Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals: What makes him a great pitcher?

By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; HE01

What makes Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg such a great pitcher? The 22-year-old can throw triple-digit fastballs while guiding the ball to an exact spot in, or not quite in, the strike zone. His curveballs seem to fall off a cliff. His changeup -- a slower pitch, meant to confuse the batter -- clips along at 89 mph, the speed of some pitchers' fastballs.

To his fans, coaches, teammates and especially his strikeout victims, Strasburg's talent seems inexplicable, a supernatural force: "There's no rhyme or reason. He's just better than everybody else," says Rob Dibble, a MASN TV commentator who once threw 99-mph fastballs of his own. "It's a God-given talent," says Steve McCatty, the Nationals' pitching coach.

But, in truth, baseball is a game of numbers and physical laws. Experts on pitching and biomechanics say that Strasburg is a genius at moving energy through his body, never making a motion too early or too late, never creating an angle in his body that's too acute or obtuse.

Strasburg's complex series of perfect motions starts when he raises his left foot. The energy moves from the legs to the pelvis, to the trunk to the shoulder to the elbow, to the wrist to the fingertips -- and, finally, to home plate. Scientists call this the kinetic chain, or the process of transferring energy from one link in the body to the next. Coaches call it coordination.

"His mechanics are sound and very fluid," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo says. "The effort he exerts to get to maximum velocity is very minimal for his miles per hour. . . . The effortless delivery translates into more command over the pitch." In other words, Strasburg makes throwing a ball 100 mph look easy.

No weak links

Glenn S. Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., has analyzed the mechanics of about 2,000 baseball pitchers since 1987. (ASMI was founded by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews to understand and prevent injuries in sports. "The mission was to put himself out of business," Fleisig says.)

Major league coaches send pitchers to the ASMI laboratory, which has a regulation-size space to throw the ball: 60 feet, 6 inches, from rubber to plate. (Little League, high school and college players also go to ASMI for evaluation.) Fleisig sticks about 25 sensors on the pitcher and points eight cameras on him while he throws the ball. It's the same technology used for creating special effects in movies and video games.

The sensors and cameras connect to a computer, which spits out a 15-page document called a "biomechanical analysis of pitching delivery." How fast does the pelvis rotate, in degrees per second? What's the angle of the lead knee when the foot hits the ground? Is the trunk tilted forward at the moment of ball release, as it should be? (The ideal tilt, for example, is in the range of 37 to 44 degrees.)

"What makes a good pitcher is not that he bends his elbow or knee the right way," says Fleisig, who has not analyzed Strasburg in the laboratory. "What makes him good is that he doesn't have a weak link in his chain of events or a mistimed motion."

(We were not able to ask Strasburg any questions. Exact words from a Nationals spokesman: "Welcome to the clubhouse. You can interview anyone not named Stephen Strasburg.")

Aspects of Strasburg's anatomy, including his height, hands, legs and the soft tissue in his shoulder, help him throw the ball faster, but there is no paper-doll ideal for what a great pitcher looks like. The 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson, who retired this year, didn't have a big lower half to power his windup, and the Astros' Roy Oswalt, who is listed at 6 feet tall, doesn't have height.

Strasburg is a big guy: 6-4 and 220 pounds. Rizzo, who worked as scouting director for the Arizona Diamondbacks before he joined the Nationals in 2006, says that Strasburg passes his "eye test" for a pitcher.

"You want a big, physical guy," Rizzo says. "It's a very physically demanding position, and the lower portion of the pitcher's body is vitally important. The lower body -- the legs, the core, the hips and the butt -- is where the power comes from and where the strength comes from. When I saw Stephen, he looked like a big, physical horse of a pitcher."

Nationals relief pitcher Drew Storen, who is 6-2, says Strasburg's pitches have a great downhill plane.

"The ball is so far up, and it has to go down to the catcher, and that's pretty hard to hit," Storen says. "I don't have that luxury."

Storen also mentions Strasburg's long fingers, which help him put nasty spins on the ball. Storen, by contrast, holds the ball deep in his smaller hand.

The soft-tissue stabilizers in an elite pitcher's shoulder must be strong and developed, but not tight like, say, a linebacker's might be, according to Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon. The shoulder has to stay flexible enough to reach the angles that are necessary to throw a fastball, particularly that unnatural-looking one when the arm is fully cocked back.

Andrews is particularly known for his work with pitchers, including David Wells (elbow, 1985), Kerry Wood (elbow, 1999), Mark Prior (shoulder, 2007) and Roger Clemens (shoulder, 1985, pre-steroid allegations). Strasburg is not one of Andrews's patients.

The fact that Strasburg hasn't hurt his shoulder yet bodes well for his longevity as a pitcher. Andrews thinks the fact that the pitcher made it through Little League, high school and college without serious injury can be credited to his DNA.

"Longevity is all genetic," Andrews says. "I'm sure Strasburg has great genes; not everybody has those. That's the most critical difference between the wannabe thrower and the elite thrower."

Turning up the heat

The most common pitcher injuries that Andrews treats are tears to the rotator cuff, the muscles that stabilize the shoulder. The rotator cuff wears down from making the same violent motion so many times. To help prevent injury, the Nationals coaching staff has been limiting Strasburg to roughly 100 pitches per game; he is also to throw no more than 160 total major and minor league innings this year, meaning Strasburg's season will probably end before the team's does.

When Strasburg is throwing at his maximum velocity, his shoulder rotates at about 7,500 degrees per second, according to Fleisig. That means that if Strasburg maintained his peak throwing speed for a full second, his arm would make 20 revolutions. (It only goes that fast for a split second during his windup, right before he releases the ball.) The shoulder of an elite pitcher moves faster than any body part of any athlete in any sport, Fleisig says.

And it's not going any faster.

Whereas humans continue to run and swim faster than ever, we've apparently hit the ceiling in throwing a baseball. The shoulder is maxed out, Andrews says.

The question of who is the fastest pitcher of all time is so contentious that baseball writer Tim Wendel of Vienna just wrote an entire book on the topic, "High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time." Some people cite Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, who was clocked at 104.8 mph on Oct. 10, 2006; others say that Nolan Ryan's fastest pitch, 100.9 mph, was clocked at the wrong point and, had it been tested accurately, would have read closer to 105.9 mph. (Strasburg hits 100 mph regularly, and his average fastball clocks in at 97.2 mph.) "High Heat" ends with a list of 12 pitchers who could be the fastest, including Zumaya, Ryan and J.R. Richard. Walter Johnson, who played 100 years ago, is on the list, as is Amos Rusie, whose rookie year was 1889.

Ryan came onto the scene in the mid-1960s already throwing heat, but he needed years to gain control over his pitches. Ryan compares Strasburg's development as a pitcher with Roger Clemens's, because neither of them was always a hard thrower. Both learned great control first; the velocity came later. (Strasburg has referred to himself as a "late bloomer.")

During his freshman year of college at San Diego State, Strasburg reined in his jumbo burrito habit and lost 30 pounds, built muscle with the team's strength coach and took up yoga. His fastball gained about 10 mph.

McCatty, the pitching coach, is using a hands-off approach with his young star. He worries that "too many cooks" will mess up what's already working so well:

"What am I working on? With Stephen? We go to the bullpen. I give him two baseballs and I let him throw them. And then when he's done, I take the baseballs back."

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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