WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — We have spent the better part of a decade watching Stephen Strasburg’s every move — how he shook his arm, where he landed with his foot, whether he wiped sweat from his brow, what velocity he registered on the radar gun. And yet for someone who has been observed so closely over such a long stretch, we don’t know him, not in the way we feel like we know Ryan Zimmerman or Max Scherzer or even Sean Doolittle.
So let’s introduce a character we might not have understood over the first 206 starts of his major league career, so that maybe we can appreciate the next 206: Strasburg is a thoughtful, competitive, mindful and evolving veteran who, at 30, might well have his best years ahead of him.
“You always try to learn and improve, however you can,” he said the other morning.
Yes, it’s March, and the unrelentingly bright Florida skies might color the way we think. All of baseball has been conditioned to brace for Strasburg’s next injury. But in spring, allow a thought: What if it doesn’t come? Whom might we get to know?
“He’s turned himself into a guy that he wants to be a workhorse and an innings-eater,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Yes, he kept a straight face — because he meant it.
What we know: Strasburg is less than expansive, more than reserved. His resting face isn’t sunshine; it’s thunderclouds. He has a startling ability to move past people staring blankly ahead. Even though he debuted in Washington in 2010 — can that be true? — there remains a gulf between the pitcher, the person and our understanding of both.
That can lead to dangerous assumptions: His injuries mean he’s a fragile flower or he doesn’t care. Which is worse? Doesn’t matter. They’re both awful impressions, and they’re not shared internally.
“I think, over time, that really digs at him when people say that,” said Zimmerman, the only Nat with a tenure longer than Strasburg. “As it should, because none of us are not competitive.”
This struck me last summer, when Strasburg came off the disabled list in August. He spent six weeks on the shelf with shoulder inflammation, made a single start in which he and lead-dog Scherzer publicly squabbled in the dugout, then went back on the disabled list with a nerve issue in his neck. When he returned for good, I asked Strasburg something about what it’s like watching a team that hoped to contend struggle instead — but be unable to help, because you’re on the outside.
“I don’t really want to get into that anymore,” Strasburg said, and tersely. “I’ve spent the last two months just fuming over it.”
If actual steam had emerged from his ears, it would have fit the moment. That fuming matters, and we should take note. These long stretches where he hasn’t been able to pitch, they eat at him. “He’s the ultra-competitor,” Rizzo said, and his mind immediately goes back to the infamous 2012 decision to hold a still-recovering Strasburg out of the postseason with an eye on his long-term health. Rizzo dug in. Strasburg fought him. The boss won — and was criticized for it.
That whole issue isn’t one I care to dwell on all these years later. But in some ways, Strasburg is still trying to shake it. He has made at least 30 starts in a season just twice. That’s not by design.
“He focuses inward with his competitiveness,” Rizzo said, “and doesn’t outwardly show it.”
As he enters his 10th big league season, we should also understand that this is an athlete who is digging at how to get better. After his most recent Grapefruit League start — 4⅔ innings against Houston here Tuesday — he talked about what he has learned in those 206 starts since he blazed into Washington, and into baseball, with that 14-strikeout, welcome-to-the-show debut against Pittsburgh in 2010. That year, his fastball averaged 97.9 mph. Last year, it was 95.2 mph. That matters, and he knows it.
“The benefit for me is, way back in high school and even the first part of college, I wasn’t necessarily a hard thrower,” Strasburg said. “I feel like I always had pretty good command of my stuff and was able to make the ball move different ways. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize that maybe it is better to just stay under control and not just try and throw it by guys every time.”
There’s a depth of understanding of his body and his stuff that matters going forward. Strasburg and the Nationals believe that, when he needs it, he’ll reach back for the 97-mph four-seamer a couple of times a game. What’s more important is figuring out how to best deploy his diversifying arsenal that, increasingly, includes a two-seam fastball that sinks rather than rises. He remains committed to throwing exclusively out of the stretch because it minimizes his moving parts and allows for a new element that he thinks about increasingly: deception.
“If I keep myself nice and fluid, I hide the ball better, it gets on guys better, and I think that’s way better than trying to throw it harder and fly open and show the ball earlier to get it there,” Strasburg said. “It might look better on the scoreboard [radar gun], but you kind of start to realize with those guys that are very deceptive that they hide the ball really well.”
Against the Astros, Strasburg worked on starting hitters with something other than his fastball. He is aware, he said, that hitters are eager to jump on the first heater they see from him because they don’t want to have to face his slow curveball or deceptive change-up, which can both be devastating. “That’s why they’re swinging early in the count above league average off of me,” he said. He talked, too, of understanding in what area of the strike zone a hitter’s lowest slugging percentage comes from.
That’s deep knowledge that shows he treats pitching as a craft and is open to analytics. Strasburg has spent time this spring talking with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and Yan Gomes, one of the Nats’ new catchers, about his evolving approach.
“He has such a willingness to work and make adjustments, and that’s been really cool,” Gomes said. “I’m really happy that he’s ready to give it a try and let me work on things with him. He’s an established guy who’s had success. That’s not always the case with guys like that.”
The willingness to work now will help determine Strasburg’s fate over the five seasons remaining on his seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nationals. It’s always useful to be reminded of who Strasburg is when he pitches, so let’s review. Since 2013, he is 10th among all starters in walks and hits per inning pitched, eighth in strikeouts per nine innings, 12th in batting average against, seventh in strikeout percentage and ninth in fielding independent pitching, an advanced metric that eliminates defensive variables. Put another way: He’s good. Not Scherzer good. But good.
“He’s been an elite pitcher for a very, very long time,” Rizzo said.
But it’s also important to remember another rank over that same 2013-18 stretch: 28th in innings. So note, too: Strasburg’s contract includes a $1 million bonus for any season he reaches 180 innings, a total he last surpassed in 2014. If he gets there, though, it’s hard to imagine it won’t be worth more than a million bucks to the Nats.
“When he’s healthy, I’d put him up against anybody in the game,” Rizzo said. “I think he recognizes that his greatest value to us is when he’s on the mound. And I think that he’s working towards those ends of being a guy who’s a workhorse and pitches a lot.”
A workhorse who pitches a lot. What if that’s the Strasburg whom, a decade into his career, we finally got to know? It’s springtime. Allow the mind to wander. Think about what happened when Dave Martinez, his manager, went to remove him from that start against the Astros.
“I saw him for the first time today walk off the mound with a smile on his face,” Martinez said. “That’s pretty good.”
Let’s get over assuming we know who Stephen Strasburg might be and understand him for who he is: a talented pitcher who wants — badly — to pitch. Give him, say, 28 starts this year and 140 over the next five, and we might, finally, appreciate what he is instead of lamenting what he’s not.