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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fantasy Value and Pitfalls of Stephen Strasburg

Jason Heyward may be the next uber-prospect to break into the batter’s box, but when it comes to the crème de la crème of hyped prospects is definitely Stephen Strasburg.

Young pitchers are much harder to project than young hitters. Basically the way it works is that when an especially young hitter proves that he can hit, he will not lose that talent barring significant injury. Think Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds and maybe even Justin Upton.

Hyped young pitchers are different. For every Rogers Clemens, there is a Ben Macdonald. For every Felix Hernandez there is an equivalent Rick Ankiel.

Every player named thus far has had the same things in common – they were known as elite, once in a generation prospects and broke into the majors by their early 20s. Strasburg turns 22 on July 20th and figures to have been in the majors for at least a month by then. The plan for the rookie pitcher for now is to send him to Double A Harrisburg to let him get acclimatized to professional baseball for a little while before bringing him up to The Show to turn him loose.

A couple of questions arise: how soon is too soon to bring up Strasburg? How well will his stuff play in the majors coming more or less straight out of college? Can the young man handle the pressure?

For our purposes, the pertinent question becomes: what kind of fantasy impact can we expect from Straburg this season?

History gives us some clues.

Here are three pitchers who were high draft picks with elite expectations with time spent in the minors and performance in the first year they were called up.

Player A – Minors time: 15 games, 74.2 innings
First season: 21 games (15 starts), 118.2 innings, 8 wins, 5 losses, 2.43 ERA, 159 ERA +, 1.037 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.86 K/BB

Player B – Minors time: 55 games, 278.1 innings
First season: 26 games started, 166.2 innings, 13 wins, 6 losses, 3.40 ERA, 129 ERA +, 1.212 WHIP, 12.6 K/9, 2.74 K/BB

Player C – Minors time: 9 games, 51 innings
First season: 19 games started, 116.2 innings, 6 wins, 6 losses, 3.32 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.166 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 3.387 K/BB

Player A and Player C were considered the best pitching prospects in memory in their respective drafts. Neither pitched badly in their first seasons and, especially in the case of Player C, showed great promise with his periphery numbers. Both players spent very little times in the minors and were with their big league teams in their first full year as professionals.

Player B was a little bit different as he spent parts of a few seasons in the minors before coming up in 1998 and blowing the doors off the league. He would team with Player C to make a very formidable rotation punch in the very memorable 2003 National League Championship series.

Got it yet?

Player A is Ben Macdonald, the first pick overall in the 1989 draft. Player B is Kerry Wood (4th overall, 1995) which would, of course, make Mark Prior (2nd overall – 2001).

Let us start with Macdonald. He was considered to be one of the best arms in a generation when he was drafted and he ended up having serviceable, though no where near sterling, numbers as a pro. His lifetime line of 78 wins, 70 losses, 3.91 ERA, 115 ERA + and 6.02 K/9 makes him slightly above average and he never really registered the “break out” superstar season that should be expected from a No. 1 overall.

Maybe Macdonald was overvalued in the first place but fantasy leaguers had a fair argument for picking him up in his first few seasons on hype and potential alone, if only to be marginally disappointed later.

Wood and Prior are different stories and, for our purposes, much closer to Strasburg than Macdonald. Wood may have benefited over Prior in the long term for his slower ascent through the minors (Wood is still pitching in the big leagues whereas Prior’s flame has pretty much been extinguished). In Wood’s first season he put up an astonishing number of strikeouts (233) and led the league in hits against (6.3/9) which, if he walked less batters, who have led to one of the most dominant seasons in history.

Wood was a must-have when he came up and probably only the most ardent of stat heads and minor league followers (or Cubs fans) had him on their fantasy roster for his 20 strikeout performance on May 6, 2008.

Prior was similar in that regard. He did not have quite the gaudy overall numbers that Wood did but his 11.3 K/9 and 3.87 K/BB were impressive and added up to a 1.16 WHIP, enough below league average to be serviceable. He did not add many wins and his overall accomplishments were marginalized in terms of fantasy value as he only had 116.2 innings. That makes him better than any reliever you could pick up but still on the fringe of quality fantasy depth.

So, what does this all mean for you, me, Strasburg and our fantasy leagues? Don’t get too excited. He could come out of the gate like Wood (or Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens) and be a firecracker and have instant fantasy value. Or, he could go the Prior route and be good but only fringe worthy because of innings limitations, which fantasy owners always like to maximize.

From what we have seen from Strasburg this spring, he will probably be with the Nationals by June, at the very latest. Keep an eye on his progress because you would not want to miss picking him off the waiver wire (as long as somebody does not already have him stashed away) for a few quality starts before the All Star break.

Or he could be Macdonald.

In which case we will hear The Beltway cry in their cups for years to come.

Dan Rowinski is a Fantasy Baseball Columnist for If you have any questions or comments feel free to e-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter at Dan_Rowinski.

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