Thursday, June 25, 2015

Overly Detailed Analysis of a Strasburg Start

Stephen Strasburg was back this week. I mean that in the literal sense: he pitched for the Nationals after taking a physical (read: mental) break from the big league squad. In the non-physical/existential/metaphysical sense he was also back: he limited the Braves offense to only 4 hits scattered over 5 innings with 6 strikeouts. It wasn’t a dazzling performance to throw up on the mantle next to Scherzer’s last few starts, but considering that through the first few months of the season Strasburg had been one of the worst starting pitchers in the majors, it was a promising sign.

You never want to read too much into one start, but this start might be an indicator for Strasburg. After struggling with command to start the season, it appears that Strasburg might be putting some of that behind him after spending his days on the DL resting his ankle/lat issue and refocusing on his old mechanics. I’m a self admitted Strasburg defender, so let’s get the big caveats out of the way early: yes, this performance came against a Braves offense that doesn’t have any big bats (and was missing its biggest bopper in Freddie Freeman); yes, he only lasted 5 innings; yes, it’s only one start in the midst of a long season. That being said, taking a look at the details of the start paints a promising picture.

Let’s start with the most obvious: Strasburg struck out 6 batters over 5 innings and walked only one. He averaged 97 MPH with his fastball in this start after averaging 95 during his previous starts in 2015. Strasburg’s stuff from a movement and velocity perspective (slight decrease in fastball velocity not withstanding)looked the same pre-DL stint, but he was leaving his pitches out over the plate and was getting hit hard. Strasburg relied on his fastball this start, throwing it 65% of the time and leaned heavily on the curveball at a usage rate of 31%, going to his change-up only 4 times. His off speed mix is usually closer to a 50/50 split. I am a little surprised at the lack of change-ups, but control of off speed pitches is usually the last thing to come around after an extended break, so I would expect to see more change-ups and fewer curveballs as Strasburg gets back into a groove.

All 6 of Strasburg’s strikeouts came via the fastball, due in large part to where he was locating the pitch. I was very pleased to see Strasburg’s location with the fastball last night, as he kept the ball out of the heart of the plate and up in the zone:

Now, pitching coaches for years have been teaching pitchers to throw down in the zone, rightfully pointing out that pitches in the lower part of the zone get hit for groundballs more often and home runs less often. The thing is, hitters have been facing these kinds of pitches since little league and are adjusting to hitting the low ball with power. With Strasburg’s repertoire, I think pitching up the zone with the fastball makes a ton of sense. It’s hard enough to catch up to his fastball as it is, but 97 MPH fastballs up the zone are even harder to square up with solid contact. Even if you catch a batter looking for a fastball up, Strasburg can pull out the curveball to attack to lower half of the zone. And he did a great job the other night of keeping his curve down in the zone:

His curveball has such break that it looks like a fastball up out of his hand, but dives down and out of the zone. And, although he didn’t throw it a lot last night, his changeup is thrown so hard that it looks like a fastball in the zone, until it darts out of the zone. Strasburg’s struggles early in the season stemmed from throwing hittable fastballs. His fastball up in the zone, mixed in with his off speed pitches, becomes that much harder to hit.

That strategy worked for Strasburg last night. As I mentioned, he not only racked up all 6 strikeouts off of the fastball, but hitters swung and missed at the fastball 16.4% of the time. On the 2015 season, batters had swung and missed at Strasburg offerings only 7% of the time, over all his pitches. Strasburg more than doubled that rate last night, with just his fastball. The flip side of that is that he didn’t generate any whiffs with his curve or changeups. I never claimed it was a perfect start, and Strasburg’s reliance on the fastball and curve show that he wasn’t 100% comfortable using all 3 of his pitches yet. That will be something to keep an eye on. Strasburg’s changeup is a huge weapon for him and it will have to come around for him to stay successful.

On top of all the pressure of finally returning to the mound, Strasburg had to deal with a rain delay of over 2 hours. For someone accused of being a “mental midget” at times, Strasburg had to overcome that obstacle and it shouldn’t be forgotten when considering the context of this game. Now, it was only one start and we should temper our emotions until Strasburg has proven that the Strasburg we saw against the Braves is the version of Strasburg that is here to stay. But, taking my advice and throwing it out the window, I am excited to tune in to Strasburg’s next start and see him sustain this progress.

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