Stephen Strasburg’s minor adjustment makes a major difference

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg winds up during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Monday, June 9, 2014, in San Francisco, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)

(Beck Diefenbach/Associated Press)

brushback_harperFor years, Stephen Strasburg never gave much thought to the way he placed his plant foot on the pitching rubber. What pitcher would worry about something so trivial? He had always positioned the outside edge of his foot on the rubber and the inside portion on the dirt in front of the slab. He had always enjoyed success. Why would he change?

In Strasburg’s past 10 starts, he is 5-2 with a 2.04 ERA. Over that span, which dates from April 20, he has struck out 75 hitters and walked 10. For the season, Strasburg leads the National League with 108 strikeouts and the majors with 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings. He has shown the most consistent control of his career, and it has led to one of his most dominating sustained stretches.

One of the keys has been something an observer would even consider. Early this season, Strasburg changed the way he stands on the rubber. It turns out it’s not so trivial. Rather than placing half of his foot on the slab, Strasburg digs his foot in front of the rubber, so he’s touching it with the side of his foot rather than standing on it.

“It just kind of dawned on me,” Strasburg said. “I was talking to [pitching coach Steve McCatty] about it. I was like, ‘I’ve done this for such a long time. It was like, will this help things if I make the adjustment?’ I’m seeing a bunch of other great pitchers do that. A lot of the control pitchers and a lot of the elite pitchers in the game — I’d say the majority of them — don’t have their foot on top of the rubber.”

How could moving his foot a couple inches make such a big difference?

With his foot half on top of the mound and slanted, Strasburg could generate more power going toward the plate. But it also affected the consistency of his delivery, especially his arm slot and release point. He sometimes lost balance when he lifted his front leg and drifted toward the plate earlier than he wanted. His arm would drag behind him, and the ball would tail in a way that he did not intend.

“You’re out there playing catch on a flat surface,” Strasburg said. “As soon as you get on a mound, there’s a slope, and you’re falling forward. It affects fastball command.”

Once Strasburg moved his foot in front of the rubber, it stabilized his delivery. He could gather himself at his balance point, when he lifted his front leg. Better balance allows him to find a consistent release point and arm slot, which of course means more consistent command.

“It’s just little things like that,” Strasburg said. “I noticed a lot of the command pitchers, they’re able to control their delivery down the hill, and they get to a better balance point. In the past, for the longest time, when my foot’s on the rubber, it’s harder for me to control the delivery and have the same tempo.”

Strasburg drew inspiration from, among others, teammate Jordan Zimmermann, Jose Fernandez, Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett. He noticed how they dug their plant foot in front of the mound, and how it led to a more consistent delivery.

“I had always seen it over time,” Strasburg said. “I never really wanted to change it, because things were going well. I just got to the point where I was like, ‘I think this would help with my development and make me a better pitcher.’ I didn’t feel comfortable at first. Working at in between starts, it’s just become second nature.”

The change didn’t happen immediately, and it wasn’t the only change he made. His 10-start run also occurred after he stopped throwing his new slider. Moving his foot was a gradual process, because he needed to change a part of his form that had become ingrained.

“As soon as I turned, I would just naturally get back on top of the rubber,” Strasburg said. “I just had to go down there [to the bullpen] and just repeat until I got comfortable turning and getting my foot in the same spot every time.”

Now, Strasburg’s foot finds the same spot every time. And because of that, his pitches find the right spot more often.

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Buffalo 8, Syracuse 4: Jhonatan Solano went 3 for 4 with a double. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 4 with a home run. Destin Hood went 2 for 4. Ryan Mattheus allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings on three hits and two walks, striking out one.

Harrisburg 6, Erie 4: Michael Taylor went 1 for 4 with a walk and three strikeouts. Matt Skole went 2 for 5 and is hitting .227. Adrian Sanchez went 3 for 4.

Carolina 6, Potomac 4: Pedro Severino went 1 for 4 with his fourth homer. Dakota Bacus allowed four runs in four innings on nine hits and a walk, striking out two.

Hagerstown 2, Lakewood 0: Austin Voth allowed no runs in seven innings on one hit and one walk, striking out six. Wilmer Difo went 2 for 4 with a home run. Ike Ballou went 2 for 4 with a double. Drew Ward went 1 for 3 with a walk.

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