Stephen Strasburg arrived at spring training this year with a new weapon in his arsenal, ready to deploy from his first throwing session. He had developed a slider to join his fastball, change-up and curveball. He sprinkled sliders into every start, gaining confidence and a better feel. “Yeah, I’m going to throw it,” he said after his final spring training start. “Why not?”
Less than two months into the season, Strasburg has abandoned his newest tool and reverted to a three-pitch attack. Monday night, he used no sliders for the fourth consecutive start. While Manager Matt Williams said Strasburg has not “eliminated” the pitch, he has told his catchers that for now he doesn’t want to throw it.
“He feels uncomfortable with the slider,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “He said he doesn’t want to throw it. He stays with his best pitches. It’s the same thing for a hitter – if we don’t feel comfortable in one position, we come back to our regular position.”
Strasburg showed comfort with his slider early in the year. In his second start of the season, against the Braves, Strasburg used it for 18.8 percent of his pitchers. In his first four starts, he used the slider liberally, more than once every 10 pitches.
“The curveball is a natural pitch for him,” Ramos said. “The slider, that was a good pitch for him. Nobody in the league had seen Stephen throw a slider. When he threw his slider, the hitters maybe said, ‘Hey, he got a new pitch. We have to be ready for that.’ ”
In that fourth start, though, the Marlins clobbered him. Since he allowed six runs in four innings on eight hits, Strasburg has stopped using the slider. He threw none his next start, a couple in the one after and none since then.
In limited use, the slider seemed to be an ineffective pitch, especially compared to the rest of Strasburg’s off-speed repertoire. According to data compiled by FanGraphs.com, his slider cost Strasburg 2.8 runs above average. He has relied heavily on his change-up, which has been one of the best pitches in baseball.
Still, Williams said, Strasburg hasn’t given up on the pitch.
“It’s a pitch that he can go to if in fact he feels like the other team is on his fastball and on his curveball and on his change-up,” Williams said. “It’s just another pitch that he can go to. I don’t know if he has felt like he needed it. I know his breaking ball in the last two, three starts has been really good, and he’s used his change-up a lot more. It’s his fourth pitch. If he feels he doesn’t need to throw it, then he doesn’t throw it. I don’t think he’s eliminated it, though. It’s there if he needs it. I don’t think he’s shying away from it. I just don’t think he feels the need.”
The dearth of sliders has not led to any deficiencies for Strasburg. In six starts since he stopped using it with regularity, he has a 2.01 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. The Nationals have gone 4-2 in those starts. The slider may help him one day, but he’s proved he doesn’t need it.
“He needs to be comfortable,” Ramos said. “He didn’t feel comfortable. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, he doesn’t have to throw it. He’s got very good pitches. For me, if he wants to throw it, that’s up to him. In spring training, it was a real good pitch for a while. Right now, if he doesn’t feel comfortable and doesn’t want to keep throwing it, that’s not bad.”