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Strasburg ends up-and-down year with a win

Sep 28, 2013, 2:44 AM EDT

Associated Press Associated Press

PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg stepped off the mound upon recording the final out of the seventh inning Friday night and made the long walk back to the dugout, where handshakes and high-fives awaited.

He could, in that moment, take a deep breath and know that his season was over. Even if it ended a bit sooner than he or the Nationals expected when it began.

“I think we all hoped to be playing still, past the regular season,” said Strasburg, who emerged with one last win in the Nationals’ 8-4 victory over the Diamondbacks. “And for one reason or another, it just didn’t happen.”

The Nationals will break for the winter on Sunday, still trying to figure out why they failed to reach the postseason. And Strasburg will head home to San Diego still trying to figure out why his 2013, while impressive in so many ways, still left him unfulfilled.

“I mean, I put more pressure on myself than anybody,” he said. “I think I have to step back a few times and not be so hard on myself. Because I honestly do expect to throw a no-hitter out there every time. It still hasn’t happened, but I expect it to.”

It didn’t happen this year, but Strasburg’s final numbers were more than adequate. He made 30 starts, totaled 183 innings, posted a 3.00 ERA that ranked ninth in the NL and a 1.05 WHIP that ranked sixth, struck out 191 batters and tossed the first shutout of his career.

So why the sense of unfulfillment? It mostly has to do with Strasburg’s pedestrian 8-9 record, a product partly attributable to his league-worst run support.

“We didn’t score him any runs,” manager Davey Johnson said. “We, a bunch of times, didn’t score any runs, or one or two runs, when he was starting. His numbers indicate he should have won 15 ballgames.”

For historical context, Strasburg’s numbers this season were highly unusual. He’s only the fourth pitcher since World War II to make at least 30 starts, post an ERA of 3.00 or better and fail to earn even nine wins. Perhaps he can take some comfort knowing two of the other three names on that list are Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan (8-16, 2.76 in 1987) and soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw (8-8, 2.79 in 2009).

Certainly the lack of run support played a role, but Strasburg himself admits he could have done a better job battling through negative developments.

“I think there’s a lot of things I can improve on,” he said. “But I think the one thing I did a good job improving on from the beginning of the season was that the things that happened that were unexpected, I tried not to let that affect me as much and carry over to the next pitch. Obviously there were a lot of crazy things that happened this year for me and for this team. I think that’s one thing we learned as a group: It all doesn’t matter. It’s all about how you respond to it.”

Fellow Nationals concur: Strasburg made strides this season, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“I think he’s got a really high ceiling,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, whose 448-foot, 3-run homer on Friday helped pace the Nationals’ offensive attack. “I think everybody knows that. Just the time I’ve spent with him, playing with him, he’s got a long way to go to reach what he’s capable of doing. But what he did this year was great. He pitched good. I think there’s a lot more in the tank.”

Among the most important steps Strasburg took this year: He pitched a full season, missing only a couple of starts due to minor injuries. His surgically repaired elbow held up through more starts and innings than he had ever thrown. And he moved beyond last year’s controversial early-September shutdown.

“I think physically I held up pretty well,” he said. “I think the one thing I learned is that sometimes less can be more. I work really hard, but I get to the point in September where I’ve got to back things off some or else I’m going to be cooked.”

Despite the steps he took, Strasburg didn’t wind up leading the Nationals in wins (Jordan Zimmermann had 19), innings (Zimmermann had 213 1/3) or strikeouts (Gio Gonzalez has 192, with perhaps one more start on Sunday). He remains one of the most physically gifted pitchers in baseball, but he may not be considered the ace of his own team at this point.

It’s up to Strasburg now to take that next step in his development.

“He’s getting to be the complete pitcher,” Johnson said. “He’s awfully good as it is. But there’s a little room in there for improvement.”

  1. David Proctor - Sep 28, 2013 at 5:23 AM

    I’ve been reading this book and there was a funny bit in it about a mound exchange between Davey and Jim Palmer when they were teammates.

    “In a game against the Yankees in 1970, Johnson called time out and approached the mound where Baltimore ace Jim Palmer was struggling. “Jim,” he said, “have you ever heard of the unfavorable chance deviation?”

    Palmer just stared.

    “Well, Jim, you’re in an unfavorable chance deviation, and what I recommend is that you aim the ball right down the middle of the plate instead of trying to hit the corner, because then you will hit the corner and it’s as simple as that.”

