What’s Going On With Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg has an ERA over 6. We don’t talk about ERA very often. OK, then, Stephen Strasburg has an overall RA over 7. I don’t bring these numbers up because they conclusively demonstrate that Strasburg has a problem. I bring them up because an ERA over 6 is just embarrassing, and a pitcher like Strasburg can’t pull that off unless something’s awry. This isn’t something that’s hidden deep in the statistics — it’s readily apparent to everyone that Strasburg’s been giving up way too many runs.

You have an understanding of how these things go. When you see someone who’s been really good, odds are that player has been both good and lucky. When you see someone who’s been really bad, odds are that player has been both bad and unlucky. For some of you, the first thing that stands out on Strasburg’s page is the near-.400 BABIP. It’s the highest BABIP in baseball, and we know Strasburg has pitched in front of a porous defense. His peripherals indicate he’s been all right. You can’t just stop there, though. This isn’t random BABIP noise. There’s no reason why a pitcher like Strasburg should be running a higher contact rate against than Bartolo Colon. No reason, at least, that isn’t problematic.

Strasburg has issues. Or, Strasburg has one issue. But he very definitely has not been himself.

Just because we can, now, let’s quickly think about those hits. This isn’t supposed to be a post about Strasburg’s hits allowed, but it does concern his surprising hittability. Has he “earned” such a lofty BABIP? On the one hand, among qualifying pitchers, he’s in the middle of the pack in hard-hit rate. On the other hand, he ranks just outside the worst 10% in average batted-ball velocity. We can at least say this much: Strasburg hasn’t been inducing weak contact.

His has been a problem of command. That’s why there’ve been hits, and that’s why there’ve been fewer strikeouts. Now, the dirty little secret is “a problem of command” doesn’t really mean anything. If something’s going wrong with a pitcher, he’s either hurt, or he isn’t commanding the ball very well. Out of command comes everything else. But it doesn’t seem like Strasburg is hurt.

His velocity is fine. He isn’t avoiding pitches. Though he recently left a game with shoulder discomfort, it was treated by a chiropractor, and the Nationals didn’t order any tests. Neither the team nor Strasburg appear alarmed. From the looks of things, this isn’t a result of Strasburg being injured. Rather, this looks like the result of Strasburg having been injured, once.

Steve McCatty is very confident that he knows the problem. It’s something he’s already worked on with Strasburg, in the bullpen. In the spring, Strasburg sustained a minor left ankle injury. The belief is that Strasburg altered his mechanics to compensate for the discomfort, and now it’s a matter of getting his old mechanics back.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve spent looking at pictures a lot like these. One from 2014, and one from 2015:

strasburg-2015

strasburg-2014

I’d ask you to guess which picture is which year, but the Gerardo Parra bobblehead advertisement kind of gives it away. The more important point is I’m not sure I’ve found anything. But analyzing pitching mechanics can be tough on MLB.tv, and McCatty has been very specific about what he thinks is the issue:

When Strasburg’s left ankle was taped up, it made it hard for him to land properly on his front foot, which led to him throwing across his body, leaving pitches up and offspeed pitches losing their bite. But in between starts, McCatty worked with Strasburg on fixing his alignment on the mound. They simply didn’t translate to the game.

“We worked on it and he was right on line in the bullpen,” McCatty said. “He had great alignment throwing in the bullpen the other day, and his stuff was great. [Tuesday] warming up in the bullpen, I just walked out of there saying, ‘Wow! Wow!’ But then you go out there, get two quick outs and sometimes when you struggle, you wait for the other shoe to fall.”

The idea is that Strasburg was doing something to take some of the pressure off his bad foot. A pitcher’s lead foot is a vital component of driving on a line toward home, so if the foot starts drifting or planting too early, that can have effects on location. By pitching through a little discomfort for long enough, Strasburg wound up with a slightly different throwing motion. What he needs to do now is un-learn what he learned, but that’s easier to do in the bullpen than in the relatively high-pressure environment of a game. If McCatty is to be trusted, Strasburg looks like himself in the pen. He just hasn’t carried those adjustments over.

In a way, this is similar to what’s gone on with Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was hurt, so his mechanics changed, and now he’s trying to get back to his old mechanics. It’s the same with Strasburg, except that, with McCutchen, he might still be feeling discomfort. It sounds like Strasburg is close to 100%. He just needs to work on his muscle memory.

Now, there’s something really interesting about this. When has Strasburg been most affected by his altered delivery? The numbers can’t be considered automatically conclusive, but almost all of Strasburg’s problems have come with men on base. Between last year and this year, Strasburg has the same strike rate with the bases empty. He also has the same strike rate with at least one runner on. But strike rate and command are two different things, and this tells a hell of a story:

strasburg-contact-rates

(In 2011, Strasburg pitched just 24 innings.)

With the bases empty, Strasburg’s contact rate hasn’t budged much. It’s a little higher than it’s been, but not nearly enough to sound any alarms. We’re talking just a few percentage points. But as soon as someone reaches, Strasburg’s been about the most hittable pitcher in baseball. He used to very consistently make one of every four swings miss. This year he’s vaulted into position-player territory. Strasburg’s command has eroded with runners on. Contact has followed, and hits have followed, and so runs have followed.

Could be, it’s a problem pitching from the stretch. Maybe the altered mechanics are less present from the wind-up. Or maybe when there are runners on, there’s just more stress, more distractions, and Strasburg has trouble focusing on repeating the delivery he wants. It’s said that, in higher-leverage situations, players tend to revert to their most comfortable processes. The problem here being Strasburg’s most comfortable process involves a wonky delivery, developed accidentally because of an ankle thing. That’s the theory. Re-wiring a player is a challenging thing to do on the fly.

But it is doable, and it doesn’t seem like Strasburg has a major adjustment to make. If we can take them at their word, he needs to straighten out his front foot and trust that his ankle won’t hurt him anymore. He still has all his stuff, and his performance with the bases empty shows that he’s close to being effective again. Now it’s about repetition. Repeating over and over, until things are as they were. This is a hell of a lot better than elbow pain.

It looks like the problem with Stephen Strasburg isn’t that he’s hurt. It looks like the problem is that his body remembers having been hurt. Some injuries themselves last only a matter of weeks. But there’s recovering from injury, and there’s recovering from injury side-effects. They don’t operate on the same timeline.

We hoped you liked reading What’s Going On With Stephen Strasburg by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




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.

newest oldest most voted
Brendan
Guest
Brendan

The d-backs had a fedora giveaway day? looool

mch38
Member
mch38

I’m pretty sure at least 10 MLB teams had Fedora giveaway day last year

Em
Guest
Em

Padres did one on opening day.

M.C
Guest
M.C

Oh riiight, I believe this was their annual D-backs D-bags Giveaway Night.