[UPDATE 1:45 p.m.]: The Nationals have placed Stephen Strasburg on the DL with a sore elbow. A.J. Cole will start in his place Monday night in Baltimore.
Strasburg, himself, said after his last outing that he did not “need to change anything” — “just keep going, just keep grinding.” He said the ball “felt good” coming out of his hands, and suggested that everyone makes mistakes and has a bad day now and then. But, of course, none of those answers satisfies the curious. So let’s look deeper.
The most natural question to ask is “what is wrong?” The more helpful question to ask is “what is different?”
The answer is: Not as much as you might think. According to Brooks Baseball, Strasburg’s velocity has been relatively consistent — nearly 96 mph in the month of August, one-hundredth of a mile per hour lower than it was as he cruised through April. Graphs tracking vertical and horizontal movement indicate no major changes in those things, either. He has used his change-up a bit less in August than he did earlier in the season, but has also struggled to spot his fastball, and those pitches play off one another.
The main category in which Strasburg shows any noteworthy change is in his horizontal release point — the distance his arm is from his body when he releases the ball. During these three starts, that release point has moved closer to the first base side of the rubber, and therefore closer to his body. Changes in release point are often unintentional, and usually manifest themselves in a lack of fastball command — something Strasburg has shown during these three rough starts. A mechanical bad habit could explain the whole thing, and indeed Strasburg has seemed to fall off to the first base side of the rubber even more than he usually does lately.
But when mechanics change and results sputter, one has to ask if an injury is to blame. So… is an injury to blame?
Dusty Baker said “no,” when asked about any injury concerns, and pointed to Strasburg’s velocity to support his claim. Strasburg said the ball “felt good” coming out of his hand, even during Wednesday’s struggles. He’s been going through his regular between-starts throwing routine, and played catch the day after that start like he normally would. He had a wrap on his right arm after Saturday’s throwing, that looked like some kind of ice or other treatment, but it is mid-August, and quite frankly, every player in the clubhouse seems to be wandering around icing, taping or treating something.
When he had upper-back trouble earlier this season, Strasburg showed he is not willing to push through discomfort that might alter his mechanics. Then, after a weight-room move created upper-back tightness that plagued him later, he went on the disabled list until he was right. He did not push through at the risk of compensating like he did for a sore ankle early in the 2015 season — when compensating affected his whole kinetic chain and led to more mechanical and injury trouble. In other words, if Strasburg is hurt, he would likely not be pitching.
“I don’t usually talk about health,’ Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “But he’s fine.”
Maddux said he and Strasburg “are talking about” missing spots” — that fastball command that betrayed him in Colorado when he could not seem to miss a bat. But pitching coaches and pitchers are always talking about fastball command. Max Scherzer, for example, said after his last start that he felt like he had a mechanical tweak that could be made that would reestablish his. Pitchers are always adjusting, because mechanics — try as they might to set them in stone — are fluid.
“You get 30 starts in a year, you’re going to have five lemons,” Maddux said. “You’re going to have games where every line drive is at somebody and they pop up mistakes. The other 20 games is who you are, and he’s been pretty darn good. He hasn’t had those five games. Now he’s had a couple.”
Maddux said he’s looked to see if Strasburg might have been tipping pitches. After the Rockies seemed so perfectly keyed in on every fastball and ready for every breaking ball, it seemed a natural suspicion. The Marlins picked up something in Tanner Roark earlier this year, and once he and Maddux identified it, he fared much better against Miami. Could Strasburg be tipping pitches, too?
“I don’t believe he is,” Maddux said. “I’ve looked.”
Meanwhile, in other news from the Nationals’ stars, Bryce Harper continues to show discomfort on particularly vicious swings and misses. After one such whiff Sunday, Harper leaned over and rested his bat on his knees as if to grimace through pain before taking his stance again. After another swing and miss, he put his hand straight to the side of his neck, the area where he battled soreness that kept him out last week.
Whatever trouble has lingered there, and he does still have tape and other signs of treatment in the area — again, in itself, as much a sign of August as it is a reliable indication of any major issue — Harper seems to have found more comfort in the batter’s box anyway. He is hitting .400 since returning from that neck injury, with two monster home runs.