Stephen Strasburg returned last night a different pitcher. The change was subtle, but it was there. He became a sensation last year with pure power. He wants to trade that in for precision and guile, to make his hardest fastballs specialized weapons rather than the norm. He may still fill stadiums with people who want to see triple digits over and over again on the radar gun. Those people will be disappointed.
“I think I’ve come to the realization,” Strasburg said, “that I don’t have to throw 100 to get guys out.”
Rather than throwing his fastball at 98 and 99 miles per hour, the Nationals and Strasburg have decided he is better served throwing 96 and 97. General Manager Mike Rizzo has been involved in the process, which the Nationals believe will make Strasburg a more effective pitcher and decrease the risk for injury.
“Mike has talked to me about it,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I’ve talked to Stephen about it a number of times. It’s not always going out there and trying to throw it 98 to 99. There’s a much easier way to pitch, when you pitch at a level with his command and still throw 95, 96, or 97. He has that sinker and that offspeed to go with it. Everything doesn’t have to be max effort.”
So, just because Strasburg can throw 100 doesn’t mean he should. And, let’s not forget, 95-96 is still at the very elite end of the spectrum for starting pitchers.
“If the pitch isn’t well located, they’re still going to hit it,” Strasburg said. “I’m still focused on commanding all the pitches, throwing strikes, climbing the ladder, working inside-outside. I’m really trying to be a pitcher out there. I’m not trying to go out there and light up the radar gun every time.”
Strasburg’s return start revealed his new approach. He averaged only 11.2 pitches per inning, lower than any of his starts in 2010. He averaged about 96.7 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball and 95.1 with his two-seamer. He focused not on striking out Dodgers hitters, but on inducing weak contact. He struck out four of the 17 hitters he faced.
“I’d say it just worked out that way, but it really is a mindset,” Strasburg said. “When guys hit off me, they don’t want to get to two strikes. I try to make quality pitches early in the count, try to make them put the ball in play.”
Strasburg could feel a difference. He does not believe his raw stuff is as good now as it was last year. But as he pitches with a little less velocity, he can harness his fastball with greater precision.
“Fastball command, I think, is better than it was before,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just because I’m not trying to dial it up every time.”
When he wants to, though, he can. Strasburg’s four-seam fastball topped out at 98.7 miles per hour, when he blew an 0-2 fastball past Aaron Miles in the second inning on the inside corner.
“If you want to get in a such situation and you want to turn it up a notch, he has that ability,” McCatty said. “With Miles the first time, he threw a couple 95, 96, and then he threw one 99. He turned it up instead of trying to pitch at that the whole time. He’s just a special individual.”
Other power pitchers, particularly Justin Verlander this season, have thrived by dialing back their fastball, spotting with better control and bringing out their fastest pitch at the right time. Strasburg wanted nothing to do with that, or any other, comparison.
“I don’t like comparing myself to other any other pitcher,” Strasburg said. “I’m sure he doesn’t like comparing himself to anybody else, either. He’s great at what he does. He’s had an unbelievable year. It’s something that I’m shooting for to do somewhere down the road.”
After he threw 56 pitches Tuesday, the Nationals will let Strasburg throw 70 to 80 pitches Sunday, Johnson said. Strasburg mentioned that he feels like his stuff has not reached the point it did last year. He was asked what the difference was.
“Just the consistency, I’d say,” Strasburg said. “My stuff is as close as its going to get this year. The bottom line is just building the arm strength. You’re not going to be able to go eight innings a year out of surgery, like I was capable of doing last year.”
But for five innings Tuesday night, on his first back from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg was awfully impressive.
“Stephen is a special guy,” McCatty said. “It’s like I’m talking about a guy whose in the Hall of Fame right now. He’s got a long way to go and a lot of things to prove. What he has, the command of the pitches, the demeanor, the intensity, everything you could want in a pitcher, he has that.”
FROM THE POST
Stephen Strasburg met or surpassed every expextation, Boz writes.
Strasburg looked like his old self, Dave Sheinin writes.
Even in a 7-3 Nationals’ loss, Strasburg dominated in five scoreless innings.
To relive Strasburg’s return, read Dan Steinberg’s excellent running blog.