On Saturday, Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg -- he of the many press clippings and legendary ceiling -- was done after five innings. He left the game having struck out seven but also having given up four runs, all unearned. Strasburg's Nationals lost to the Cubs by a score of 8-2.
There's no doubting Strasburg's stuff, propensity to miss bats and nifty ERAs. However, thus far in his career he's not been able to pitch deeply into games. Ever, actually. In part, it's because the Nationals have been highly conservative in terms of his workloads. But in part, it's because Strasburg's performance declines once he hits the sixth inning (albeit over a small data sample). Strasburg, like a lot of starting pitchers, also sees a decline in command when he goes through the opposing lineup for the third time in a given start.
In 35 2/3 career "sixth innings," Strasburg has pitched to a 4.04 ERA (versus a 3.01 overall ERA). Again, that's a small sample size. But the fact that Strasburg has struggled in the sixth is in some ways self-determinative. For instance, here's how Strasburg's 53 career starts -- counting Saturday's -- have played out in terms of his final inning in each one ...
- Made it to or through the third inning: 53 times;
- Made it to or through the fourth inning: 50 times;
- Made it to or through the fifth inning: 47 times;
- Made it to or through the sixth inning: 38 times;
- Made it to or through the seventh inning: 11 times;
- Made it to or through the eighth inning: 0 times.
As you can see, Strasburg's historical difficulties in the sixth inning have allowed him to pitch in the seventh inning just 11 times -- or in 20.8 percent of his starts. More strikingly, he has never pitched in the eighth inning in his entire career. That's an arresting little nugget, to be sure, and you're hearing it bandied about more and more. But how unusual is it?
Thanks to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, we learn that Strasburg's streak of 53 straight starts without making it beyond the seventh inning ranks 27th on the all-time list. Tony Armas Jr. "tops" the list with 101 straight starts spanning more than six years. Elsewhere, you see some interesting "late career" big names. Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen each went 60 straight games without reaching the eighth. Greg Maddux did it over a span of 59 starts from 2007-08. The underrated Javier Vazquez has two separate streaks of 56 and 44 games in his dossier. As well, Strasburg's teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, saw a run of 44 straight starts in which he never pitched more than seven innings end just last month.
Of course, Strasburg's case is a bit different in that he's gone 53 straight to start his career. If we adjust the list to those parameters, we find that Strasburg rises to sixth place. Atop the list is Andrew Miller, who began his major-league career by failing to reach the eighth in 66 consecutive starts.
Of course, also on the latter list are some names that should encourage Strasburg and his rooters. Zack Greinke and Dan Haren check in with 29 straight to start their careers. Teammate Gio Gonzalez reached 32 in a row. Johnny Cueto went 35. Zimmermann appears again with 38, which is, of course, a separate eighth-inning-free streak than the one noted above. There's also Clayton Kershaw, who started his outstanding career with 41 straight starts in which he didn't go beyond the seventh.
To be sure, it's far from optimal that Strasburg has either been unable to make it to the late innings or hasn't been permitted to make it to those same late innings. Still, this is a 24-year-old who has a career ERA+ of 130 and who has also struck out 29.8 percent of opposing batters. That's the thing to keep in mind as he continues to develop. Another thing to keep in mind is that a number of good-to-great pitchers also endured long stretches in which they couldn't record more than 21 outs in a start.
Strasburg's "streak" isn't a good thing, but it's hardly a harbinger of mediocrity.