WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dave Martinez saw Stephen Strasburg throughout the winter, occasionally watching the pitcher work out back in Washington, but that didn’t stop the Nationals’ manager from lingering behind the mound as Strasburg threw his first pitches of spring training on Friday.
Max Scherzer’s opening session drew attention Thursday because it is borderline performance art. Patrick Corbin’s, also Thursday morning, did because he was the biggest pitching acquisition of the offseason. Strasburg’s did for a different reason, because his results could very well mirror the team’s in 2019.
Martinez leaned on a bat like a cane and watched as Strasburg fired 42 pitches into Kurt Suzuki’s catcher’s mitt. At one point, after a fastball zipped out of Strasburg’s hand and clipped the edge of the plate, Martinez looked at pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and nodded with approval.
“What I noticed today was that his bullpen seemed like it was kind of effortless, and the ball was coming out really well,” Martinez said Friday afternoon. “So that’s a good sign.”
After missing chunks of last season with shoulder and neck injuries, Strasburg’s fastball velocity dipped into the low-90s when he returned in mid-August. It didn’t climb back into the high-90s for the rest of the year and it is now safe to wonder if he will ever possess his overpowering fastball again. But it forced him to attack hitters in different ways — Martinez has continually noted that he “really pitched” — and that could be a new normal for the 30-year-old.
The Nationals won seven of his final eight starts in 2018, even if a few weren’t pretty, and his season ERA leveled out at 3.74. Washington’s identity is built around its starting staff, with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin headlining a rotation that also includes Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson. Scherzer has sustained his dominance, even into his mid-30s, and is expected to do so again this season. Corbin was signed to a six-year, $140 million contract with the expectation that he is the solidified ace on most other teams. How Strasburg will fare, and how close he can get to the pitcher who posted a 2.52 ERA in 2017, is the biggest question for the group.
And the answer may hold the most weight.
“I don’t know if he’s ever going to get back to the 97s, 98s, stuff like that,” Martinez said Friday. “He may top out at that, but I just want him to be aware that, hey, what he did last year coming back, I think you realize that he can pitch, he can do other things, so that helped him out a lot.”
Strasburg doesn’t split his career into when his fastball has flirted with 100 miles per hour and when it hasn’t. But he did say Wednesday that his motion feels better than it did last spring, and Martinez noticed a difference when he threw two days later. Strasburg spent the offseason in Washington adding muscle to increase his durability, knowing that good health has always seamlessly translated to strong results. His 28 starts in 2017, his most since he led the National League with 34 in 2014, led to an all-star appearance and a third-place finish in Cy Young Award voting.
His offseason regimen didn’t stray from what he usually does, outside of minor tinkering, and there doesn’t appear to be any side effects from last year’s injuries.
“Old self, I don’t really know what that necessarily means,” Strasburg said when asked if he expects to get back to where he was before his velocity dipped. “But I think mechanically I feel much better than I was at this point last year. It seemed like for some reason I was having a tough time staying consistent with mechanics and executing. That seemed to come back pretty fast this time.”
He started Friday’s bullpen session by switching mounds — “I don’t like that one that much,” he said with a laugh — and then was off. His 42 pitches mixed in his fastball, curveball, slider and change-up. Behind the plate was the 35-year-old Suzuki, who caught him in parts of 2012 and 2013 and returned to Washington this winter. Strasburg wasn’t throwing a slider then but has developed it into a fourth pitch over the last half decade.
Halfway through, Strasburg spun a slider into Suzuki’s mitt and the veteran catcher let out a high-pitched “Oooweee!” before tossing the ball back to him.
“I didn’t know you had that!” Suzuki yelled to the mound. Strasburg shrugged and even shyly grinned.
“He seemed the same to me, the ball comes out of his hand so easy,” Suzuki said later. “But he did surprise me with one. I don’t want to say he’s increased his arsenal, but he now throws some different pitches in different spots and it makes him that much tougher. When you become a veteran, I think you have to keep reinventing yourself, and I think he is doing that.”
That could continue this season, as Strasburg steps into another year and, maybe, another phase of his career. He started it as a 21-year-old in 2010, a former first-round pick, a franchise pillar the Nationals started building around. That is when he pumped high-90s fastballs and there is a chance he still can. The 15-4 record and 175.1 innings pitched in 2017 was that pitcher the Nationals had always envisioned. The 10-7 record and 130 innings in 2018, a year dashed by injuries, was not.
But it’s also possible Strasburg will keep evolving into a new kind of pitcher, one Washington has caught glimpses of and may have seen again on Friday.
“We want to try to get him back to where he was in 2017,” Martinez said, and he made it sound as if that shouldn’t be a problem at all.