WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – At first glance, Stephen Strasburg’s Grapefruit League debut Friday against a St. Louis Cardinals B-team was standard, healthy Strasburg. With heavy wind gusts blowing in at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, he faced the minimum over two scoreless innings. He struck out two, allowed one hit, and walked none. The video board radar gun wasn’t operating, but his pitches seemed to have life and he needed just 23 of them. The partially torn pronator tendon he sustained last September was a distant nightmare.
“He was pretty electric,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said after his split squad’s 2-1, 10-inning loss. “He was very sharp for his first time out. Didn’t see anything that was any different than how he started last year.”
But there was a difference in this Strasburg, besides the thick beard: He tossed every single one of those 23 pitches – 21 of which were thrown without a runner on base — from the stretch. Spring training is prime for experimentation, but this was more than a trial for the 28-year-old Strasburg, who is entering the first season of the seven-year, $175 million contract extension he signed last May. He is prepared to pitch from the stretch regardless of the situation if he can get batters out that way.
“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” Strasburg said. “But I’m trying to simplify things as much as I can.”
Strasburg said he decided to make the switch over the winter after watching other elite starting pitchers, like Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco, succeed by not deviating from the stretch. He listed two primary reasons the change would benefit him. The first is he repeats his mechanics – and arm slot — more consistently without a windup’s extra movement, which leads to better command and less stress on his arm, paramount for a pitcher with a Tommy John surgery and another partially torn ligament in his past. The second is he believes he has always maintained his stuff pitching from the stretch – essentially, he has never gotten much going through a windup.
“I feel like as I’ve gotten older, for whatever reason,” Strasburg said, “the windup’s just been an issue as far as getting that right feeling of staying on the mound, not drifting too much towards first or third base side on my leg kick and sticking the landing a little better.”
Another impending change for Strasburg in 2017 is his use of the slider he incorporated – and fell in love with – last season. The slider helped Strasburg jump out to a 14-0 start, but he posits that relying on the pitch so heavily – he threw it 17.1 percent of the time, supplanting his curveball as his second-most used pitch – added stress on his elbow, which led to him breaking down in August and the pronator tendon tear in September. Strasburg threw just one slider Friday, but Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said he expects Strasburg will still throw it regularly in games while eliminating it from his work between starts.
“It’s a pitch that I still want to throw because I think it’s effective, but to certain guys,” Strasburg said. “I think I got into a habit of throwing it to pitchers last year and it’s like I don’t really need to do that so it’s just trying to stick within the percentages that I know are good for me and hopefully good for the long haul.”
Despite not pitching until Washington’s seventh day of games, Strasburg is on a regular schedule because of the extra week of spring training to accommodate the World Baseball Classic. He arrived healthy, threw his scheduled bullpen sessions and tossed an inning in an intrasquad game before debuting. Last year, he pitched in his first game on March 5. The only difference in Strasburg’s spring training program, Maddux said, is he – and Tanner Roark, who will make a start for Team USA in the WBC – is receiving extra days off whenever possible and reducing side work.
“You can suffer injuries in this game from fastballs, curveballs, knuckleballs, changeups,” Maddux said. “It doesn’t matter. If you change a guy’s delivery, does that hurt his arm? No, you’re using the same muscles. They just fire in different order. So it’s just, that’s something that’s different, and your body got to adapt to what’s different and everything will be fine.”
Strasburg credited Maddux, who’s in his second season supervising the Nationals pitching staff, for developing a culture that is open to new ideas and changes. Max Scherzer has used that freedom to experiment with a three-fingered fastball that he is prepared to use in games as a way around the stress fracture in his right ring finger. But Scherzer’s adjustment is temporary. Strasburg could always return to the windup, but pitching from the stretch could be here to stay.
“You just never know,” Strasburg said. “It just might be something that takes your game to the next level.”