Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals

There was a time when the name Stephen Strasburg was on the lips of every baseball fan in America. He was the phenom, the first overall pick destined to become the next great ace. He burst onto the scene, striking out 14 Pirates in his big league debut. He was a force of nature until the elbow got’em. A year down after Tommy John, Strasburg returned in late 2011 to show us all what we missed.

2012 was to be Strasburg’s season. And, by and large, it was his season. He was one of the best starters in the National League that year, leading the Nationals to the postseason for the first time since their move to D.C. Together with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats pitching staff mowed down the National League before losing an unfortunate five game series against St. Louis in October.

Of course, during their fateful collapse at the hands of the Cardinals, Stephen Strasburg was nowhere to be found. He was cooling his heels in the dugout, shutdown in mid-September as the team protected him against an oversized workload. It was for his own good and the future good of the team, we were told. They did their research, we were instructed (even though they kind of didn’t). They’ll be back, the Nats swore.

And maybe they will. Perhaps this year’s Nats squad will pick up where the 2012 club left off, learning from their 2013 disappointment to overcome a decision that looks worse and worse by the day.

The Strasburg Shutdown clouds the public perception of Stephen Strasburg. It is like Lebron’s “Decision” for those who wilfully ignore James’ singular brilliance, litany of on-court successes and complete persona makeover into the most likable athlete in America. The Shutdown became bigger than Stephen Strasburg, mostly because it was so mind-boggingly stupid and handled so absurdly.

The 2013 edition of Stephen Strasburg was a little bit different than the strikeout machine seen in previous seasons. The pitcher swore he would be more efficient, throwing fewer pitches and pitching deeper into games. It worked, to an extent. Strasburg averaged about one extra out per start in 2013 compared to 2012, throwing a comparable number of pitches. He even managed to both pitch into the eighth inning and register his first complete game, a shutout of the Phillies in July. His strikeout rate decreased but his ground ball rate increased. Mission accomplished, I guess.

But as the Nationals sputtered through season, Strasburg became something of an afterthought in the minds of non-Nats fans. Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez were the new studs, throwing in the upper 90s and devastating hitters with a ridiculous change up/curve combination. Strasburg’s fine 2013 season slipped under the radar, though he ranks in the top fifteen among starters for ERA, FIP, and strikeout rate. It wasn’t sexy anymore.

Stephen Strasburg certainly doesn’t care about sex appeal or the whims of baseball nerds with fickle MLB.tv viewing habits. He wants to win and improve as a pitcher. Last year, his improvement was efficiency. This year? The opposite! Turns out the fragile Nats ace is adding a slider to his repertoire, because why not?

“It’s just a work in progress,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I’ve been messing with. I’m just trying to get a feel for it. I’m not going to dump any of my other pitches. But I’ll just have something in the back pocket.”

Spring Training is all about screwing around and messing about with new pitches, which doesn’t always translate into a new offering for game use. As cited in the linked Washington Post piece, Jordan Zimmermann workshopped his change up for three straight springs before making it into a game.

The biggest thing for Strasburg is…I dunno. He could, should, and damn well might end up as one of the best pitchers in the National League this year. His change up is such a deadly weapon, a pitcher he throws to both lefties and righties, slightly bucking a trend. For all his radar gun exploding exploits (probably in the past, as velocity slips away over time), the huge season still eludes the San Diego State product. Will this be the year he finally puts it all together and contributes more to his team than Bronson Arroyo and Chris Tillman? Because it certainly feels like he’s a lot better than those guys.

Wins Above Replacement, 2012-2013

Rk Player WAR GS IP ERA+
1 Bronson Arroyo 6.1 64 404.0 105
2 Stephen Strasburg 6.1 58 342.1 126
3 Chris Tillman 6.0 48 292.1 121
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/19/2014.

Last year before the season, it said right here on these pages that Stephen Strasburg would break out and become one of the top starters in the National League. This year is no different. Strasburg has the stuff, he focused on becoming more of a “pitcher” last season. Given some additional maturity and ability to cope with adverse situations on the mound (something that troubled him at times in 2013, including a bizarre ejection in Atlanta), there is no reason to believe he won’t surge forth and become a real force.

It’s all there. The Nats certainly hope this is the year he puts it all together, pushing over the 200 inning threshold and put up the kind of numbers his talent makes possible. Dreaming on Strasburg is easy. Maybe 2014 is the year he makes it a reality.