VIERA, Fla. — This season, baseball and Washington will finally start to meet Stephen Strasburg — not just see him pitch but actually start to know him, both what he is now and what he likely will become. We will not meet the college phenom or the hyped Best Prospect Ever, nor will we encounter the thunderbolt rookie who struck out 14 in his debut then blew out his elbow 11 weeks later and missed a year. We will not see a silent, sequestered, pestered prodigy, both shy and chilly. All of those Strasburgs are gone.
This year, we start to meet a Strasburg who actually likes to talk, especially about baseball, and finally has reached a point where his celebrity has receded enough for him to be comfortable. The drudgery of baseball routine, the polishing of skills that takes years, suits his ultra-structured-perfectionist personality ideally. Four days of polishing the diamond of his talent, then one night to let it flash before the world’s eyes. In his past two spring starts, one run in 10 efficient innings, we get a hint.
“I thrive when I have a routine,” said Strasburg, one of the rare young players who prefers the endless repetitions of pro life with its promise of tiny improvement each day. You’re not a flat-liner if that graph always trends up.
“In college, [Coach] Tony Gwynn taught that what is important is to do the work properly. Not the results. The results will change. I want to know I’ve done everything to succeed. Once the game starts, just let it happen. Next day, decompress, analyze.
“My mom is super-driven. She graduated from high school at 16, went to work at 17. The day-in, day-out grind, I saw that in her. I wasn’t necessarily ‘pushed’ by my parents, but I was shown what it is to work hard.”
We’ll also meet a man, 23, who had a year of elbow rehabilitation to consider what kind of performer he wants to be now. And he’s decided. The “thrower” with 14 Ks is gone, unless such a night arrives by accident. Instead, a mature pitcher is trying to emerge, a student of the game, someone more like Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay than Nolan Ryan, the pitcher to whom Pudge Rodriguez compared him the first time he caught him.
Strasburg’s goals haven’t changed, just his methods. Those 14 Ks?
“I wanted to do that when I came up because that’s what I’d done in college,” he said. “Now it’s an out that I’m after. Fans want the K. But when it comes to longevity, and efficiency, you want less pitches.”
The sample is small, but using that theory last September, Strasburg’s whiffs fell from 12.2 per nine innings to 9.0, but his efficiency, which influences wins and losses far more, improved: ERA from 2.91 to 1.50, WHIP from 1.074 to 0.708 and strikeouts per walk from 5.41 to 12.0.
“Man on third, less than two outs: I need a punch-out right now,” Strasburg said. “But otherwise, I like one- or two-pitch outs . . . I love double plays. I haven’t gotten enough of them. I hope I’m overdue, and they are coming.”
Perhaps most nerve-racking, we will also meet a stubborn, confident athlete who understands his sport is full of experts who say that his career is already doomed by a delivery called an “inverted W” that will tear up his shoulder and make his career so short he will be recalled as a sad curiosity.
“Because of the elbow injury, people are going to say things. They see one picture,” Strasburg said of the freeze frames with his elbows pointed behind him, like a huge predatory bird, just as his left foot hits the ground. “They think, ‘They need to do a change.’ I don’t think so.”
“It’s all a crock,” says Manager Davey Johnson, who thinks that with “80 percent effort for 100 percent timing” Strasburg will have a long career.
“When he struck out 14, he was overthrowing then. When he was blowin’ 100 miles an hour three starts ago [in spring training], the same thing. From the time I had him in Beijing [in the 2008 Olympics], I’ve told him: ‘Remember, what makes you so special is your command. You’re a pitcher.’
“Jim Palmer had the worst delivery of any human being alive. But he didn’t overthrow.”
And, despite arm problems, Palmer lasted 19 seasons.
Starsburg will play this out his way: same mechanics, same “reverse W,” same four wipeout pitches, all aimed at perfect spots, but executed with slightly less effort and more efficiency, as well as an incorporation of his own theories about what causes injuries, especially his own.
“Throwing a baseball is unorthodox,” Strasburg said. “If you start to change, you open up a can of worms and I think you’re more likely to get hurt.
“Your body knows inside how it should fire — in the right sequence for you. When you’re growing up, throw it hard. That’s your natural motion.
“The injuries come when you can’t repeat it, when your mechanics are off, especially when I fly off, fly open and get more rotational,” throwing around rather than over.
Perhaps what’s most interesting in a debate that outlasted the 20th century and may beat the 21st, too, is Strasburg’s studiousness. If his arm stays attached, he’s going to get progressively better because he’s a sponge.
Great starting pitchers are smart — some in general, but all when it’s about pitching. If you don’t love to live in a world of storm-surge detail and constant process — no “end” ever in sight — your ceiling is “pretty good.”
At 23, Ted Williams wanted to talk hitting, to everybody, all the time. That’s not a flaw in poet, pianist or pitcher either. The Nats don’t just like Strasburg personally, which he makes easy because he wants to earn every stripe and respects any goofy baseball tradition. They admire his “makeup,” which is far more important. He’s the right kind of obsessive-competitive.
There’s no room today for Strasburg’s thoughts on why he’ll use his old slide-step delivery less or which pitch sequences can make the game seem to “speed up” for a hitter until he’s paralyzed with data overload. What tickles him most is isolating one of his own weaknesses. He may have found one.
“When I’ve got guys on [base], I want to correct it with one pitch — ‘get a double play,’ squash it as fast as I can. That’s wrong,” he said. “If I’m ‘Get the ball and throw it,’ if I go ‘fire, fire, fire,’ the hitter doesn’t have time to think — and have doubts about ‘which pitch is next.’ I’ve made the game easier for him. It’s like he’s facing a pitching machine, not a pitcher. All of a sudden, they are ‘on’ my fastball because they aren’t thinking.
“If I speed up in a jam, I just speed up their bats.”
Teammate Jordan Zimmermann walks past and can’t resist needling,“Are you still talking?”
There is a lot on Strasburg’s mind and even more pouring out of his right hand. This year we truly start to meet him, even as he also meets himself, the evolving pitcher and man. It’s a long process. And may be quite a pleasure.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/