Stephen Strasburg focused on holding base runners in first bullpen session

Dallas Rivet, 4, of Orlando, Florida waits patiently to get an autograph from Washington Nationals starting pitcher StephenStrasburg (37) during spring training workouts on February 16, 2014 in Viera, Fl. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post) Dallas Rivet, 4, of Orlando, waits patiently to get an autograph from Washington Nationals starting pitcher StephenStrasburg during spring training workouts Sunday in Viera, Fla. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Stephen Strasburg’s first bullpen of spring training brought with it the familiar, long-limbed delivery and the usual sounds of snapping leather and hissing air. But there was one noticeable difference: Before throwing from the stretch, Strasburg kept looking over his left shoulder.

As part of his emphasis to hold runners on base and prevent steals, Strasburg changed the way he comes to a set when pitching out of the stretch. After he received the sign, Strasburg stood with his feet further apart, allowing him to more easily glance over his shoulder at the runner. Even during his bullpen session, he stared at an imaginary runner on an imaginary base.

“I just got to identify his lead a little bit better,” Strasburg said. “I focus on that, and I can gauge how far off he is, instead of guesswork. If he’s moving, then I’m going to know exactly how far off he is when I deliver the pitch, too.”

Crouched behind the row of pitchers in the bullpen, Manager Matt Williams took notice of Strasburg’s focus on holding runners. He viewed it as an example of the kind of practice habits he wants out of the entire team.

“I saw today Stephen Strasburg in his first bullpen session varying his slide step and working on his looks to home plate,” Williams said. “That’s the attention to detail we’re looking for. He’s concerned about it and he wants to improve on it. His first bullpen session, he’s working on it. I think that’s a really good thing.”

Strasburg spoke with pitching coach Steve McCatty at the end of last season about making a change, but Strasburg understood on his own he needed to improve.

In 434 1/3 innings, Strasburg has picked off one runner. Of the 38 runners who attempted to steal against him, 30 have been successful.

“It was pretty apparent,” Strasburg said. “It wasn’t like something I was blindsided by. I knew it was something I needed to work on. I know it’s going to make me a better pitcher, save some runs and hopefully get some more double plays in the process.”

In his rapid ascension to high school unknown to college star to big league phenom, Strasburg never developed the ability to hold runners. He spent less than half a season in the minors, and in college and high school, his coach had always called for pick-off throws. As a rookie, Strasburg compensated by speeding up his delivery. But he rarely changed his timing, and teams took advantage.

“In my situation, I didn’t have much time in the minors to work on the little nuances of pitching,” Strasburg said. “That was one thing to where, I compensated for it by just being really quick to home plate. Big league coaches, base runners, pitchers, they’re going to pick up on that, and they’re just going to cheat and they’re just going to sell out. If I can’t see where they’re at, and I know I’m going to home plate, they’re gone.”

Williams believes Strasburg’s revamped approach can lead to him going deeper in starts. Fewer stolen bases will mean more chances at double plays, which will mean shorter innings. It’s a small way in which he became more efficient.

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 · February 16, 2014