonder whether he's been passed up by Matt Harvey and even Jose Fernandez.