Robert Kindman contributed statistical analysis to this article.
Now that Stephen Strasburg is officially sitting out the rest of the season, the only use we have for him is to speculate about what impact his shutdown will have for the future of the Nationals. Baseball being first and foremost a business, it is worth investigating what kind of impact the decision will have on the National’s bottom line.
Two statistics are of primary importance. First, Strasburg brings in about $225,000 of extra revenue per home start. Second, a World Series win could be predicted to add $38 million to the National’s revenues for the following year. Now, the question is, does it make financial sense to sit Strasburg and potentially miss out on this World Series for the sake of increasing your chances in the future? The answer isn’t what you think.
History has shown that once the playoffs begin, the results are essentially random because of the small sample size, giving each of the eight teams roughly a 12.5 percent chance of winning. On the average playoff team, having a dominant ace to start the playoffs gives a bump to your chances.
But the Nationals are in a unique situation in that they have arguably the deepest and most potent rotation in baseball. Using the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, Strasburg has added about five wins to the Nationals’ record this season as compared to what a theoretically average player would. But the Nationals have five starters, including Strasburg, who all have strong WARs. In a normal playoff run, three starters make the majority of the starts and an ace can be expected to make 3-6 starts. Looking at WAR, ERA, and innings pitched per start, the likelihood of Strasburg turning in a dramatically better set of postseason starts than the next three rotation-mates is not terribly high. Where your starting pitcher does make a big difference is in the regular season, where the larger sample size results in more wins added by a specific pitcher.
The main argument for letting Strasburg pitch is that since making the playoffs is far from guaranteed, and they are there this year, it would be wise to go for the jackpot. But in reality, there is no complex decision to be made because having Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs does not dramatically improve this particular team’s chances and therefore does not dramatically improve their chances of earning the $38 million World Series bump. Doing your best to ensure that he can pitch for you well into the future– making an extra $225,000 per start, or almost $4 million per year, and giving you a significant leg up in making the playoffs– greatly improves your chances of winning a World Series in the future. After all, if the playoffs are essentially random, your best chance comes not from any one year, but from making it as often as possible.
Strasburg has done his job this year as well as anyone could have asked, but from this point on his value is greatly diminished. With a team this talented and this young, the Nationals stand to reap the greatest reward from the longest possible career for Stephen Strasburg, and should achieve this end by any means possible, including this much maligned shutdown.