What Will We Witness from Washington’s Wunderkind?
By R.J. Anderson //
With all due respect to Brad Lincoln and Michael Stanton, the big debut of the week comes tonight in the form of Stephen Strasburg. His availability in most leagues is non-existent thanks to the hype and attention paid to his college and minor league performances alike over the last 12 plus months, yet it’s suffice to say most people who own 21-year-old have no idea what to expect from him except some variation of “good”. Let’s take a closer look through a pair of historical lenses at just what could be in store for Washington’s new ace.
21-year-old starting pitchers
Since 1947 – the beginning of the expansion era – 97 21-year-old pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings while starting 80% of their appearances. Of them, Vida Blue is the only one to finish with an ERA below 2.00. 18 more finished with an ERA below 3.00; 47 finished with an ERA between 3.01 and 4.00; and five more finished with an ERA over 5.00. The average ERA is 3.62, which is pretty good, all things considered, but when we modernize the sample and make 1990 the furthest year back, that average ERA raises to a touch below 4.00 (with the best case scenario being Clayton Kershaw’s 2.79 ERA and the worst being Zack Grienke’s 5.8 ERA).
Top college arms
Strasburg was qualified enough as a collegiate pitcher to go first overall, so it makes sense to compare him to his peers who were also good enough to go within the top five picks. Going back to 1985 and selecting only pitchers who were chosen in the top five out of the NCAA, we can create the following list to examine (Note: the statistics and age are from their first 100+ inning season):
Stripping away the guys who simply never made it or were relievers for most of their early career gives us a group of 20 arms. 15 of which either posted ERA above 5 or below 4; or in other words: these guys are usually either above or below average. The average ERA is above 4 with the high water mark being just shy of 5.6 and the low being in the 2.3’s. If we slice the pool smaller, and focus on the really hyped top arms similar to Strasburg – like Prior, McDonald, Benes, Price, and Benson – then the average ERA hovers around 3.5.
Using all of that information, we still have an incomplete picture from which to draw conclusions. One could argue that Strasburg is just another class of pitcher. One with more velocity, better control, a more polished feel for the game, and an enhanced sense of observation; you know, a lot of things that aren’t entirely quantifiable but sound good and intensifies the myth of Strasburg. Betting that Strasburg will be average or better is one thing; however do not fall into the trap of expecting a legendary performance from him. History simply isn’t on his side.