    “Davey,” said Palmer, “shut the f**k up.”

  2. natsfan1a - Sep 28, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    Cool, a happy game results morning email.

  3. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    Good win. Gonna have to watch some key moments later. I think Braves would have started a brawl after Ramos’ HR. He does need to stop doing that.

    by the way, Michael Young is a free agent. He could be a good utility backup player if he is willing to sign for that role.

  4. pacing resident - Sep 28, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    And who was the fourth? Stras, Kershaw, Ryan, and who? Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 8:24 AM

    From last few games, biggest development has to be Zimm’s fielding, right?

    OTOH, Werth’s deal is turning out OK. He had a horrible first year by his standards (100 wRC+). Injuries interfered last season where he improved some (128 wRC+). Injuries interfered again but not as much and he produced his best season (161 wRC+). In less than 550 PAs, he almost has put up 5 WAR. With his skill set, there should not a sharp decline in his production unless injuries strike again. I would like to see couple more seasons with 600+ PA which he has done in the past (3 seasons in a row actually, two with Philly and one with Nats).

    • Jw - Sep 28, 2013 at 10:39 AM

      wRC+ is a nice stab at a strong password for your account, but it needs to be between 8 and 12 characters. And you shouldn’t be broadcasting it on the Internet.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:11 AM

        only four other characters for you to figure out. keep trying! :P

  6. Baseballswami - Sep 28, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    Nice to wake up to happy news. Could not stay awake. 2 more games:(. And then I will be watching and rooting for any team in the NL that is not the new evil empire.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 8:44 AM

      I am gonna root for Pirates, Reds, A’s, and Rays. A’s hopefully finally prove their moneyball stuff works in postseason.

  7. Baseballswami - Sep 28, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    Everyone was all abuzz about the Zim play to start the game. But did you even notice the back end? Did you notice the next out? Tyler Moore. Not only not hurting us on defense, but playing it well. This situation must be resolved. It is way past time for us to have a light hitting, aging , former gold glover at first. He makes a super play once a week that perhaps Moore does not get to at this stage of his career. One base. There are at least four at bats each game. Adam is a great guy who had one good season out of the last , what, four? Moore– play him or use him as a chip. He is not a bench player. And he absolutely can play defense at first.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 9:50 AM

      Swami, how was the second out any good defensively? Didn’t he almost botch the play?

  8. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    I wonder what would Strasburg’s numbers will look like after he takes this next step everyone talks about. Right now his numbers are: 4th in K/9, 4th in BAA, 6th in WHIP, 3rd in K% (top two are Harvey and Jose and SS’s last two year rates were 30.2% and 27.3%, we all know he changed his pitching style some), and fifth in overall contact%.

  9. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    Not sure if it was noted here but Eric Wedge has decided to leave Ms after this season. Could be a candidate for us next season. Girardi’s deal with Yanks is coming to an end. He can be a very good candidate but I doubt he would consider given that he lives in NY with his family. Werth will probably try to recruit Manuel. I am not to confident with handing over reins to Knorr, a first-timer.

  10. nats128 - Sep 28, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Key stat: Since his recall from Class AAA Syracuse in mid-August, Tyler Moore is hitting .364 (20-for-55).

  11. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 28, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    Wedge hasn’t won squat, so as far as I am concerned he’s as much a blank slate as Knorr. They didn’t extend him at Seattle for a reason — not sure what it was but there were reasons. Girardi has a reputation based on molly-coddling divas so they contend. I’m not sure what other skills he has. This year showed he’s no miracle worker. Manuel is older’n salt. This team’s core will be around for at least three more years and the next manager should have a life expectancy at least that long.

    The overwhelming choice — should he continue to be available — is Gardenhire; finished 1st six times. I would sign him on Tuesday morning if possible.

    Then Knorr. He’s been with these players through virtually every level of the minors, knows ‘em all, won’t make mistakes in how they’re used.

    • Jw - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:03 AM

      Girardi was NL Manager of the Year in 2006 with the Marlins. So his résumé precedes his work with the Yankees.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:13 AM

      I understand being tough on Wedge and Manuel but Girardi had a crap team to manag with injuries and aged veterans.

      • nats128 - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:47 AM

        I agree with Faraz. Tremendous what he did with his position players. Sabathia was a huge disappointment and was the main reason they didnt make the playoffs.

