If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Stephen Strasburg should feel pretty good about himself.
Not long after pitchers and catchers reported last month, Dodgers hurler Alex Wood revealed that he was going to start working exclusively from the stretch because that’s what Strasburg did last year. To be clear, Wood is already pretty good at his job. In 2017, the Los Angeles lefty went 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, made it to the All-Star Game and finished in the top 10 in the National League Cy Young balloting. Still, he feels compelled to take a page out of somebody else’s book. And so he’ll try to follow in Strasburg’s footsteps. The question is, can Stephen Strasburg follow in his own?
A year ago, Strasburg surprised everyone when he showed up to spring training and revealed that he was kicking the windup to the curb. After seven injury-plagued seasons in the majors, the former No. 1 overall pick was going all stretch, all the time, in an effort to simplify his mechanics and stay healthier.
It killed him, the fact that he hadn’t been there when his team needed him most. In 2012, when the Nationals made their first playoff appearance since moving to D.C., Strasburg — who’d undergone Tommy John surgery in 2010 — was shut down in September in an attempt to limit his innings. In 2016, he missed the postseason again due to a partially torn pronator tendon that ended his season early. Although he did make one start during the 2014 National League Division Series, the bitter aftertaste of those October absences stuck with him. It ate at him so much that he came back and decided to jettison the windup that he’d been using his entire baseball-playing life. But a funny thing happened on the way to staying healthy.
“I feel like I executed a lot better out of the stretch,” says Strasburg, who turned in the best season of his closely scrutinized career. His 2.52 ERA, which was over a full run lower than the year before, ranked third in the National League behind only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in 2017. In a year when home run totals skyrocketed, he was borderline allergic to the long ball, posting a 1.9 percent HR rate that was the lowest in the majors. Just how dominant was the new and improved Stephen Stretchburg? Including the playoffs, he finished the year on a supernatural streak in which he allowed zero earned runs in 66 of the final 67 innings he worked. Most importantly, he was there when his team needed him most.
Despite a midsummer nerve impingement that sidelined him for four weeks, Strasburg was still standing at the end of the regular season. Five days later, he was standing on the mound as Washington’s Game 1 starter against the Cubs, whom he limited to three hits and no earned runs over seven frames. Next came the controversial Game 4 outing, when he was reportedly too sick to pitch but ended up taking the ball anyway, then proceeded to toss seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball with 12 strikeouts.
“He stepped it up,” said new Nats skipper Davey Martinez, who was in the opposing dugout last fall as Chicago’s bench coach. “It was awesome.”
It was the kind of playoff performance that legacies are made of. The kind of exclamation point that, when combined with the statement Strasburg made during the regular season, has folks wondering what the 29-year-old righty will do for an encore. Was last year merely a fluky case of a talented pitcher who got hot and was relatively lucky on the injury front, or is the 2017 version of Stephen Strasburg — the one everyone waited for ever since he was drafted — here to stay?
“It’s kind of unreasonable to even expect that to happen again,” says Scherzer of his teammate’s ridiculous run, which produced a microscopic 0.86 ERA after the All-Star break, the second lowest ever by a starter in the second half of a season. “But that doesn’t take away from the pitcher he’s become.”
In other words, there was more to Strasburg’s success than simply going to the stretch (sorry, Alex Wood).
“Fans see someone in the league for five, six years and they think that’s who you are,” said Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner who didn’t really take flight until his sixth season in the majors. “A lot of times, when you’re 29, 30, 31 years old, you can have more breakthroughs. You can learn how to attack in a new way.”
In Strasburg’s case, he learned how to throw smarter, not harder.
“The fastball is the one pitch that hitters are always going to be hunting for early,” said Strasburg, whose heater averaged 96 mph last season, third-fastest among NL starters. “I’ve learned how to combat that in different ways, keeping them off-balance a little bit better.”
And by a little bit, he means a lot.
Last year, Strasburg started off hitters with a fastball just 53 percent of the time, significantly lower than his 70 percent career rate. In related news, he held opponents to a .329 average on the first pitch, down from .362 the year before, and .491 the year before that. Of course, not every hurler has the luxury of wielding three dangerous secondary pitches to mix things up.
“He’s got multiple weapons,” says one veteran scout of Strasburg, whose repertoire features a slider, a changeup and a knee-buckling curve that he deployed a career-high 31 percent of the time last year (up from 12 percent in 2016). “He can pitch forward or backwards. He has the ability to set up his fastball with his off-speed stuff. That’s just maturation as a pitcher. He’s finally reached his potential.”
If the Nationals, who are heavy favorites to win their third straight division title, plan on reaching their potential and making it to the Fall Classic, they’ll need a healthy dose of a healthy Strasburg. They know it, and he knows it, which is why the bearded righty intends to work from the stretch once again this season.
“I always grew up dreaming and wanting to pitch in a World Series,” Strasburg said. “All the stuff along the way is great, but when you get down to crunch time, you have to listen to your body and you’ve got to do whatever you can to be available and on top of your game.”
If Alex Wood is any indication, Strasburg is also on top of the latest trend. But don’t try telling him that.
“I don’t try to do anything to set trends. I don’t think I’ve started anything new,” says Strasburg of his decision to abandon the windup. “There’s other guys that have done it before me. I don’t know why I’m being picked out. I did it to try to be more consistent. If the numbers aren’t there, then everybody’s going to say you shouldn’t do that.”
But the numbers were there, which is why Wood is taking a page out of Strasburg’s playbook. Not that Strasburg cares. He’s less concerned with who’s copying him, and more concerned with copying himself.
“I focus on what I can control,” Strasburg said, “and that’s trying to stay healthy and maintain my stuff over the long season. That’s my ultimate goal.”