The disparity had never struck Stephen Strasburg. He did not know the difference – and it is significant – between his results when Wilson Ramos or Kurt Suzuki crouches behind the plate for him. This, though, he did know: In a matter of 52 career starts, Strasburg has pitched to seven different catchers.
“I’ll say this,” Strasburg said. “In college, I threw to one guy. We were on the same page – he was the best man at my wedding. It seemed like it helped me out a lot. But I haven’t had the luxury of really developing a relationship with one catcher over the other. That’s just the nature of it.”
The prevailing conclusion regarding Strasburg, as he sits on a 1-4 record with a 3.45 ERA, is that he has not been himself. A deeper look, though, shows he has actually been better than usual, under one condition: With Ramos behind the plate, Strasburg has been every bit as dominant as expected.
In three starts with Ramos behind the plate this year, Strasburg has a 1.80 ERA over 20 innings with 18 strikeouts, 13 hits allowed and two walks. In three starts throwing to Suzuki, Strasburg has a 5.19 ERA over 17 1/3 innings with 19 strikeouts, 10 walks and 20 hits allowed. (Strasburg also threw to Jhonatan Solano once, allowing three earned runs in seven innings.)
Strasburg seemed surprised that his numbers stood out with Ramos behind the plate – “I can’t really tell,” he said – and offered no preference between Ramos or Suzuki. He only wanted the chance to work with any catcher for an extended period.
“I can’t sit here and say I throw to one guy better than the other,” Strasburg said. “There’s not enough time. I think everybody is really good. It’s all about developing a relationship. You don’t see [Justin] Verlander throwing to every other catcher. It has nothing to do with their ability behind there. It’s just them working with you. That just comes with time.”
The chasm between Strasburg’s performance when throwing to Suzuki and Ramos may well be a fluke of a small sample. But the trend started before this season, particularly in regard to how effective Strasburg pitches when throwing to Ramos.
In eight career starts with Ramos catching before this year, Strasburg punched up a 1.64 ERA in 44 innings with 39 strikeouts, 34 hits allowed and three walks. After he arrived last season, Suzuki caught Strasburg five times. The results: 26 innings, a 4.50 ERA, 27 strikeouts, 22 hits allowed and 13 walks.
In sum, Strasburg has a 1.69 ERA with a 0.813 WHIP, plus an astonishing 57 strikeouts against just five walks, when he throws to Ramos. When Suzuki catches him, Strasburg has a 4.78 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. The sample remains small. But the early trend appears too stark to ignore.
Will the Nationals react? For now, they have no apparent plans to make Ramos into Strasburg’s personal catcher. Pitching coach Steve McCatty agreed with the idea that the sample size is too small to make heads or tails of. He also stands opposed to the notion of personal catchers.
“I don’t think it’s a great idea to have a personal catcher,” McCatty said. “Starting Ramos with [Strasburg] all the time, I don’t think that’s a good thing. Of course, that’s the manager’s decision. But I really don’t look at that.”
Manager Davey Johnson has employed a personal catchers before – Chad Kreuter for Chan Ho Park, with the Dodgers – but did not see the need to do the same for any Nationals starter. He also felt using a personal catcher could undermine a potential offensive advantage against a specific opposing starter.
“I really think both those guys, Suzuki and Ramos, are very well-prepared going over scouting reports,” Johnson said. “They’ve caught everybody. And I’ve talked to McCatty about, is there a pitcher preference? By and large, his reply was, ‘No, they like throwing to both of them.’ So, I’m not going there.”
Said McCatty: “I think that’s a bad thing to get into, myself. You got to learn how to pitch. You got to learn what to do yourself. You can’t sit there and rely on what one guys calls. Yeah, you want to feel comfortable with everybody. But the better question would be to Stephen, ‘Does one do something that the other one doesn’t?’ But I watch both of them. I don’t sit back and really look at those numbers that hard.”
If Suzuki, Wednesday’s starter, and Ramos continue to alternate, Ramos will catch Strasburg when he starts Saturday against the Cubs.
Suzuki will catch Strasburg when he starts Friday against the Cubs. When Suzuki arrived in a trade last August, he said his biggest challenge would be learning the Nationals’ pitching staff. Across the board, “I feel it’s a lot better than it was last year,” he said. “I feel a lot more confident knowing their stuff and knowing them a little better as people.”
As Strasburg said, though, the catcher-pitcher relationship takes time. Suzuki said he thought it takes between a year and two years for a pitcher and catcher fall into an ideal partnership. Because so few pitchers feature pure stuff like Strasburg’s, he may be more of a challenge to learn than most.
“With Stephen, he’s so hard on himself,” Suzuki said. “You try to work around that. He wants to be so perfect, which can be tough. You just try to work with him. A guy with Stephen’s stuff, that’s special. That’s special stuff. As a catcher, it’s fun knowing he’s got that kind of stuff, and you’re back there basically messing with hitters.”
Suzuki championed the same sentiment McCatty has often espoused. He believes Strasburg is still figuring out how to pitch in the majors, still just 24 years old and 52 starts into his career.
“He’s still learning,” Suzuki said. “It’s so tough on him. Every time you turn on TV, everybody is talking about Strasburg this and that. It’s just tough. I don’t understand it, because I’ve never had to deal with it. But I can’t imagine how tough it is going out there and being under a microscope every single time. He’s only had 50-some odd starts, and he’s still learning how to become a pitcher. He’s one of the better pitchers in the league already. That just goes to show how good he really is. You know many pitchers in the big leagues would love to have a [3.45 ERA]?”
Strasburg, certainly, is still learning, and he has not yet found a solitary catcher to take the journey with him. Strasburg has thrown most often to Jesus Flores (17 starts), followed by Ivan Rodriguez (12), Ramos (11), Suzuki (eight), Solano (two), Sandy Leon (one) and Wil Nieves (one). He hopes one day, just one will emerge.
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NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Durham 3: Danny Rosenbaum tossed seven strong innings, allowed only two runs, one earned, on four hits and striking out seven. J.C. Romero faced four batters, notched one out and gave up one run on two hits. Jeff Mandel and Fernando Abad finished the inning. Erik Davis notched his fourth save. Mike Costanzo hit a two-run home run and drove in three. Eury Perez hit his first homer of the season.
Altoona 7, Harrisburg 6: Starter Blake Treinen, acquired in the Michael Morse trade, was knocked around for six runs on eight hits over 3 1/3 innings. Kenn Kasparek gave up the game-winning run. Anthony Rendon went 2 for 3 with four RBI, including his fourth home run of the season. Brian Goodwin and Jimmy Van Ostrand each notched two hits, and Jeff Howell hit a solo shot.
Potomac 3, Wilmington 2: In a rain-shortened game, Robbie Ray allowed two runs on two hits and struck out seven over five innings. Jason Martinson and Michael Taylor each drove in a run.