Stephen Strasburg draws Opening Day start for Nationals

Rob Carr

Look, a new entry in our ongoing saga!

Not that there was any uncertainty about it, but Davey Johnson made it official nonetheless this morning: Stephen Strasburg will start Opening Day for the Nationals.

"I guess you want me to say it," the 70-year-old manager said. "He's going to be my Opening Day starter. You drug it out of me."

Johnson's selection of Strasburg is hardly a surprise. The right-hander got the Opening Day nod last season in Chicago, then went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts before his much-debated shutdown in early September after 159 1/3 innings.

Source: CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman

As Zuckerman notes, it's not like Strasburg didn't have any competition. Just last year, one of Strasburg's rotation-mates finished third in the Cy Young balloting. Not that it really makes any difference who starts the first game. But Gio Gonzalez did pitch brilliantly last season, with more wins and innings and a lower ERA than Strasburg. Is there a case to be made for González as the Nationals' No. 1 starter?

Let's start with González, because he's the easy one. Easy, because in each of the last three seasons he's thrown almost exactly 200 innings, and his fundamental skills seem to be exceptionally stable. His last two seasons with the A's, his numbers were exceptionally stable. Last season with the Nationals, his strikeout rate went up, while his walk rate and his home-run rate went down. But some of that's the league switch, some's the home-ballpark switch, and some's just good luck on fly balls, as Gonzalez's ground-ball rate didn't change at all last season.

Of course he might take a step forward this season, but I see nothing in the data to suggest that. This year he figures to strike out roughly two-and-a-half times more batters than he walks, and give up around 15 home runs (compared to just nine last season).

And Strasburg? He figures to give up around 15 home runs this season, and walk roughly as many batters as Gonzalez. But where Gonzalez figures to strikeout around nine batters per nine innings, Strasburg figures to strike out eleven batters per nine innings. As these things go, that's a big difference, probably more than half a run, ERA-wise.

So no, we can't really make a good case for González, who was (let's be honest) a little lucky last season. He's a good pitcher, but he's quite likely not one of the five best pitchers in the National League. Of course, he's done something that Strasburg hasn't; he's thrown 200 innings three times (give or take an inning), while Strasburg hasn't thrown 160 innings in a season yet.

Because Strasburg's not yet demonstrated that he can stay healthy enough to throw 200 innings, it's fair to retain a tinge of skepticism about him; there's a measurable and considerable chance that Gio González will, by the end of September, have been the more valuable pitcher in 2013.

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