Stephen Strasburg Piles On The Value

Denver, CO, USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg hits an RBI double against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Stephen Strasburg has been an amazing pitcher this year. Stephen Strasburg has been an amazing hitter this year. Okay!

Monday night, in Colorado, Stephen Strasburg batted against Jeff Francis in the fifth inning and ripped an RBI double to center field. That was unusual, because Strasburg is a pitcher, and not one of them pitchers with a batting reputation like Carlos Zambrano or Yovani Gallardo. Pitchers have batted 2,685 times so far this season. They've totaled 52 extra-base hits. Joey Votto has 44 extra-base hits.

Tuesday morning, on the Internet, I came across something more unusual, or, if you prefer, astonishing. In a writeup about Justin Smoak at USS Mariner, Dave Cameron observed:

Instead, he has just three doubles all season, the lowest total of any regular in Major League Baseball. Stephen Strasburg has more doubles than Justin Smoak this year. Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher.

The point Cameron was making is not that Strasburg has been outstanding -- it's that Justin Smoak has been not outstanding. But Strasburg has been outstanding. This is a thing to be aware of.

I present to you Major League Baseball's top six batters by OPS, right now:

  1. Matt Kemp, 1.163
  2. Justin Ruggiano, 1.145
  3. Joey Votto, 1.126
  4. Carlos Quentin, 1.114
  5. Josh Hamilton, 1.031
  6. Stephen Strasburg, 1.027

What I should've told you earlier is that I set a plate-appearance minimum of just 20. Of course there's a catch. But going just off the rate numbers, hey, there's Strasburg, right in between Josh Hamilton and David Wright. That isn't where pitchers belong. That isn't even where most superstars belong! The next-highest pitcher OPS is .848, incidentally, by Strasburg's teammate Jordan Zimmermann. There's Strasburg, then three guys in the .800s, then zero guys in the .700s, then one guy in the .600s, then three guys in the .500s, and you're getting the point. Strasburg's OPS is more than double Carlos Zambrano's OPS.

Ordinarily, a question people ask about a freak performance is "is it sustainable?" No, stupid, Stephen Strasburg's offensive performance isn't sustainable, in that he isn't going to keep producing on the same level as various MVP candidates. Before this season, he was 1-for-26 at the plate with ten strikeouts. But now he's 8-for-23 with four doubles and a home run, and the quality of contact hasn't been cheap. I have taken the liberty of .giffing all five of Strasburg's extra-base hits:

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Those are presented in chronological order. Look at Strasburg hit to all fields like he's a plate-covering threat. His home run, at home against the Orioles on May 20, had a standard distance of 400 feet. That's longer than the league-average home run, and it came off an underrated and practically unknown starting pitcher in Wei-Yin Chen. Chen has a 3.38 ERA through 14 starts for the Orioles. Do you know a single thing about him, other than what I just told you? We should talk about Wei-Yin Chen sometime soon.

Back to Strasburg. No, he won't keep hitting like this, but what if he can hit a little bit? What if he's an average or better-than-average offensive pitcher? Most of the time, pitcher offense is just about completely ignored. If it's there, great, and if it isn't, whatever, all anybody cares is whether the pitcher can get a bunt down. First and foremost, pitchers gotta pitch. But those at-bats matter, even if they generally don't come in high-leverage situations. There are opportunities for a pitcher to make himself more valuable, and there are opportunities for a pitcher to make himself less valuable.

Matt Garza's a very good pitcher. At the plate, he's basically a big sack of peanuts with a baseball bat tied to it in the swinging position. According to Baseball-Reference, he's been worth five runs less than replacement since joining the Cubs. Tommy Hanson's a very good pitcher. At the plate, he's been even worse than Garza, and B-R pegs him at 15 runs less than replacement since debuting. These are meaningful numbers. They make some difference when it comes to wins and losses.

According to both B-R and FanGraphs, Strasburg has already been worth six more runs than replacement with the bat this season. That's a replacement-level pitcher, not a replacement-level position player. That value goes on top of his value as an arm, and of course Strasburg has a better and more effective arm than almost anybody else. Pitcher offense is by no means a critical thing, but it's a real thing that can help or hurt, and Strasburg has helped.

Now we get to see where he goes from here, and how deeply he regresses. If Strasburg reverts to what he was earlier in his career, then we can ignore his offense and just breathe in the fastballs. His offense won't be anything worth talking about. If Strasburg's decent for a pitcher at the plate, though, or even better than that, then congratulations Stephen Strasburg, you'll be even more valuable than people give you credit for. There's been a lot of debate about how the Nationals will miss Strasburg's arm down the stretch if they stick to their plan to shut him down. Maybe his arm wouldn't be the only thing they'd miss.

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