  12. sjm308 - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    While I think Girardi is a reach, he really has no reason to return to NY. He is a Northwestern University guy, played for the Cubs and might want to return. If he is available I would like to at least kick the tires on that deal. I am also perfectly fine with Gardenhire. Knorr would be my 3rd choice although Manuel would give us the same entertainment as Davey in press conferences.

    I also agree on Tyler Moore. I think he will only improve at first base and he should, at least, be a strong consideration to start against lefties next year and if LaRoche tanks for a 2nd year in a row, move Moore in as the starter. I do think that LaRoche will probably play better next year as it is his walk year in the contract but I doubt if we see the numbers we saw last year.

    • Jw - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:14 AM

      The main reason Rizzo and the Lerners pushed Davey into retirement is that they want a younger guy who can turn into this franchise’s Bobby Cox or Tony LaRussa. Manuel is as old as Davey. They’re not even kicking the tires on him.

    • Candide - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:49 AM

      I do think that LaRoche will probably play better next year as it is his walk year in the contract …

      Y’know, I hear that over and over again, and I wonder about it.

      The implication is that players try harder in their walk year, or that they don’t give 100% until their walk year. Sounds pretty unprofessional to me, and I wonder if there’s any research to bear it out, showing a pronounced tendency for players to suddenly have significantly better seasons when they’re coming up on free agency. Anyone know?

      • Eugene in Oregon - Sep 28, 2013 at 12:09 PM

        Candide – There is some research in support of the ‘walk year’ bounce. I’m traveling and don’t have access to my hardcopy baseball library – and I don’t have time to do the internet research — but it’s in one of the Baseball Prospectus books (it might even be a Nate Silver piece). And, I believe, others have also documented the tendency.

      • Candide - Sep 28, 2013 at 1:41 PM

        Eugene – thanks. I googled “walk year bounce” and got nothing significant. Then tried “walk year effect,” and got a few useful hits. Appear to be a couple of studies that bear it out, somewhat. But it’s far from a mortal lock, and it seems to me that teams that pay tons of money to players who just completed that one big year are more likely to be paying for that last year than for next year.

        I assume by now, the smart GMs have figured that out. Wonder if that’s the reason that interest in ALR was so tepid last winter.

  13. NatsLady - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    Didn’t Wedge have a mini-stroke earlier in the season? I wonder if his health would permit managing at the ML level again. He might just want to “take it easy” as a consultant or something.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:25 AM

      forgot about that. that’s a very likely possibility I guess.

  14. Baseballswami - Sep 28, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Faraz- no Tyler did not almost botch that ball. It was a hot shot that he had to get to and get his body behind, corral, not panic, get it to the bag. Not exactly routine was my point. The plays Adam makes that Tyler wouldn’t are occasional– hitting is constant. Was Adam always good defensively? Or does it take time and experience to reach that level? How will you let that happen if you stick your talent on the bench to rot?

  15. Eugene in Oregon - Sep 28, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    Traveling yesterday and couldn’t watch live; just watched the condensed version of the game. Nice to see the win. Like several others, I noted Ryan Zimmerman’s defense and hope that’s it a harbinger of next season’s norm. And don’t you know that if the Nats had lost by a run or two the base-running blunders (two outs in one inning) would have been much more of a focus here. Also, when you watch the condensed version of the game you get a much better feel of how — even when he wins — Stephen Strasburg seems to give up hits in bunches. His final numbers look impressive, but in watching the game quickly it sure seemed like he had two difficult, near-blow-up innings (mercifully giving up only the two runs total). Whether that’s focus or form I’ll let the pitching coach decide.

  16. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 28, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    What I said about Girardi —

    His “Manager of the Year” year he finished fourth, and got fired.

    With the Yankees, he coaxed a bunch of highly-paid (if juiced) stars out onto the field every day, where they did — more often than not — what people with their salaries would be expected to do. (Three firsts out of six. Gardenhire won six over eight years with many fewer dollars to work with.) This season Girardi proved that he couldn’t pull bunnies out of top hats, which is true of most managers (maybe not Gene Mauch). So what does that prove?

    To hire Girardi, someone gives him five years in the vicinity of $6MM/year and then you discover that he can’t push the team over the finish line? I agree w/ whoever said the Nats need their own Bobby Cox or LaRussa (though LaRussa was arrogantly galling). Girardi looks like dross, to me.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 28, 2013 at 4:26 PM

      you do realize that Joe was fired, not because he was not good enough manager?

  17. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 28, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    I should have said, “gallingly arrogant.”

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