The career of Stephen Strasburg has been a unique path of bumps, plateaus, and peaks, with the first three months of the 2015 season bringing the journey to its nadir. Before being sent to the DL following his May 29th start, Strasburg featured an ERA of 6.55, paired with a 1.72 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 20.7% – the worst of his career. Many hoped that his time off the field recovering from a left trapezius strain would help Strasburg clear his head and reclaim his seat among the elite. He returned to the hill on Tuesday and I watched hoping to see a reborn ace. Here is Stephen Strasburg’s GIF Breakdown of his June 23rd start against the Atlanta Braves in 11 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s first look at his strikezone plot for the evening:
The first thing that will pop out is the amount of lone yellow at the bottom of the strikezone with black spots exclusively featured in the middle or top of the zone. It’s good to see Strasburg keeping his Curveball low, preventing a hanger that can be hit a long way, but he clearly struggled to get on top of both his Fastball and Changeup, keeping the ball elevated and limiting sink. The heart of the plate features a bloated tally of pitches, most likely due to Strasburg’s goal of attacking batters and getting acclimated to the stage as opposed to making an effort to locate effectively. Nevertheless, this wasn’t vintage Strasburg out of the gate, and hopefully he can perform better as he gets back into the groove.
Now let’s take a look at each of his pitches individually across the evening:
Fastball: 63.9% thrown, 94.8 MPH, -5.4 Runs Above Average
As previously mentioned, Strasburg clearly was not focusing on location, and grooved a good amount of Fastballs, just like the second pitch of the game to Jace Peterson:
The vibe of the outing was that Strasburg was feeling his way back the game after only one rehab start following his May 29th game. He wasn’t trying to do too much, but it came at the cost of consistent command and nibbling around the corners. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t make some great pitches with his Fastball, though. In his second batter, he threw both of these pitches back-to-back to Cameron Maybin:
You may need a few cycles before you can understand there are two pitches in that GIF, both around 97 MPH and on the outside black. They were two of the best Fastballs of the night and got him ahead 0-2 quickly. However, there is a problem here. Without much movement on the pitch and consistently targeting away against Right-handers, these pitches turn into this:
What seems to be a solid pitch is poked the other way for a single by a poor hitter in Chris Johnson. Yankee pitcher Nathan Eovaldi suffers from the same problem as pitches often get slapped to right field for hits despite blazing speed and good locations. The problem is two-fold: Strasburg lacks dramatic movement on his Fastball, making it easier to square up and drive as the ball travels deeper to the plate, and doesn’t favor his secondary pitches enough to create uncomfortable at-bats. As we’ll discuss, Strasburg didn’t throw a single Changeup to a right-handed batter and rarely targeted the inside corner, making it easier on batters to lock-in on a Fastball and have confidence in the at-bat.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that he can at times blow it by guys with solid run. Here’s a great example of using his heat correctly against left-hander Jace Peterson:
So he has the tools to be effective with the pitch, but still has strides to make with location and faith in his secondary pitches to make his Fastball more deceptive. This will be one of the first elements of Strasburg’s game I will being paying attention to in his next start.
Curveball: 18.5% thrown, 80.8 MPH, -4.4 Runs Above Average
What has made Strasburg so deadly in the past was his ability to throw Curveballs whenever he wanted and exactly where he wanted them. While his command wasn’t poor, Strasburg gravitated away from using his biting hook when he needed to make a solid pitch. Instead, he favored to use it in 0-1 counts to make batters quickly fall to 0-2. In fact, all four of these GIFs are 0-1 pitches, perfectly exhibiting his mental approach with his Curve. These two fell perfectly to the bottom of the zone for strikes:
This hook to Juan Uribe induced a weak groundball to short for an out:
And this bender was tugged down and away for ball one:
What you’ll notice is that none of these pitches were swings-and-misses. He threw 19 across the evening and not a single one induced a whiff. Looking at the numbers, his Curveball generated a solid 14.9% whiff rate last season, a rate that has plummeted to a poor 8.5% in 2015. Additionally, the pitch’s O-Swing % has dropped nearly 14 points from 40.3% to 26.4%. Batters are simply seeing the pitch well and are not chasing it out of the zone. It should come to no surprise then that hitters in 2015 have a startling .359 wOBA against the pitch with a wRC+ of 138. That number will diminish as the season develops, but clearly there is something affecting his sharp hook. It could be a result of tipping or pitch selection, but without a fearful Curveball, it’ll be difficult for Strasburg to create uncomfortable at-bats. It’s crucial for Strasburg to figure out how to use the pitch effectively moving forward.
