Thomas Boswell: Strasburg’s learning curve continues, but greatness may be on the horizon


Stephen Strasburg pitches into the eighth inning of a 3-2 win over the Dodgers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Clayton Kershaw is only four months and a day older than Stephen Strasburg. Yet he seems a decade older as a polished big league pitcher. Where is Strasburg? What is the fair measure of his career as he nears age 26, a time when big leaguers are no longer “young” and often are close to their final form?

Kershaw, who beat the Nationals with seven shutout innings on just 89 pitches on Tuesday night, and Strasburg, who defeated the Dodgers, 3-2, on Wednesday afternoon with a resilient, tenacious 114-pitch effort over 71 / 3 innings, are contemporaries in age and similar in raw physical talent.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Strasburg actually throws harder, strikes out more batters (12.7 per nine innings this year) and has three wipeout pitches to Kershaw’s two. Yet they seem worlds apart. Kershaw has finished first, second and first for the NL Cy Young Award the past three seasons with a 2.18 ERA. Strasburg was 8-9 last year.

By those, and some other measures, Kershaw seems to be from the planet of poise while Strasburg has brilliant skeins, running off four or five nearly perfect innings, before adversity derails him.

Strasburg, in his fifth major league season, may have been rushed to the big leagues and still has only 83 major league starts to Kershaw’s 184. But he knows he’s at an age that asks for evaluation.

With Doug Fister and Wilson Ramos returning from injuries this week, the Post Sports Live crew debates whether the starting pitcher or catcher will have a bigger impact on the Nationals. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“I’m not askin’ for easy,” said Strasburg after a win in which he gave up two runs on four straight hits in the first inning, then battled into the eighth inning against one of baseball’s toughest lineups. These are the games when the Nats can see Strasburg growing and learning. They just don’t know yet how far it goes and where it stops.

On the path from nationally known prodigy to finished product, where is Strasburg? “Somewhere in between,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “He’s still relying on his stuff, which is very effective. But every few starts he learns more of the little bits of the game that are important and make things easier. You see him dial into a hitter’s weakness or really get on the same page with his catcher to work a guy over.

“Early on, he was great stuff — just throw it. Now, more and more, he’s picking up the right ways to be creative. We shouldn’t be in a hurry [to judge him]. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

Don’t be too sure that, 101 more starts from now, Strasburg won’t be closer to — no, not Kershaw, but the final finished and formidable Strasburg — than the past 24 hours might seem to indicate. In baseball, experience and maturity are sometimes measured in years, sometimes in games played and sometimes a mixture of both. You never know which yardstick truly applies until hindsight arrives.

But, just to focus our attention, after 83 starts, Kershaw, then only 22, had a 3.17 ERA and a 26-23 record. The next year, greatness arrived. After 83 starts, Strasburg’s ERA is 3.01 and his record 32-21.

Which applies — age, experience or a blend? We don’t know. Yet. But here’s one other number to consider. Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) is a much revered stat that tries to eliminate the element of luck in a pitcher’s results. For example, this year the batting-average-on-balls-in-play against Strasburg has been .388, almost 100 points above the league norm.

In young pitchers, FIP is an extremely good predictor of career arc. Since World War II, look at some pitchers who, through age 25, were in the top 10 in FIP: Dwight Gooden, Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver and Tim Lincecum. Of all pitchers since 1945 at the same age, Strasburg ranks eighth (2.72). Kershaw through age 25 ranks 13th (2.88).

“Stephen isn’t going to be Kershaw or Nolan Ryan or any of the people he always gets compared to,” said pitching coach Steve McCatty. “He isn’t going to be Jordan Zimmermann, either. He’s going to be the best Stephen Strasburg. And we’re still finding out who that will be.”

In the Dodgers southpaw and the Nats righty we see the mysteries of player development in baseball. Against the Nats, in his first game off the disabled list after missing about six weeks with a strained muscle in his back, Kershaw threw a ludicrous 76 percent strikes as though he had nothing to fear on any pitch. When he gave up hits, nine of them, he erased rallies as if they barely existed.

Strasburg isn’t there yet. But, against his wishes, he’s learning another skill this season — how to ignore early-inning miseries.

In the first two innings, his ERA is 7.31. Thereafter, it is 0.89. The mythology surrounding Strasburg is that he’s emotionally fragile, a perfectionist who’s distractible, then beatable. Now, he’s reversing that image. “He’s our horse,” said Manager Matt Williams, who has revised the Nats’ rotation at times this year so Strasburg can start exactly every fifth day — maximizing his starts, his innings and the Nats’ dependence on his performance. But that predictability also lets Strasburg stay in his routine cocoon.

“We, as an organization, want to show confidence in him,” Williams said. He gave Strasburg ace responsibilities by sending him back out for the eighth inning to face the top of the Dodgers lineup for a fourth time even though he’d thrown 106 pitches in a 3-2 game. “He wants the ball. When he goes 110-115 pitches in tight situations, he becomes that guy who can dominate,” Williams said.

For Strasburg, perhaps the most vital element in this phase of his development is his ability to let go of aggravations like the four first-inning hits, one of which should probably have been fielded, that have sent him into funks in the past. “I’ve just got to remember that I can’t worry once the ball leaves my hand,” he said. “That’s trying to control the uncontrollable.

“I’m learning to locate my pitches better. I’m not going to throw 100 [mph] like I used to,” he says, grinning. No, he’ll have to settle for 96 or 97. Since a worrisome opening-day performance when his fastball was alarmingly slow he’s actually shown slightly higher velocity in his past seven starts than he did in ’13.

“I executed a lot of pitches pretty well today,” said Strasburg, then, in an off-hand remark he would never have made two years ago, he credited the RBI hit against him to “a good piece of hitting.”

Giving hitters credit for their gifts, rather than assuming you can dominate them all, is a first step toward realizing that, maybe, you have to find those “creative” and easier ways to let them get themselves out.

“Everybody he is ever mentioned in the same breath with is in the Hall of Fame,” McCatty said. “It’s not fair. He’s a really, really good pitcher. And he’s still getting better. That always takes a little time. He’s going to be what Stephen Strasburg can be, not anybody else.”

The steps to get there are small, like those in this narrow win against a top contender. But the final product, whenever it arrives, should be worth the wait.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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