Jose Lobaton and Stephen Strasburg paired again

August 30, 2014

Jose Lobaton and Stephen Strasburg, a pairing Manager Matt Williams appears to like. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Jose Lobaton realized Friday afternoon that he would probably start Saturday night. He had a hunch he would play for one reason: Stephen Strasburg was starting for the Nationals. “They think maybe I can do something better for him in the game,” Lobaton said. “Maybe the way I catch pitches. I don’t know. I would like to know. Maybe it’s something that will make me feel better, if I know what they’re seeing.”

Since Aug. 14, Lobaton has been in the Nationals’ starting lineup four times. Those four games have coincided Strasburg’s starts. Still, Manager Matt Williams insisted Lobaton should not be considered a personal catcher for Strasburg. He said Strasburg’s starts had only coincidentally lined up with Wilson Ramos’s days off. Which is one heck of a coincidence.

“I think it’s kind of the way it falls, too,” Williams said. “Wilson hit a couple homers last night. We have a lefty going [for the Mariners]. It gives us an opportunity to DH him today, looking at tomorrow. That’s kind of the way it’s fallen today. It’s been a little bit of Wilson’s workload, too.

“I know Lobie’s caught him and has had some good games. As far as a personal-catcher situation, no. It doesn’t always that way, anyway. We’ll just see how it goes from here on out. I wouldn’t classify it as, he’s going to catch when he pitches.”

Lobaton has developed a good rapport with Strasburg, but “it’s not any different than the rapport between Stephen and Wilson,” Williams said. “It’s just the way it’s fallen.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Lobaton said. “Maybe it’s just the way he’s been throwing a little better with me. I don’t really know. but he’s been doing okay. He’s a great pitcher. He can throw to anybody behind the plate. It’s just something that came. Maybe they’re just trying to help a little bit. He’s had good and bad days. I’m just ready to do something good for him today.”

This season, even after Strasburg allowed five runs in four innings against the Giants in his last start, Strasburg has a 2.93 ERA when pitching to Lobaton. When he’s throwing to either Wilson Ramos or Sandy Leon, Strasburg has pitched to a 4.00 ERA.

Oddly, Strasburg’s raw numbers aside from ERA are off the charts pitching to Ramos: He’s held hitters to a .241/.279/.382 slash line with 108 strikeouts and 16 walks. All of those numbers are worse when he’s pitching to Lobaton.

The Nationals acquired Lobaton at the outset of spring training in part because their front office believed Lobaton excelled at handling elite starting pitchers. When he’s played, he has rated highly at framing pitches and getting strikes for Nationals pitchers on tough calls.

Lobaton wondered if the way he turns low borderline calls into strikes made Williams want him to catch Strasburg. Lobaton has also worked closely with Strasburg on his mental approach.

“Sometimes, he gets so excited to strike out everybody,” Lobaton said. “I talk to him about that. It’s not about striking out everybody.  Just make outs. Against the Diamondbacks, he got four strikeouts, but he got eight innings. That’s what I want. I want him to hit corners, hit the spot. I want those guys to swing.”

In two starts before his last outing, Strasburg allowed one run in 15 innings throwing to Lobaton. In the last outing, the Giants shelled him and smashed two homers. Lobaton has worked to diagnose the difference.

“He was missing his spot,” Lobaton said. “In New York and at home with the Diamondbacks, when he was missing in, it was in. The day after the bad game, he said his fastball was running a little bit. I talked to him. It started in, but it moved to the middle. He’s got a great curveball, great change-up, great fastball. The only mistake he’s been is his fastball missing in the middle. I told him, ‘I want you to be able to throw an 0-2 fastball in and up for a ball. I don’t want a strike.’ That’s the key not only for Stras. It’s the key for every pitcher.”

In his last start, Strasburg yielded home runs on fastballs that started inside but came back of the plate. Between starts, after watching film, Lobaton asked Strasburg if he wanted to throw two-seamer. No, Strasburg replied. He just wanted to throw an inside fastball, but he opened his front shoulder too quickly in his delivery, which caused his arm to drag behind and the ball to tail. Lobaton offered a tip: If he missed with a fastball, miss in, not over the middle. Even a ball would accomplish an objective.

Lobaton related Strasburg’s objective to throw inside to how Doug Fister operates. He likes to throw fastballs inside to set offspeed over the outside part of the plate, intended to create weak contact. Fister has used the formula all year long. Fister’s repertoire and style have reinforced Lobaton’s belief. If Fister can control the inner half of the plate with an 89-mph fastball, surely Strasburg can back off hitters with 95.

“The way Doug throws, he teaches me a lot,” Lobaton said. “The way he goes in, the way he goes away, the way he throws the pitches, I can work with other pitchers. He likes to go in, no matter what. He’s got the same plan for everybody.”

Even if Fister faces a hitter who likes to hit inside pitches, Lobaton said, he’ll still throw fastballs inside. He’ll just make sure that he throws them out of the strike zone, as a way to move their feet or back them off the plate. Then, Fister can throw an offspeed pitch or sinker outside with the hope of inducing weak contact.

“I talk to Strasburg, ‘Sometimes you got to be aggressive on the mound,’ ” Lobaton said. “I just tell those guys, ‘You got the ball, and you can throw whatever you want.’ With him, you just got to talk to him a lot, so he can be focused on the game. I cannot say nothing bad about him. He’s got one of the best curveballs I’ve ever seen. He can go backdoor for a lefty. His change is really good. But if you go right in the middle, anybody can hit. We’re going to try to work the corners today, see what happens.”

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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