Changeup: 16.3% thrown, 87.9 MPH, -2.3 Runs Above Average
Last season, Strasburg’s Changeup generated a whopping 25.6% swinging strike rate as it tallied an impressive 13.1 Runs Above Average. He was able to get on top of the baseball and let it roll off his wrist, creating excellent drop and fading action to left-handers. It was such a beautiful pitch that is currently featured on our 404 page. This season, his whiff rate has been cut in half to 12.4%, resulting in a poor -2.3 Runs Above Average. Strasburg has been losing confidence in his slow-pitch, and has exclusively thrown it to left-handers for the past four games. In fact, despite generating six whiffs off lefties in his best game of the season on April 19th, Strasburg has only induced two whiffs from lefties across the rest of the season. Strasburg needs to refine this pitch if he’s going to be successful moving forward. He only threw four total on Tuesday, and it wasn’t the revolution we’re looking for. While he did execute this one to A.J. Pierzynski for an out:
He also floated it to Jace Peterson and almost gave up his seventh dinger of the season:
Vintage Strasburg featured confidence to throw this pitch at anytime in the count and spark frustration and fear in his opponents. Even though Pierzynski was fooled, he was still able to follow it and make decent contact instead of swinging over the pitch like many have in the past. I’m fully aware that this was his first start back after a long drought, but I’m still concerned that he won’t be able to consistently resurrect his most potent weapon against left-handed batters.
Final Line: 5.0 IP, 0 ER, 4 Hits, 1 BBs, 6 Ks.
That line may surprise you given the vibe of concern I have expressed in this article. Strasburg wasn’t particularly sharp in his return to the hill, but he didn’t allow much hard contact and pounded the zone with 75% first-pitch strikes. His Fastball looked free and easy coming out of his hand, and while the movement and location wasn’t fully there, it appears that he’s tweaked his mechanics to create a more efficient delivery. He is keeping his hands lower to start his motion and he’s staying closed a little longer than before, adding a little more deception and increased perceived velocity to his pitches. We don’t have enough data yet to see if these changes will have a great effect, but it’s important to note that he is tinkering to find a solution.
I want to believe that this line can be repeatable, but I need to see better command from his Fastball. Even without lively movement Strasburg can be effective with the correct mix and elite velocity if placed it the right locations. The biggest strides can be made by Stephen’s secondary pitches, which are currently lacking the deception they previously held. Additionally, his Curve is being reserved as a strike-earner instead of being a putaway pitch in the dirt, which is limiting the strikeouts and making Strasburg more hittable than he should be. His Changeup is used exclusively against lefties and is lacking the movement and bite that once made batters uncomfortable. Polish is a must as well as confidence to throw the off-speed pitch in any count. However, the aggressiveness to Strasburg’s approach is solid, and if he can make these tweaks to pitch selection as well as grow confidence in his secondary offerings, Strasburg could make the leap we’ve been waiting to see. I wouldn’t expect it in the short-term, but a strong second half may be in order for the Nationals’ flamethrower.
As always, I’ll leave you with a pitch that encapsulates a heavy focus of our featured pitcher. Here Stephen Strasburg grooves a first pitch 96 MPH heater to opposing pitcher Alex Wood:
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