A deeper look at Stephen Strasburg’s opening day efficiency

 

Stephen Strasburg has produced more dazzling performances than yesterday’s opening day start, but he has rarely been so practical in his dominance. In seven shutout innings, Strasburg needed only 80 pitches. He struck out only three batters and spent the afternoon deadening, rather than missing, the Marlins’ bats. He got 10 groundouts compared to five flyouts.

He chose efficiency over trying to achieve, slicing through Miami’s underwhelming lineup. Shortstop Ian Desmond put forth an interesting theory on why Strasburg commonly ran up his pitch count last season. He has such a wide array of weapons at his disposal he bogs down trying to pick the right one – a kind of pitching version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

“I think he fights himself because he’s got so many quality pitches he can throw, and he can get hitters out in so many ways,” Desmond said. “He’s just got to trust early contact and let them put the ball in play and moving through the game – not necessarily trying to strike everybody out.”

On Monday, he plowed ahead. Many Nationals suggested the key to Strasburg’s start was how he mixed up his pitches and established himself early in the count. The thing is, neither really happened. Strasburg fired 20 first-pitch fastballs and only three first-pitch curveballs to the 23 batters he faced. (Only Placido Polanco, Chris Coghlan and Giancarlo Stanton saw a first-pitch breaking ball.)

Rather than mixing up hitters with pitch selection, he may have tried to fool the aggressive Marlins with location. Strasburg threw only 10 first-pitch strikes to the 23 batters he faced. Somehow, he still managed to throw 80 pitches in seven innings – 11.4 pitches per inning and 3.8 per hitter, a remarkable display of efficiency.

How did he do that? Well, Strasburg had an otherworldly day working off 1-0 counts. Last season, major league batters hit .270 with an .822 OPS after the count went to 1-0. Monday against Strasburg, the Marlins went 0 for 13 with two strikeouts and no walks after reaching 1-0. They got ahead in the count, and it just didn’t matter.

The Marlins put three 1-0 pitches in play, which resulted in two ground balls to Ryan Zimmerman and a flyout to Denard Span. Strasburg threw four balls, which accounted for his four 2-0 counts on the day. (The league last season posted a collective .501 on-base percentage after reaching 2-0, but yesterday the Marlins went 0 for 4 against Strasburg.) He threw six strikes – two fouls, one swinging and three looking.

Once Strasburg got behind 1-0, he threw nine fastballs, four change-ups and no curveballs. With those nine fastballs, he either ended the at-bat with an out or evened the count eight times. With the four change-ups, he got one looking strike and threw three balls. Even when he threw his fastball, the most expected weapon was also the best.

Having dug through all of that, there are three possible explanations for Strasburg’s dominance once he reached 1-0 counts:

1. His stuff, especially his sinker, is just so good that he can throw it in the strike zone when hitters expect it, and they’re still helpless to make hard contact.

2. He had good fortune on balls in play. Those 10 outs he got on opening day may sneak through the infield or drop to the outfield turf in other starts, and the dearth of first-pitch strikes will come back to hurt him.

3. The Marlins are just not a very good hitting team, and they were so aggressive they neutralized their advantage when ahead in the count.

I would guess the answer lies in a combination of all three, mostly No. 1 and No. 3. Strasburg probably shouldn’t make a habit of falling behind hitters. But when he does, he can be so dominant it really may not matter.

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