There has always been an effort by Nationals coaches, and by Stephen Strasburg himself, to become more efficient. When he first arrived in the majors, coaches felt Strasburg was trying too hard to strike out batters. And then, at times, he would fall behind batters; his first-pitch strike percentage earlier this season was low, and now, at 59 percent, it is still under league average.
This season, with the chains of an innings limit removed and a longer leash from Manager Davey Johnson, Strasburg is thriving as a more efficient pitcher. In fact, he has become one of the best groundball pitchers in the majors while still maintaining one of the best strikeout rates in the baseball. His groundball rate of 51.2 percent is 13th best in baseball and, even though his strikeout rate is lower than last season, he is fanning 9.41 hitters per nine innings, the 10th highest rate in the majors.
His dazzling performance on Sunday was the perfect example. He tossed his first complete game on only 99 pitches, 66 of them for strikes, while dealing with a tweaked groin injury. He allowed no runs, only four hits and walked one batter. He still struck out 10 batters, inducing 12 swing and misses on pitches. He also induced seven groundballs and 11 flyballs. His 11 pitches per inning was the second-lowest rate of his career; bested only by his six-inning, 61-pitch performance on Sept. 17, 2011 as he returned from Tommy John surgery.
“He’s always showed great command with his fastball down in the zone, and basically fastball-curveball,” Johnson said Sunday. “I don’t think he threw that many change-ups today, it was basically fastball curveball, but it was both sides of the plate. When he’s like that, he’ll have low-pitched games. That’s, going deep in games, low pitch counts, striking out that number, instead of going up and trying to miss the bats, he was pretty much saying ‘here, hit it,’ which is great.”
Strasburg admitted after Sunday’s game that when he felt out of sync and his stuff was off during his warm-ups in the bullpen he would try an approach on the mound that backfired.
“When that happened in the past, I would just try and jam it down their throat and throw it as hard as I can,” he said. “I kinda learned that that didn’t really get much accomplished. So I think it just helped me take a step back and really focus on being nice and easy and hitting my spots.”
Through 23 starts this season, Strasburg is averaging 3.88 pitches per plate appearance, the lowest of any full season of his career. Last year, his 15-win, all-star season, it was 3.97 P/PA. (In his rehab-shortened 2011 season, he averaged 3.73 P/PA over five starts.) The league average this season is 3.83 P/PA.
With his innings limit no longer a factor in Johnson’s hooks, Strasburg is also going deeper into starts with fewer pitches. He averaged 5.7 innings per starts last season with an average of 93 pitches. This season, the average has jumped to 6.4 innings per start, above the league average of 5.9 innings per start, with an average of 99 pitches. (Teammate Jordan Zimmermann is, and traditionally has been, atop these lists; he is sixth in the majors with 3.57 P/PA.)
“Too often, him and Gio, you look up there and going into the fourth inning and they’ve got 60-some pitches and you gotta get them through the fifth inning to get them to the sixth,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “You play long enough you see these guys who are top-end pitchers who are some of the best in the game and that’s what they do. They pitch deep into games, seven, eight, nine innings. They control the game. I think as Stras gets older he’ll learn to do that a little bit more. Not only is it good for them but it’s good for the team. It saves the bullpen. But pitch count is the difference.”
It’s also worth noting that Strasburg’s Sunday start ranks among the greatest by any Nationals starter. Based on Bill James’ Game Score rating, the start earned an 88 score, which is tied with Zimmermann’s complete game one-hit shutout on April 26 and Pedro Astacio’s complete game two-hitter on Aug. 15, 2008. John Patterson’s 13-strikeout complete game shutout is still the highest with a 92 score. In fact, four of the top 10 Nationals’ starts of all-time have occurred this season: Strasburg’s 12-strikeout, eight-inning gem on July 24 scored an 86, as did Zimmermann’s eight scoreless innings and 12 strikeouts on May 1.