In three at-bats Friday night against Jason Heyward, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg threw 18 fastballs out of 19 pitches. When Heyward came to the plate with two on and two outs in the fifth inning, Strasburg threw him all fastballs, seven total. Three of them, Heyward fouled back. The seventh, Heyward tomahawked to the right field warning track. The two-run double opened a 4-1 lead for the Braves, who would win 6-4 in 13 innings.
Why so many fastballs? Afterward, Strasburg expressed displeasure – either at catcher Jose Lobaton, pitching coach Steve McCatty or himself – at the fastball-heavy strategy.
“I guess it was the plan going in,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think it’s the right plan. But that’s what we went with.”
McCatty declined to address on Strasburg’s comment because he had not spoken with him. Before he was apprised of Strasburg’s sentiment, McCatty was asked about pitching Heyward with so many fastballs. He suggested every pitcher can decide what pitch to throw, in every circumstance.
“Every one of these guys has the ability to go out and make pitches of what they want to do,” McCatty said. “Everybody we talk about, we go over their tendencies, what they want to do. When they go out there, they have the ability to make the pitches they want to make. I guess it’s best just to leave it that. I don’t force, nor have I forced, any of these guys. They know how to pitch, and they’re trying to make the pitches they wanted to use.”
Lobaton had exited the clubhouse by the time Strasburg spoke to reporters. Manager Matt Williams had already given his postgame press conference.
Every day of Nationals spring training, Williams affixed a quote on top of the daily schedule. On the morning of the first workout for pitchers and catchers, the mantra read: “He who holds the ball controls the game.” The meaning: Nationals pitchers could — and should — dictate what they throw and make every pitch with conviction.
Friday night, Strasburg apparently felt restricted in how he wanted to approach Heyward. There would be reason to throw Heyward a healthy supply of fastballs. According to Pitch FX data gathered by FanGraphs.com, Heyward is a below-average fastball hitter, and he hits change-ups and curveballs – Strasburg’s two offspeed pitches – better than average.
Strasburg this season, though, has become a pitcher who throws his fastball strictly to set up offspeed pitches, especially a devastating change-up. Strasburg’s fastball has cost him 8.4 runs below average, according to FanGraphs data. His change-up, meanwhile, has been worth 11.3 runs above average, one of the best pitches in baseball.
Heyward struck out swinging at a 96-mph fastball in his first at-bat and singled in the second. He came to the plate with two outs in the fifth and two on. With an out, Strasburg could hold the deficit at one. Strasburg had fed Heyward fastballs all night, and he stuck to that. Three of them made it 2-1, and then Heyward fouled back three consecutive fastballs.
Strasburg had thrown 18 pitches to Heyward, and 17 had been fastballs. He seemed to be seeing the pitch better, getting the timing down. And yet, the 19th pitch he saw was the 18th fastball. Heyward drilled the high heat over Jayson Werth’s head for a two-run double. The Braves had surged ahead, 4-1.
It had been a frustrating night for Strasburg all around. He struck out eight and walked zero, signs of dominance that showed only in the box score. The Braves scalded nine hits against him, drove up his pitch count and knocked him out after six innings. The Nationals have won just two of Strasburg’s seven starts against the Braves since the start of the 2013 season. In those, Strasburg pitched a total of three innings – he left one victory with an injury and got ejected from the other.
Strasburg leads the National League with 121 strikeouts, but even as he added eight to that total Friday night he struggled to put hitters away. Six of Atlanta’s nine hits off Strasburg came with two strikes, and three of those came after Strasburg had established an 0-2 count. All three of the Braves’ run-scoring hits – Freddie Freeman’s homer, Andrelton Simmons’s single and Heyward’s two-RBI double – came with two strikes.
“I didn’t pitch enough,” Strasburg said. “I got too one-sided on the plate, and they made the adjustment.”
The Braves chipped away at Strasburg with constant foul balls, turning potential quick outs into root canals. Through four innings, Strasburg had thrown 84 pitches despite zero walks. The damage began with the left-handed hitting monster who is hitting .516 against the Nationals this year.
Freeman walked to the plate with two outs in the first inning. He has lambasted Nationals pitching this year: 14 hits, three walks, no strikeouts and two homers in 27 at-bats. Strasburg began the confrontation with consecutive fastballs. With the count even at 2-2, Strasburg tried to finish Freeman off with his change-up.
The number of bad change-ups Strasburg has thrown this year is close to negligible, but he fed one to the wrong hitter. The 91-mph change broke over the center of the plate at thigh-level. Freeman crushed it five 10 rows over the high wall in right field. Strasburg had thrown more than 370 change-ups, and only one had been tagged for a home run. Freeman made it two and gave the Braves a 1-0 lead.
With the score tied at 1 in the fourth, the Braves continued to wear down Strasburg. With one out, Heyward clocked the sixth pitch of an at-bat for a single. Chris Johnson fell behind, 0-2, but chopped the next pitch, a curveball, into left field for a single. Strasburg jumped ahead of Simmons with two strikes, but he took one fastball for a ball and drilled the next for an RBI single to center.
Strasburg gave himself a chance for a needed quick inning in the fifth, recording two outs in four pitches. Freeman ruined those plans with a single to center. Evan Gattis kept the inning alive with another single to center.
Up came Heyward. Strasburg kept throwing him fastballs. And he’s not sure if he should have.