By this time last year, Stephen Strasburg had thrown 1391 / 3 innings. Four starts remained in his season, which ended Sept. 8 when the Nationals shut him down because he was recovering from elbow surgery.
Strasburg does not think about getting shut down much any more. “It is what it is,” he said. “You can’t change the past.” But he can process the difference between then and now, the way he feels physically stronger and less mentally drained.
“I definitely feel a lot better than I did,” Strasburg said Wednesday afternoon. “I think there was a lot more stress last year. My mind was pretty tired at this point last year. I still have a lot of work to do. I’m excited to go out there and get after it every fifth day.”
Strasburg “absolutely” feels stronger now, he said, and it shows in his performance. He is lasting longer — he needed 24 starts to throw 1391 / 3 innings by this point last season, and this year he has 1461 / 3 innings in his first 23 starts. He is pitching better — he had a 2.91 ERA on this date last season; now he has a 2.83 ERA.
The ability to perform without the knowledge this season will end early, and without the attendant hoopla, has helped.
“I couldn’t really pinpoint it, but I could say that’s a big difference,” Strasburg said. “It probably could have been because it was my first full year in the big leagues. I think I’ve learned along the road how to prepare just a little bit different. What to expect in the dog days of summer. You got to change your workout program, especially in July and August. You start to be in survival mode when you get to September.”
Saturday in Atlanta, Strasburg will come off the first complete game of his career. Just 13 innings shy of his 1591 / 3 total from last year, he could surpass his innings total from last season in his next two starts. “It’s kind of what they were hoping for shutting me down at 160,” Strasburg said, “so when I get to that number I’m not on fumes.”
Strasburg has not received nearly as much attention this season as he did last but his overall performance has improved, his hard-luck 6-9 record aside. Strasburg has dominated hitters in a different way this season. He has 9.41 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranks ninth in the National League. But for him, it represents a significant drop. Strasburg struck out 11.13 hitters per nine last year. He identified two reasons for the difference.
“I’ve tried not to waste pitches with two strikes,” he said. “I’d say I probably could have thrown a couple pitches to guys throughout the year and struck them out. But I decided to go more in attack mode, keep pounding the strike zone. I guess that’s one thing. I just know that my change-up is not where it was at all last year for most of this year. It’s just now started to come back to me. I know that’s a pitch I do strike a lot of guys out on.”
Strasburg may be allowing more contact, but it is the right kind of contact. His groundball rate has shot up from 44.2 percent to 51.2 percent, 12th in the majors. He is burning worms like a sinkerballer and striking hitters out like a flamethrower. The only three pitchers who rank in the top 12 in the majors in groundball rate and strikeouts per nine innings are A.J. Burnett, Felix Hernandez and Strasburg.
Strasburg’s batting average on balls in play has shrunk from .311 last year to .264, which is not all about the luck of where balls are hit. Last year, he surrendered a line drive 22.7 percent of the time a hitter made contact. This year, his line drive rate is 16.6, which is the lowest in the major leagues.
Essentially, Strasburg has combined the skills of a power pitcher (more than a strikeout per inning) and a finesse pitcher (weak contact, keeping the ball on the ground).
“I think I’ve made more adjustments with my mechanics,” Strasburg said. “My miss, when I mess up mechanically, I miss up and in. When you’re a little quick and you fly open too much, the fastball gets flat. The flatter it is, the better chance they have to square it up or get under it. I’ve just been trying to keep good angles, stay tall, and just drive it in through the strike zone.”
There is little question Strasburg has become a better pitcher this season. But with the Nationals playing themselves out of contention and with no shutdown debate to be had, Strasburg has operated mostly outside of the spotlight. He’s just fine with that.
“That’s just how the game works,” he said. “There’s always going to be new faces every year. The media is going to have their little media darlings, a handful of guys that they’re just going to hype up out of proportion. The next year, there’s going to be new guys. That’s just how it is. I’m perfectly okay with. I like just being another guy in the rotation. I like being in the trenches with these guys every day, battling.”