The Decade of Stephen Strasburg

The baseball season is over. The baseball decade is over. While it sure felt like Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner or Max Scherzer ruled the ’10s, it was the first overall pick a decade ago who had the truly captivating story that stretched from the beginning to the end of the 2010’s.

The Nationals earned the top pick in the 2009 draft by virtue of losing 102 games in 2008. They would lose 103 in 2009 and use that to nab Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in 2010. This is the last you’ll see his name.

Strasburg was one of the most hyped draft picks in a long time. When his Major League career started in 2011, he was a phenomenon on the diamond and in the turnstiles. On days he started, the Nats would draw around 11,000 more fans than on days he didn’t. Then it all went wrong.

Tommy John Surgery put him out from August 2010 to September 2011. It wouldn’t be the only injury of his career. Because of something that happened in late 2012, there was a feeling that Strasburg might just be the center of a curse.

In the 2012 NLDS against the Cardinals, the Nationals were on the cusp of winning the series. Their decision to shut down Strasburg at the end of the regular season would damn their hopes and propel the Cardinals to a title.

In game five of that series, Washington held a 7-5 lead going into the ninth inning.

They blew the lead.

And for the Nationals, it was the beginning of a journey through the desert that would stretch the remainder of the decade.

For Stephen Strasburg, it was fleeting moments of brilliance and dominance and frustrating injuries. His control became an issue. Here’s an extreme example.

Then 2014 and all of the Strasburg glory came to fruition. He led the league in games started and strikeouts, finishing 9th in the NL Cy Young Award voting. It was smooth sailing for the Nats as they cruised to the top spot in the National League. Well, then the Giants and Even Year Bullshit happened.

2014 would be the last time Strasburg would pitch 200+ innings until this year. In 2015, the Nats limited his innings to 127. Despite this, he still managed to win 11 games and an astounding 5.96 strikeouts to walks rate.

Max Scherzer had supplanted Stephen as the team’s ace, and despite his brilliance on the mound, Strasburg kind of faded into the background nationally.

In 2016, Strasburg became the first pitcher in 104 years to start a season 12-0. He kept winning, until his streak was snapped at 16. Injuries would again hamper a potential Cy Young season, as his innings were limited to just 147. His strikeout rate was the best of his career, with 11.2 per nine innings.

2016 was another playoff season filled with promise and ope sorry you gotta play the Dodgers and their pitching staff that boasted a god-mode Rich Hill, and the capability of utilizing both Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen. Without Strasburg, who was dealing with constant elbow discomfort since returning from the IL on September 7th, the Nationals had no hope at all. It wasn’t just his absence that plagued them, but it surely didn’t help. The puzzle was coming together.

Again, Stephen Strasburg appeared to be a standout generational ace that no one wanted to admit he was. In 2017, he was an All-Star for the third time. In August and September, he set a franchise record with 34 consecutive innings without allowing a run.

The last time the Nationals lost a playoff series, I was driving the road to Hana with my wife on our honeymoon. I had blessed my Cubs hat in Hana Bay around the time the game was into its perilous second act. I won’t say the Cubs came back because of that, but it doesn’t hurt my ego to think it did either.

Last year, Stasburg spent two long stints on the Injured List. It limited his innings to the lowest since returning from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals missed the playoffs, and there were rumblings that his full potential as a flagship ace of a staff may not be seen to fruition. It had been his calling card, despite year after year of strong pitching through injuries and ridicule and living in the shadows of others.

In 2019, Stephen Strasburg led the league in innings pitched, held a staggering 1.038 WHIP and averaged 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He led the Washington Nationals in Wins Above Replacement with 6.5. But a new contender had emerged in the form of the upstart Atlanta Braves. The Nats would have to settle for the wild card.

Max Scherzer would start, but give up three runs. In the 6th, Strasburg came on in relief and kept the Brewers scoreless over three innings. The Nats won the game after mounting a 4 run rally. Technically, they had finally won a playoff series. From then on, Stephen Strasburg was the man for Washington.

He pitched 36.1 innings in the postseason. He gave up 9 runs, 8 of which against two of the greatest offenses in the history of the league. The Nats survived the Dodgers, swept the Cardinals, and then faced a team in Houston who could make a claim to be the greatest of all time if they could only finish it off.

Stephen Strasburg didn’t pitch the first game or the last game, but the two he started were vital to the championship.

Washington Nationals Pitching Table
Playoff Series Stats Regular Season Stats
Name G GS ERA W L SV CG IP H R ER BB SO WHIP WPA G GS ERA W L SV IP H BB SO WHIP
Stephen Strasburg222.51200014.112443141.0470.5033333.321860209.0161562511.038
Totals2874.29431063.068303027511.5080.721621624.27193691439.1134051715111.290
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/31/2019.

The chart above shows his numbers compared to the totals for the team. When the MVP decision came last night, to me at least there was no other choice.

Sure, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw were more dominant in the regular seasons. Madison Bumgarner was the scariest pitcher alive in October. But the real, great story of the decade, was that of Stephen Strasburg, who began as a generational prospect, pushed through adversity and kept to his craft. After 2012, the baseball world wondered if the Nationals were cursed for shutting him down. In the end, it was the man himself who broke his own curse.

Baseball is good.

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