During spring training, Stephen Strasburg vowed he would change his routine between starts, particularly following outings that turn disastrous. Last year, ragged starts would eat at Strasburg to the point that he would almost overhaul his mechanics in the bullpen, throwing gobs of pitches to perfect a problem that barely existed. When a thumbtack would do, he used a nail gun.
Earlier than he hoped, Strasburg received an opportunity to test his ability to tamp down his perfectionism. And, according to pitching coach Steve McCatty, he succeeded. Sunday afternoon, Strasburg will try to bounce back from the trouncing he endured in his last start, when the Marlins tagged him for six runs on eight hits – most of them rockets – and three walks over four innings.
Saturday morning, McCatty provided a clear diagnosis for Strasburg’s struggle: He had no command of his fastball. “Pretty simple,” McCatty said. “Fastballs down the middle of the plate, they’re going to get hit.”
Strasburg reacted to the location problem not by trying reinvent his approach. In the four days between outings, McCatty said, Strasburg maintained a measured attitude and stuck to his routine. Over the winter, Strasburg worked with fellow San Diegan James Shields, who emphasized the importance of not wasting bullets in bullpen session. He told Strasburg, even after bad starts, that he needed to trust his ability on move on.
“It’s much better,” McCatty said. “He understands. He has been better. He has been a lot more mature – whether that’s because he’s a father – as far as his approach and reaction when things go awry. He’s been much better about it. He’s been really good. He really has.”
Friday afternoon, Strasburg headed into the Nationals’ bullpen not to throw, but to perform the common “towel drill,” which he has used in the past. Rather than pitching, Strasburg went through his motion holding a towel in his right hand, snapping the towel at the point he would release a ball.
“It’s not any special drill,” McCatty said. “Guys do it for the purpose of maintaining extension, following through, just working on a little drop. It’s not a drill that’s designed for any specific problem. … That is not a drill other than working on getting his weight toward the plate, working on a little extension. It’s not a wholesale change trying to figure out something.”
Strasburg’s nature made him susceptible to trying to tweak everything after a bad start. So did the attention heaped on him. McCatty, rightfully, pointed out that Strasburg’s clunker in Miami received far more national media coverage than one from any other Nationals’ pitcher.
“When Stephen does something wrong, it’s 10 times magnified than it is opposed to Jordan Zimmermann,” McCatty said. “Jordan didn’t have fastball command [when he allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings last week], and it wasn’t made a big deal out of. When Stephen didn’t have it, it’s noticeable.”
Entering Sunday, Strasburg’s ERA sits at 6.00, even though he has struck out a league-leading 14.1 batters per nine innings. Strasburg’s improved approach between starts, of course, will only matter if he rebounds with better command and better results. But Strasburg has at least stuck to what he wanted to do when things go wrong.