When Stephen Strasburg throws a sinking fastball during his bullpen sessions this spring, he has a clear and violent plan for the poor sap wearing a chest protector. “I want to blow up his thumb,” Strasburg said. “That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to see just a consistent catch. I want to see him, at the last second, come down a little bit.”
It is no personal vendetta against Wilson Ramos or Kurt Suzuki. The catcher’s thumb is a target because of Strasburg’s central aim in the early spring. He wants to tweak his pitches, especially his sinker, to break less but fool the hitter – and the catcher – more.
Strasburg is one of the most breathtaking pitchers in the majors because of the mind-bending pathways his pitches travel. Curveballs curl like boomerangs, change-ups dive like a balloon running out of air and fastballs dart sideways, all while moving at abnormally high velocities.
And this, to Strasburg, presents something to be improved. The crazy movement can be hell on hitters, of course. But the big breaks in his pitches also make it easier for batters to differentiate between them. When a pitch breaks a lot, it probably starts breaking early, allowing a hitter to follow its path to the plate. Strasburg would prefer to have his pitches move less, but with more purpose.
“A hitter can see it,” Strasburg said. “Obviously, it looks cooler on TV when you’re watching it, when a guy is throwing something that’s move like this” – Strasburg waved his hand in a sweeping motion – “or dropping off. But a hitter can see it a lot earlier. I’m trying to get away from that and get more consistent, tighter pitches that are going to break maybe a little bit less, but sharper and later.”
This will probably not be more of a tweak than a big change – Strasburg’s pitches are not the kind you want to go about tinkering with too much. But he is especially focused on his sinker. Last year, he found too often he would release the pitch with his hand outside of the ball, causing it to break side-to-side. It “ran” more than it sunk. He wants the pitch to move on two planes, mostly down with some movement away from a left-handed hitter.
“I kind of just want to tighten it up a little bit and produce more of a downward movement, instead of a side-to-side movement that I can see,” Strasburg said. “It’s more of a confidence and a repetition, going off of the way the catcher catches it and looking at the later movement instead of trying to make it move more out of my hand.”
That Strasburg wants to make the change is instructive. After his dominant 2012 season, when at age 23 he posted the second-best FIP in the major leagues, he searched for a weakness, or at least what passes for a weakness for him. He identified in clear, focused terms. And, after only two bullpen sessions, he is already implementing the adjustment, one mangled catcher’s thumb at a time.