It seems Stephen Strasburg is underappreciated.
Maybe it’s because of the hype and expectations that surrounded his draft position and prospect pedigree. It doesn’t help that he’s only been able to reach 200 innings once in his career. His durability and total volume of innings are real issues. But when he’s on the mound he has some of the best stuff in the game, and I’m not sure his reputation matches his actual value. Since his return from Tommy John surgery, he has produced the 12th-most WAR amongst all pitchers (20.1).
As I wrote in our positional power rankings, Strasburg’s teammate Max Scherzer is a pretty good comp for Strasburg — on a per-inning basis, at least. Scherzer posted a 31.5% strikeout rate, 6.2% walk rate, and 33.0% ground-ball rate last season. Strasburg finished with marks of 30.6%, 7.4%, and 39.5%, respectively. They’re each 6-foot-4 right-handers. But while they’re carbon copies in terms of size, handedness, rate stats, and stuff, the principle difference is that Strasburg has failed to reach 150 innings in the last two seasons.
But there’s something else, too: it perpetually seems as though Strasburg fails to get all that he can out of his mid-90s fastball, fall-of-a-cliff curveball, and fading changeup. For three straight seasons, and also over the entirety of his career, Strasburg’s ERA has underperformed his FIP. Scherzer, meanwhile, has outpitched his FIP (if just slightly) as a National. Of course, there are a number of factors out of Strasburg’s control with regard to runs that appear on the scoreboard and within his pitching line, but it speaks perhaps to not maximizing his full run-preventing potential. Strasburg’s 3.60 ERA last season was quite a bit removed from his 2.92 FIP.
To his credit, Strasburg was always been in search of ways to improve. Back in 2014, he added a slider, though he decided to discard it after last season, believing it might have played a role in time missed due to a flexor mass strain last season. (Hitters also produced a .302 average and .500 slugging mark against the pitch.)
The big change this year for Strasburg is his decision to scrap his windup. It’s a move often made by relief pitchers, but less commonly adopted by starting pitchers. And for what it’s worth, Strasburg has been better with no runners on base — allowing a career opponent slash line of .211/.266/.333 — as opposed to when runners are on base (.244/.304/.383).
Ahead of his first start, Strasburg downplayed his decision to scrap his full windup, as reported by Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball.
“You guys want to make like a big deal out of it …. but it’s still just throwing a baseball. It’s not like I’m trying to throw left-handed or sidearm or anything so, it’s just — you get this feeling when it’s right and you want to be able to repeat it as many times as you can, and make good pitches. I feel like it’s something that helps me do that. …
“Pitching out of the windup, it’s really not that big of a difference from what I’m doing now. Especially when you look at other guys, who’ve just kind of turned and kind of gone through the same windup, I don’t think like that little movement is really doing anything extra for me, except maybe throwing off my timing and everything, but as of right now it feels good and I’m just going to keep working on it.”
So far, so good for pitching from the stretch for Strasburg. In his fourth start of the season on Thursday night, Strasburg struck out 10 and allowed two runs over seven innings Thursday night in Atlanta.
Strasburg is averaging seven innings per start to go along with a 2.09 FIP and 2.89 ERA. (He’s averaged 5.9 innings per start for his career.) Perhaps working from the stretch allows for more repeatable mechanics and, by extension, control and efficiency. For his career, Strasburg has thrown 45.9% of his pitches in the strike zone, 49.4% last season. Through four starts this season, Strasburg has recorded a zone rate of 51.5%.
But it’s not just about filling up the zone; it’s also about throwing quality strikes. Perhaps simplified mechanics can also help Strasburg better locate his fastball. Despite its velocity, Strasburg’s four- and two-seam fastballs found way too much plate too often in 2016. Consider his two- and four-seam fastball heat map against right-handed hitters last season…
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said recently that the stretch has been great for Strasburg. Rizzo said it’s helped him keep a consistent arm slot and noted his velocity is slightly up, with his fastball averaging 95.7 mph early this season. The pitch averaged 94.9 mph last season. (Although one should tread carefully with precise velocity numbers for the moment.)
Perhaps simplifying his mound mechanics, and total pitch options, will provide Strasburg more nuanced command of his fastball. Perhaps repeating the same delivery will improve muscle memory, consistency of release, etc.
Strasburg hopes the stretch leads to one other key, tangible benefit — health — as he related to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick earlier this month:
“I’m not saying that pitching out of the stretch is going to cure it all,” says Strasburg. “But I think guys who are healthy, they’re very good at repeating their mechanics. There’s no compensation, no variation in where they’re landing, how their arm’s working through their delivery, whether they’re changing their arm slot or falling off too much or flying open. I think if I can continue to work on getting as consistent and efficient as possible with my delivery, I think it puts my arm in the best position to put less strain on it. That’s my best chance of being durable.”
While it is typically relief pitchers who make the move to pitch exclusively from the stretch, Strasburg would not be the only starting pitcher with elite stuff to benefit from going to the stretch on all occasions. In 2014, the talented but inconsistent Carlos Carrasco decided to ditch the windup and went solely to the stretch. It, in part, allowed for a Carrasco breakout.
It’s not that Strasburg isn’t already an effective pitcher. We know he is. He’s perhaps one of the 10 most talented starting pitchers in the game. And it seems he’s continued to honestly assess his weaknesses — efficiency and innings counts — and is trying to address them.
We will see if the stretch is the answer. Perhaps it is. And if Strasburg can find a way to perform up to or exceed his true talent, then the Nationals will really have a second ace, if they don’t already.