There are some pitchers who talk about “giving my team a chance to win,” and Stephen Strasburg is not one of them. He wants to dominate, to take games by the throat, to give his team no option but to win. He demands himself to be an ace. He has a high standard, and through the first four starts of his season, he is not meeting it.
Last night, Strasburg fired 111 pitches over six innings. He struck out six, walked two, allowed just five hits and two earned runs. It was a useful start. It was also, in Strasburg’s words, “not good enough.” It earned him only another loss, giving him three in three consecutive starts for just the second time in his young career.
By the standards of most pitchers, it has been a fine first four outings for Strasburg, his 1-3 record aside. He has 21 strikeouts in 24 innings with just five walks. Opponents are hitting .233 with a .593 OPS against him. His ERA sits at 2.96. But there is something missing, a gap between fine and dominant.
“I’m not having good enough feel early to just go out there and let it eat and get through some quick innings to get deep in the ballgame,” Strasburg said. “That seems to be the case the last few starts. Going out there, just not throwing enough strikes early. It’s kind of shooting myself in the foot.”
Inefficiency is what has held him back. He has thrown a first-pitch strike to 56.2 percent of the hitters he’s faced, which ranks 73rd among 99 qualified starting pitchers. He has gone to three-ball counts against 18 of 79 hitters. He has thrown 17.1 pitches per inning, 21st in the majors among starters, and that includes his seven-inning, 80-pitch monument to efficiency on opening day. He is searching for how to fix it.
“I really couldn’t say,” Strasburg said. “It’s such a feel thing for me when I go out there. It feels right, and you repeat it. Right now, I’m just breaking down on some pitches as far as mechanics. I just need to keep working hard. I know that it’s going to get better.”
The defense behind him has not helped – in all three of his losses, an error led to a crucial rally. Errors or not, Strasburg has become bogged down in his toughest innings. Last night, the first was a 28-pitch slog. In every inning Strasburg has allowed a run, he has allowed multiple runs.
It seems as though Strasburg is trying to find a balance between getting ahead early in counts and countering opponents’ aggression. He has long been weary of hitters hacking at the first pitch of an at-bat, and his strategy to prevent hard early contact has been more off-speed and trying to be more precise on the corners. Given the frequency of 1-0 counts he has encountered, it also seems like he may have swung a tad too far to the side of preventing early contact.
As ever with Strasburg, any criticism amounts to nitpicking. Through four starts, he has been good enough for most pitchers, just not for himself.