Strasburg fell behind four of the first five Cards hitters, had to throw strikes on the hitter’s terms and saw the game lost when it had barely begun. The worst thing a team in a hitting slump can endure is an early deficit before it even gets to bat. Asked to be an ace, Strasburg dealt a trey.
The Cards’ rally was built on a walk and two opposite-field chunk hits dumped in front of outfielders. “You saw it. Weak contact, what can you do,” Strasburg said. Most pitching coaches of the last 100 years would say, “Throw strike one.” Then hitters will not get a free chance to look for a specific pitch in a particular zone and drop an ugly duck snort over the infield.
In 2011, Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes 71.6 percent of the time, the highest in baseball. He carried over his “challenge” mentality from college and put fear of shame into hitters. Last year, he threw 62.3 percent, 34th among starters. Wednesday, he was down to 56.2 for the season, an awful 84th among 107 starters.
How can the pitcher with, perhaps, the best four-pitch stuff of his generation — any one of which he can use to challenge hitters with arrogance if not impunity — shy away from contact on the pitch which, if it’s a strike, opens the door to outs? Every year, the average on-base-plus-slugging percentage in MLB is more than 100 points lower after 0-1 counts than 1-0. Everything else in pitching is hard. “Strike one” is lesson one on day one.
Strasburg’s first-pitch issues are especially important because they typify the Nats’ starting staff across the board. This lack of aggression, a failure in many cases to make full use of some of the game’s most dominant stuff, may be the Nats’ biggest pitching problem. Perhaps it’s even a symptom of a team that has gone from being the hunter to the hunted. Jordan Zimmermann’s percentage of first-pitch strikes has dropped from 69 to 55 percent, Dan Haren from 64 to 55, Gio Gonzalez from 59 to 55 and Ross Detwiler just a tad from 61 to 59.
The data sample may be smallish, but the pattern is uniform. Some Nats may be prospering now, but no pitcher wants to give away his first-pitch edge for long. Strasburg matters most because his potential is greatest.
Until he gets his 0-0 phobia fixed, until he reverses the balance of terror between him and hitters, getting back to the level of confidence he showed when he arrived in the majors four seasons ago, he’s going to be a very good pitcher who doesn’t go as deep into games as he’d like.