Stephen Strasburg’s preposterous change-up

Stephen Strasburg never quite attained his full potential Sunday. His curve lacked its typical sharp break, his fastball lacked its usual precise location and the Reds singled him to death. He relied more on his change-up, which led to one glimpse at the height of Strasburg’s brilliance.

In the second inning, Strasburg battled Joey Votto with two runners on base and two outs. Votto fouled off the first 1-2 change-up Strasburg threw him. Strasburg tried another. The pitch started out over the outside edge of the plate and darted sideways as if controlled by some evil force, almost criminal in its brilliance. The ball faded away from Votto at 88 miles per hour, like a cutter from left-handed pitcher. Or something created in a government lab.

Votto, an artist in the batter’s box, bent at the waist waved weakly at the change-up. He walked back to the dugout, without even muttering or shaking his head, like he knew he had been plain beat.

Afterward, Strasburg had this to say of a pitch that, if pitches could be mounted, should hang in a museum: “It was all right.”

Strasburg actually saw the change-up as a triumph of good pitch selection, not execution. In his first at-bat against Votto, Strasburg walked him on  five pitches, four of which were inside fastballs. In the third inning, he started him with another fastball in, then threw two change-ups, one more fastball, and then back to change-ups.

“When you try and work your fastball in and make pitches to set them up for, you’re going to get some bad swings,” Strasburg said.

Strasburg may not have been all that impressed with the action on the pitch. The man who caught it was.

“It’s dirty,” Kurt Suzuki said. “To do that to a guy who’s as good of a hitter as Votto is, it’s pretty impressive.”

Strasburg’s nonchalance about the pitch may be more telling than modesty. In the spring, he talked about making the movement on his more late and sharp than big. He may have really thought the change-up, as mind-bending as it seemed, was not as effective as it could have been.

“A hitter can see it,” Strasburg said early in spring training. “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.”

On Sunday, Strasburg leaned heavily on his change-up. He threw 29 change-ups out of 114 pitches, or 25.4 percent of the time. He had surpassed that rate in all but three career starts, and only once last year, when he threw 27 percent change-ups against Baltimore in May.

“It’s one of my better pitches,” Strasburg said. “I think when it’s on, it’s a pretty tough pitch to hit. You just want to try to keep him off balance. The big thing for me is, continue to not try and throw it exactly for a contact pitch. I thought it was pretty effective today except when I hung one to [Brandon] Phillips at the end.”

Suzuki said the toughest thing about Strasburg’s change-up, for a hitter, is its unpredictability. Usually, Strasburg’s change-up dives down with a little bit of movement away from a left-handed hitter. It actually resembles a splitter, especially because it sits in the high-80s.

“With Stras’s change-up, you never what it’s going to do,” Suzuki said. “Sometimes it’ll drop. Sometimes it’ll tail. Sometimes it stays straight. Sometimes it’ll cut. It’s kind of like a 90-mph split. That’s what makes it so tough as a hitter – they don’t know if it’s going to sink or cut or just stay straight.”

Or, sometimes, he will use it strike out one of the best hitters in the majors and make you fall out of your chair.

(GIF via here.)

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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Adam Kilgore · April 7, 2013

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