On Friday, Stephen Strasburg expressed regret at the way he pitched Jason Heyward in a key at-bat, a confrontation that ended with Heyward’s two-run double to right giving the Braves a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning. Strasburg threw Heyward seven pitches in the at-bat, all fastballs. In three meetings with Heyward, Strasburg threw 18 fastballs in 19 pitches. “I guess it was the plan going in,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think it’s the right plan. But that’s what we went with.”
Saturday afternoon, Nationals Manager Matt Williams said he believed that Strasburg was only expressing frustration with himself. He added that if Strasburg did not agree with how scouting reports suggested he pitch Heyward, then Strasburg had the option to pitch him how he wanted.
“I’m not so sure he wasn’t speaking about himself,” Williams said. “He who holds the ball controls the game. We have advanced reports with reams of information. Those reports are condensed, and information is given to everybody about how we could potentially get a guy out. But it’s about feel for Stephen. If he feels like he can throw a fastball to get a guy out, then he’s going to do that. If he doesn’t feel like that’s what he’s going to throw to get somebody out, then he’s going to go to something else. I would chalk it up to heat of the moment.”
The book on Heyward is simple: Throw him inside fastballs under his hands. He often cannot catch up to the pitch with the herky-jerky start to his swing, and when he does hit that pitch, he usually cannot extend his arms and hit it with power.
But Heyward is still a major league hitter, and a dangerous one at that. If he knows a pitch is coming, even if it attacks his biggest weakness, he’ll adjust. That’s what happened Friday night. Catcher Jose Lobaton kept calling for inside fastballs, and Strasburg did not exercise his option to shake.
Heyward fouled off three straight fastballs before he tomahawked one over Jayson Werth’s head into right field. Strasburg actually had better location on the pitch Heyward hit than the pitch he struck out on in his first at-bat. But when Heyward could discern what was coming, he still drilled it.
“He certainly has the option to shake and throw whatever pitch he chooses to throw,” Williams said. “The catcher is back there putting down signals as an option. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll go to another one.”
The at-bat was particularly frustrating for Strasburg. As the ball came in from right, Strasburg did not back up home plate. He instead wandered in the grass between the mound and the plate, somehow lost in a space of 60 feet 6 inches.
In the best-case scenario – and the likeliest scenario – Strasburg learned from the experience. He both went away from his strengths – his devastating change-up and curveball – and became predictable in order to comply with a scouting report and a game plan. He can take another lesson, too. He has the kind of stuff that does not need to bend to fit a hitter’s weaknesses. If he sticks with his strengths, he can dictate at-bats.
“He knows what’s working for him on any given day,” Williams said. “If he doesn’t feel comfortable with the sign that’s given, he could certainly shake his head and go to a different pitch, or a different location with that same pitch. That’s always an option. That’s every pitcher’s option.
“We’re certainly not calling pitches for him. We’re certainly telling him, ‘You have to throw this or that.’ It’s about what he feels out there. That’s every pitcher’s option.”