Sitting at his locker this afternoon, Stephen Strasburg did not want to answer questions about his inning limit today. There will come a time for that, he said, and it was not today. He instead asked a reporter if there was anything he wanted to talk about.
Well, yes. The unceasing opinions about Strasburg’s shutdown have obscured his development as a pitcher – the act that makes his shutdown such a big deal in the first place. The shellacking he endured in his last start – five earned runs in five innings on nine hits in Miami – provided a key moment for him to learn from. Strasburg, with his next start coming Sunday afternoon, opened up about what went wrong, how he’ll fix it and what else he’s learned in his first full season.
Strasburg did not have much command of his pitches against the Marlins, but he said that owed to his arm feeling too strong, not fatigued as he nears the end of his first season.
“For some reason, my arm felt really good that game,” Strasburg said. “Maybe it was the off day before. It’s tough when you’re arm feels almost too good, and you don’t really have a feeling for your pitches. You’re trying to tell yourself to slow down, but you can’t. I was throwing sinkers that were going down and in and almost hitting them at 97. I kept on trying to make the adjustment to get it less sink, less sink.”
But Strasburg’s biggest takeaway had more to do with his pitch selection and how he attacked batters. Late Monday night, Strasburg stayed at Marlins Park with catcher Kurt Suzuki and coaches. Pitching coach Steve McCatty repeated the words “learning experience” to him.
Strasburg had entered the game planning on throwing first-pitch to the Marlins, but they countered with free-swinging early in the count.” They didn’t have necessarily the same approach as any other team,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a changing trend.”
As Strasburg pitched, the Marlins’ approach reminded him of how Class A batters faced him last year when he rehabbed at Hagerstown. They flailed early in the count, not allowing him to set up any pitches.
“When I start seeing guys hitting a good, well-located sinker and pulling it into the hole or pulling it down the line, that’s where I have to pick that up,” Strasburg said. “I have to pick that up that they’re not trying to have more of a balanced approach. They’re just up there trying to cheat to get to it. Some guys are going to do that.”
Rather than changing his approach, Strasburg tried to throw a better sinker. He has been in the collective consciousness of the Nationals’ for three years, and so it is easy to forget he has made 43 major league starts, just over a full season’s worth. “That’s where just maturity and getting experience, I’m going to have a little different feeling out there, a different feeling in my gut of what I need to do,” Strasburg said.
Strasburg’s start against the Marlins also represented another new challenge: facing the same team several times during a season. Strasburg anticipated he would need to change his approach against Miami, because their hitters would be adjusting to him. He knows now he should have realized his stuff is so good it can dictate the confrontation.
“But I learned through the year that it doesn’t really matter what plan they’re doing,” Strasburg said. “If there’s something that’s obvious, like what happened in Miami, then yeah, you got to change it. But other than that, just pound the strike zone with all your pitches and take what happens.
“That’s the big thing that I learned is, not necessarily having to go out there and say, ‘Oh, I pitched offspeed and away to these guys last time. Now I got to pound them in.’ If it’s not broke, don’t try and fix it. I just got to pitch to my strengths. And they have to prove to me they can hit it.”
Most often, they don’t. Which can be a problem. Strasburg has struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings this season, most in the National League and 19th most all time. And yet, for him, strikeouts are an accident, something that happens, and something he would like to have happen less, if anything.
“I want them to put it in play,” Strasburg said. “I want it to be a pitch that’s a strike, so it’s like, ‘Here it is. You got to hit it, or it’s going to be a strike.’ I don’t want it to be something where it’s like, borderline ball-strike, where they have to decide.
“I’d like to be more efficient. It’s tough because, I know when my stuff is on, they’re not going to make contact many times. It’s hard to keep your pitch count down when you’re executing pitches the way you are, but instead of taking one or two pitches to get the guy out, it takes three, maybe four. That’s something I’m just going to have to learn with.”
At 150 1/3 innings, Strasburg has already surpassed the most innings he has ever thrown in a season, college or professional. He began feeling worn down in July, about the point in a college season would have ended. And then something interesting happened. He started feeling stronger, not more fatigued.
“It feels like the end of the year. It feels better, though,” Strasburg said. “I’m throwing better. I’m on the routine and everything. When I finished a little over 100 innings in college, and I felt pretty good. But that’s where I felt in July, kind of hitting that wall. Now that I’ve overcome it, I’ve got like second life. It’s starting to come back. Honestly, it feels like it’s more early in the year.”