Strasburg’s Return: Nats should be Optimistic, but Cautious

Stephen Strasburg made a dominant return to the MLB on Sunday, no-hitting the Reds through 6.2 innings of work. Washington Nationals fans were happy enough to see Strasburg, who was placed on the disabled list on June 26, back in action. It’s even more encouraging to see that he hasn’t missed a beat on the mound, despite missing a handful of starts (his previous one took place on June 15). Strasburg remains the last qualified undefeated starter in the MLB, now at 11-0.

Strasburg currently leads the Nationals rotation in wins, with 11, and ERA, which sits at 2.71. He also has a Strikeouts-Per-Nine ratio of 11.11, which ranks third in the MLB among starters and second on the team (Max Scherzer has a ratio of 11.56). With numbers like that, it’s understandable that the Nats and their fans would be thrilled to see. Statistically, one of their best pitchers returns to the rotation in such a dominant fashion.

There are some reasons for the Nationals to remain wary in their considerations of how to deal with Strasburg after his latest injury, however. First off, this was just one start against, frankly, a sub-par Reds offense that had, aside from Saturday, looked severely outmatched throughout the series. The Nationals offense, which has begun to look very scary with Danny Espinosa continuing to find his power stroke (and also, even more, hair for his beard. . . somehow), outscored Cincinnati by a two-to-one margin throughout the series.

This brings me to another stat that helps shed some more light on Stephen Strasburg’s franchise-best 11-0 start this year, the Nationals’ offense gives him more run support than any other starter in the Majors. Every site seems to have their own algorithm for calculating run support, but ESPN.com lists that the Nationals average 7.07 runs per nine innings in a Strasburg start. The next highest is the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, at 6.71 RS/9. To put that in retrospect, the last NL starter to begin 11-0, Andy Hawkins in 1985 with the Padres, received an average of 4.58 runs per start (granted they list Strasburg’s run support at 6.96, but the point remains).  Now, I’m not faulting Strasburg for getting help from his offense, but they certainly have helped Strasburg get off to his fast start.

Another thing worth mentioning about that start: despite not allowing a hit in his 6.2 innings pitched, Strasburg did walk a season-high four batters. As I said earlier, it is just one start, and it’s difficult to gauge if Strasburg’s occasional control struggles were linked to his prior ailment or just rust from no live action in a half month, but we’ll see how Strasburg’s walk count does down the road.

Finally, this guy is a massive investment to this team, not only for this season but several years down the road now. Strasburg received a pretty nice contract earlier this season, securing $175 million over seven years. He’s shown that he has been injury prone in the past, so the team needs to monitor Strasburg carefully and regularly check on how his back, or any other aches and pains down the road, are faring.

Manager Dusty Baker is notorious for giving pitchers long leashes on the mound, and while the pitchers themselves love that, it can lead to injury if he lets things go too far. I’m not critiquing Dusty Baker or his managerial style, nor am I saying that he’s the reason Strasburg got hurt or will get hurt down the road, only that even a long leash should eventually be reeled in. Strasburg’s start last night was right on pace with how he’s been doing in 2016, he went 6.2 innings, which matches his season average. So long as the staff remains vigilant about not overworking Strasburg, Washington should continue to see Strasburg recover and pitch well as 2016 progresses.

Unfortunately for Washington, they see Strasburg return from the DL only to see Joe Ross head to it. Ross was placed on the DL Sunday with right shoulder inflammation. Lucas Giolito saw action in Strasburg’s place during his time on the DL, and will now take Ross’ spot. Giolito went four innings of one-hit ball against the Mets in his rain-shortened debut on Tuesday against the Mets.

Stephen Strasburg went 6.2 hitless innings against the Reds in his return from the DL on Sunday. Photo courtesy of pennlive.com

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