Dodgers might need to shift pitching focus to Stephen Strasburg, and that’s OK

Everyone knows the name Stephen Strasburg. Most baseball fans knew it before his incredible postseason run that culminated in a World Series MVP award. And, to be honest, I’m (pleasantly) surprised the Dodgers have interest in the right-handed hurler.

Strasburg, 31, opted out of the remaining four years and $100 million of the 7-year, $175 million extension he signed in May 2016. It was an obvious move, and he probably increased his total dollars with his performance in the playoffs. He’s going to get at least five years and at least $30 million annually (especially after seeing Zack Wheeler sign for five years and $118 million on Wednesday) — and he might be a fine alternative for the Dodgers (or any team) that misses out on Gerrit Cole.

Strasburg is coming off a season in which he posted a 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 23.2 K-BB% and a 5.7 WAR. For comparison’s sake, Walker Buehler had a 3.26 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 24.2 K-BB% and a 5.0 WAR. Basically, Strasburg is an older version of Buehler, statistically. How they pitcher, though, is different.

Coming out of San Diego State University as the clear No. 1 draft pick in 2009, Strasburg was a flamethrower. In his MLB debut season in 2010, he averaged 97.3 MPH on his fastball. In September of that year, after 68 MLB innings, it was determined he needed Tommy John surgery. He missed most of the 2011 season (threw just 24 innings) before coming back fully healthy in 2012. From that time on, he has been a different pitcher. The velocity on his fastball has steadily decreased from 2011 through 2014 before jumping back up in 2015 (95.4 MPH) before it gradually decreased again.

Normally, decreasing fastball velocity is concerning, but not when it’s done purposely. Strasburg can still reach back for velo (he topped out at 96.9 MPH in ’19), but he doesn’t need to. He has become a more complete pitcher and has developed two plus-or-better offspeed pitches in his curveball and changeup. He has also embraced the 2-seam fastball that has been so dogged by analytics in recent years.

His curveball, according to FanGraphs, was 23.2 runs above average — second to only Charlie Morton (24.2) in all of baseball. His changeup, at 10.2, ranked 7th in the league among starters. His fastball (8.8) was 20th-best among starters, with Clayton Kershaw (9.1) and Wheeler (8.0) flanking him on the list. Speaking of his curveball, it has been really effective, but it isn’t a big spinner like that of Garrett Richards (3,431 RPM), Ryan Pressly (3,305 RPM) or Seth Lugo (3,285), but his 2,773 RPM is above the 2019 MLB average of 2,531 RPM. It was 16th in baseball with a .209 xwOBA and batters hit just .161 off it last season. Strasburg’s changeup was even better. It had a .140 batting average against (10th-best in MLB) and an expected xwOBA of .193 — 5th-best in MLB. It makes up for his fastball being less than elite in those categories.

As for his durability … that’s obviously going to be a thing. He has topped 180 innings just twice in his career and since returning from TJ in 2012, he has averaged 168 innings per season. With the way pitchers’ workloads have changed recently, that’s not too bad. But here’s a fun bit of trivia: He led the National League in innings pitched in 2019 with 209. He added another 36 1/3 innings in the postseason in his healthiest season to date.

What the Dodgers have lacked in the postseason recently is another go-to pitcher to pair with their ace. Kershaw has and hasn’t been that guy (for a myriad of reasons that I won’t go into now). Buehler is that guy now, but he has no true wingman. Yes, Hyun-Jin Ryu has been solid in October and Rich Hill has had his moments, but outside of Zack Greinke and a non-2017 World Series Yu Darvish, it’s been up to Kershaw (when he wasn’t overexposed so much) and Buehler. Adding Strasburg would not only give Buehler a 1b to his 1a, but it was lessen the burden on a soon-to-be 32-year-old Kershaw who isn’t the same guy he was even 2-3 years ago. The financial commitment would be significant, but it’s something the literally Los Angeles Dodgers can afford. Plus, they’ll have more money falling off the books after this season (Justin Turner, $16 million; Joc Pederson, $8.5 million) and 2021 (Kershaw, $31 million, Kenley Jansen, $20 million) so, if they’re ever going to invest in a big free agent for longer than 2-3 years, this is the time, and Strasburg might be the guy.

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My desire for the Dodgers to sign Cole is no secret. However, it seems the Yankees and Angels are prepared to go into an all-out bidding war for the best pitcher in baseball.

This is something that has always been a possibility, and it seems like the Yankees are saying “damn the luxury tax,” which is something I wish a certain Los Angeles-based team would also say to acquire the best of the best.

And who knows? Maybe they still will. If they don’t get Cole — and the odds have always been extremely against it happening — the Dodgers have not been in a better position in recent memory to land a premiere free agent like a Strasburg (or Anthony Rendon). They probably won’t end up with both (even if they should). The pitchers available on the trade market aren’t anywhere near the caliber of Strasburg and would seem more like a lateral move. If Corey Kluber actually isn’t broken, he’d be a nice target, but that’s about it. It’d be a different kind of risk than the Dodgers just giving tons of money to one of the game’s best pitchers. They might target other players on the trade market (Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor), but if all signing Strasburg would take is a big financial investment (#notmymoney), the loss of a 2nd-round draft pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money, then sign me the hell up.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.