Stephen Strasburg’s Return In Just a Few Pictures

Used to be, people would argue about whether Stephen Strasburg was really an ace. There was no right or wrong answer, since there is no consensus definition of an ace starting pitcher, but aside from that, where Strasburg was concerned, there was disagreement. Some people thought he was amazing; some people thought he was a letdown. Some people could squint and see both. That all concerns past Stephen Strasburg. There was no disagreement over 2015 Stephen Strasburg. That version sucked, and by some measures he was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball. It wasn’t like him, and after a start in late May, Strasburg hit the DL. He didn’t feel great. He also needed to work on his mechanics. The DL stint was a chance to work on both.

And a few days ago, Strasburg came off the DL and threw 94 pitches against the Braves. Many of them were pretty good pitches, and while this was a Braves lineup without Freddie Freeman in the middle of it, I’d still say it wasn’t easy for Strasburg to throw his five shutout innings. That was still a major-league opponent, so the outing was positive from start to finish. What sorts of things was Strasburg up to? We can make this easy, with just a few pictures. In some ways, Strasburg was his classic self. In some ways, he was completely different.

The word of the day was “fastball.” Really, the word of the day was “Strasburg,” but the Strasburg word of the day was “fastball.” Observers were looking to see the familiar old life, and Strasburg said afterward he wanted to make the Braves hit the heat. We’ll get to the fastball in a moment. But it’s worth noting Strasburg didn’t just stand out there pumping heater after heater. His fastball rate wasn’t unusually high. There was something different about his other pitches.

From Brooks Baseball, let’s look at Strasburg’s pitch mix. This shows his whole career, month by month, but the right-most point captures just the one start from the other day.

strasburg-pitch-usage

Nothing weird about the fastball rate. But the curveballs went up, and the changeups went down, almost to nothing. Strasburg threw just four offspeed pitches, where normally from him you would’ve expected 15 – 20. In the past, Strasburg’s changeup has been one of the best pitches in the game, so it’s not the kind of thing you’d think he’d want to abandon. But the changeup hasn’t been there for him this year, so it’s possible he’s trying to rebuild confidence in the pitch. It’s also possible he just really liked the feel of his fastball and curve. This goes to answer a simple question. Did Strasburg look like himself against the Braves? Not quite, because ordinary Strasburg has an incredible changeup.

The fastball, though. Let’s talk about that. Unlike his old self, Strasburg didn’t throw many changeups. And unlike his old self, Strasburg predominantly worked up with his heat. Here’s another image from Brooks Baseball, showing average pitch height, relative to the center of the strike zone.

strasburg-vertical-location

If that doesn’t do it for you, here’s a plot of the fastballs, from Baseball Savant:

strasburg-fastball-location

Strasburg has had games like this, games where he keeps his fastball in or near the upper half. But it hasn’t been his, let’s say, resting state. Frequently, Strasburg has worked around the middle; frequently, Strasburg has worked down. That wasn’t the approach against Atlanta, or at least, that wasn’t the result. Strasburg was working in Chris Young territory, looking like himself, but looking like a version of himself who does different things with his same pitches.

Probably not a coincidence: Strasburg’s fastball picked up a good number of whiffs. The plot of whiff rates:

strasburg-fastball-whiffs

Against the Braves, Strasburg generated 10 swings and misses against his fastball. He generated just 25 swings and misses against his fastball in April and May combined. To keep with the theme, against the Braves, Strasburg got all six of his strikeouts with his fastball. Before that, he was at 19 of 44. Visuals tend to make people feel good, so let’s watch Strasburg make people feel bad. Here’s one person feeling bad:

Here’s another person feeling bad:

There were more like that. Again, it wasn’t an all-time kind of opposing lineup. Still, the approach and results are interesting.

And it’s not just about the swings and misses. Strasburg’s fastball also generated a season-high rate of foul balls, so it had a season-low rate of balls hit into play. Put it all together and it’s another way of saying Strasburg’s fastball limited contact, which couldn’t have been said over his first couple months. Before, that fastball was getting him in trouble. The worst you could say about his most recent start is that sometimes he needed an extra pitch or two to put a hitter away. Foul balls aren’t as good as whiffs, but they’re better than balls between the lines. Foul balls don’t go for extra bases.

So we have one start, on the other side of Stephen Strasburg’s DL visit. In that one start, Strasburg was effective, and he didn’t complain of any physical aches or limitations. His velocity was good, and the heat on his fastball played up because his fastball itself was up, which it typically isn’t. Fewer fastballs were left in hittable areas. Of some note is that Strasburg made precious little use of his normally lethal changeup. Between the way he used his fastball and the way he used his change, this wasn’t an ordinary version of Strasburg, but we need more time if we’re going to see any patterns. It’ll be interesting if the fastball stays up, or if the changeup doesn’t reappear. It’ll be only a little less interesting if the opposites happen. Everything has to be some level of interesting, no matter what, given the pitcher we’re talking about.

Maybe the very most important thing is the Nationals believe Strasburg brought his mechanical adjustments into the game. Ever since he got hurt early, Strasburg was working on consistently striding in a straight line toward home plate. It seemed like it didn’t quite stick, but perhaps a few weeks away from the majors were what Strasburg needed to work the kinks out of his muscle memory. It’s easier to reestablish your mechanics when you aren’t dealing with the pressure of a run-scoring situation in a meaningful game. If this keeps up, maybe Strasburg won’t be fixed, but there will be one fewer excuse. More likely, it would fix him. Even the worst version of Strasburg was never far off.

The return of Stephen Strasburg was both interesting and encouraging. It’s too soon to say what the patterns will be. All we have now are little nuggets of potential consequence, to be monitored. But we do seem to be one step closer to Strasburg returning to something like his old level. Whatever you believe his old level was.

We hoped you liked reading Stephen Strasburg’s Return In Just a Few Pictures by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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a true believer
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a true believer

I believe that Strasburg has led starting pitchers in SIERA and xFIP since he came to the majors in 2010. I also believe that reality needs to read up on those statistics because in practice it hasn’t matched up damnit