Before his junior season at San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg made a bet with his coach, Tony Gwynn. The Aztecs always used designated hitters, and Gwynn resisted Strasburg’s pleas to hit for himself, just once, a measure to protect Strasburg and his millionaire future. Strasburg made an offer – if he won his first 10 starts, he could take one at-bat. Gwynn accepted.
“I won my first 10,” Strasburg recalled Wednesday, with a smile. “He didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.”
And so the baseball world had to wait until this season to discover that Strasburg, who will start Friday night, is not only a once-in-a-generation arm on the field. Strasburg’s surprising slugging has helped the Nationals’ rotation become the best in baseball in the batter’s box. They lead the National League in hitting (.198), on-base percentage (.220) and slugging (.302). They have the fourth-highest OPS (.522) of any staff since 2000.
Their contribution through 50 games, according to FanGraphs.com’s wins above replacement formula, has been worth roughly one win in the standings.
“I believe pitchers should hit,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, who throws the pitchers daily batting practice. “They’re going to come up in a situation during the game where they’re going to have to hit. They have a lot of pride in it.”
No pitcher in baseball has hit quite like Strasburg. He is 7 for 18 with three doubles, a home run and a hit by pitch, good for a silly .389/.421/.722 batting line.
“I think it’s huge,” Strasburg said. “I think you should be able to handle the bat. If you can, then it makes it a lot tougher for the manager to take you out of the game in certain spots, and you can obviously stay out there longer.”
Strasburg showed no signs of batting prowess before this season. In his 2010 rookie season and last year, when he returned in September from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg went 1 for 26 with a single, no walks and 10 strikeouts.
He had not hit against live pitching since his junior year of high school, and so he faced major league fastballs as a hitter who had never seen better than high school pitching. In the majors, pitches seemed to come at him at warp speed. Strasburg felt like he was a decent hitter – “All my life, I could always hit a fastball,” he said – but he needed time to adjust.
“I feel like all the pitches have slowed down a lot,” Strasburg said. “The first year, I couldn’t even see them. They were there, and they were gone. I had no chance.”
The Nationals’ pitching staff takes batting practice every day, typically while the position players stretch. “At first,” Strasburg said, “we just try to go out there and hit home runs.” They work on bunting, mostly, but also lashing the ball to all fields, trying to stay compact.
They get competitive. Edwin Jackson was drafted, years ago, as an outfielder. Gio Gonzalez claimed he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn when he arrived, but he’s driven a handful of balls to the warning track and, in his last start, he delivered a clutch sac fly to deep left. Jordan Zimmermann drilled his first career homer Monday.
“I don’t know if there’s any other staff out there that’s got so many guys who can hit,” Strasburg said.
Strasburg had one interesting theory as to why. The pitchers play catch with one another, and because all five starters throw fast – they form the hardest-throwing pitching staff on record – they see high velocity daily.
“We all throw hard, so we’re just used to what it looks like coming at you,” Strasburg said. “Playing catch, it’s not a shock when you get in the box and he’s throwing as hard as he can at you. It definitely helps.”
His early success has not altered Strasburg’s expectations. He said the best part about hitting is that he can’t lose – if he strikes out, well, he was supposed to. And if he gets a hit, that’s gravy. There has been a lot of gravy.
“I didn’t expect myself to go out there and hit this well,” Strasburg said. “I think I’ve always been able to hit a little bit.”
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