This was to be the year. Strasburg unleashed. The only shutdown would be the NL, but now here we are with the Nationals holding a .167 record with their Ace on the hill, and the possibility that Strasburg could miss his next start and maybe even more. Forearm tightness doesn’t sound that bad, but it can be a symptom of a UCL injury. If that is the case, and at this point that is a big if, it would likely spell the end of Stephen Strasburg. Just look at the struggles Christian Garcia has had or Brian Wilson. Two Tommy Johns is not something that is easy to come back from. Now that the fear of the worst is out of the way it is time to hope for the best. When Strasburg did tear his UCL he was caught in the sudden and instant thralls of pain on a change-up to Domonic Brown. That didn’t happen last night, and Strasburg is admit he will make his next start.
Instead of looking to the future let’s look to the past and not ignore the win lose record even though the Nats are giving Strasburg only 1.87 runs of support. Strasburg has a 3.13 ERA and has pitched well enough to win, but an Ace shouldn’t just pitch well enough to win. The Nats handed Strasburg a lead and he handed it right back. Monday evening against the Braves Strasburg walked four batters and two of them came around to score. In fact overall Strasburg’s BB% is up from his career average of 6.8% to 7.7%. Strasburg is walking far too many batters and his H/9 is up from 7.5 to 8.0. All of this has led to his WHIP being up by 0.100 points or one extra base runner every ten innings.
None of that in itself looks bad. Strasburg’s stuff is still incredible, but the way he is pitching is not. Strasburg is getting good results, but is pitching poorly. He is falling behind far too many batters and isn’t commanding his fastball nearly as well as one would like to see. Strasburg when throwing the fastball is stepping towards first base when he misses and is more inline over the mound when he is locating. It should be an easy solution and more fastballs in the zone will help Strasburg to get ahead and use his plus change and curve to finish batters off. Consider for a moment that teams in the NL this season have a .492 OPS when their are two strikes against them. With the batter ahead in the count they have a .931 OPS. Locating pitches early in the count to quickly get to two strikes like Strasburg is capable of is so important and will go a long way to lowering his pitch count and keeping runners off base.
Strasburg is doing better getting deeper into games. He is averaging 6.2 innings pitched a start up from 5.7 in 2012 and he is throwing an average of 103 pitches to get there, or in other words Strasburg is averaging 16.6 pitches an inning. That is too many and another symptom of falling behind in the count too much. Strasburg is not an easy pitcher to fall balls off of as he has an 11.2% swinging strike rate for his career. When Strasburg is at his best he gets swings and misses instead of batters fouling pitches off, and if he is ahead in the count he can mix in his curve and change up that both drop out of the zone and induce swings and misses.
The two most apparent problems with Strasburg’s approach this season is he is not throwing enough first pitch strikes. He is done to 57.7% from 62.3% last season and 61.9% for his career. Working behind in the count is an easy way to allow more base runners. Strasburg is working himself behind more than he ever has in his career and he has been giving the other team more opportunities to score runs, and while they haven’t scored many runs off of Strasburg they have scored runs at inopportune times.
Of the 17 runs Strasburg has allowed 9 of them have come in the first inning. It should be pointed out that trailing in a baseball game is never good and teams become .300 teams when trailing after the first. Even those are the only runs that Strasburg ends up allowing he is giving the Nationals only a 70% chance to win the game, and teams expect much more than that with their Ace on the hill. NL batters in 2013 are also OPSing .676 when behind as opposed to .716 when tied. By putting the Nationals in an early hole Strasburg is robbing his hitters of the opportunity to feel out the opposing pitcher and get into the rhythm of the game.
Strasburg has good numbers, but he isn’t pitching like Stephen Strasburg. Watching him on the mound this season has become an act in frustration. It is watching a pitcher that should induce fear when a batter steps into the batters box, but is instead pitching with fear. Strasburg is not commanding early in the count when command is the most important. Falling behind hitters is an easy way to allow base runners and not be able to go as deep into games. Imagine with Strasburg’s stuff how good he would be if he attacked the zone starting in the first inning and lowered his pitches per inning down to 13. With Strasburg’s stuff he shouldn’t need much more than four pitches to strike batters out, and he can’t control if batters will swing at a well placed fastball early in the count and get themselves out. Strasburg needs to control the controllable. Live in the strike zone with his plus fastball, get ahead in the count, and then finish the batters off with his curve and change. At 13 pitches per inning and his average of 103 a start Strasburg would be close to getting into the eighth inning he wants to see so badly.
If Strasburg does make his next start Saturday against the Pirates he needs to not pitch afraid of the bats, stay balanced over his back leg and land with his front foot towards home plate, and most importantly attack the strike zone starting in the first inning. Let his teammates feel out the opposing pitcher and work into the rhythm of the game. In other words Strasburg needs to right his ship, and be the Ace the Nationals thought they were unleashing on baseball.