Strasburg's early-season struggles a matter of command, not control
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Washington Nationals. Widely viewed as the favorites to win the World Series, the Nationals are 9–13 and in fourth place in the NL East. They have the fifth-worst record in the majors and are looking up at the Marlins in the standings. There’s plenty of time for them to turn the season around, but the list of teams who have overcome eight-game division deficits after April is short.
It also wasn’t supposed to be like this for Stephen Strasburg. Through four starts, the 26-year-old is 1–2 with a 4.88 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. His FIP is a full two runs lower than his ERA, but that probably isn’t comforting him, the Nationals or his fantasy owners at the moment. Even with Max Scherzer technically occupying the top spot in the Washington rotation, Strasburg was expected to be every bit the ace as the new man in town. The results haven’t been there, and the box scores look particularly ugly.
Strasburg has made it through seven innings just once in his four starts. Twice he failed to make it out of the sixth. He has surrendered at least three earned runs in three of his outings and has allowed double-digit base runners in all but one. On top of that, his strikeout rate is at 20.9%, which would be by far the lowest of his career. It’s far too early to suggest it will sit in that valley all season, but it’s illustrative of the fact that he just isn’t missing as many bats as he normally does.
Any time you see a pitcher as electric as Strasburg post substandard results for a handful of starts in a row, you have to search for an explanation. First, you have to check the mechanics. That’s the most important box to check, because a change here can mean something is structurally wrong with the pitcher. If they check out, however, it’s more likely something that should be easier for him to correct.
We can’t show you footage of every single Strasburg start from the last few seasons, but the good news is that he looks like the exact same pitcher mechanically. The following GIFs are from games almost exactly a year apart. The first one is from a win against the Padres last April, while the second is from a loss to the Red Sox during the second week of the season. Both pitches are changeups. From arm slot, to the relationship of his hand to his elbow, to release point, to the way his foot is pointed directly at the plate when he delivers the pitch and finally to the way he falls off to the left, everything is the same.
You can also see in the following two screenshots, taken right as Strasburg is about to release the pitch, nearly identical mechanics.
Strasburg buried the 0–2 changeup to San Diego's Xavier Nady, then got him to strikeout on a curveball on the next pitch. He left the 1–2 changeup to Mookie Betts up in the zone, which he roped down the line for a two-run double. The outcome may have been different, but if you pause each GIF right after the pitch was thrown, you will find a pitcher who looks equally comfortable. That was the case time and time again, going through most of Strasburg’s starts in the last few seasons. We can safely rule out mechanics being the problem.
A good place to continue digging is in the velocity numbers, especially for a power pitcher like Strasburg. His average fastball velocity is indeed down this year, clocking in at 94.9 mph. Last year, it was 95.7 mph, and the year before it was north of 96 mph. That doesn’t, however, explain his struggles in the least. Losing six-tenths of a mph off one of the best fastballs in the league isn’t going to move the needle, especially when his changeup, which is his best pitch, has experienced a corresponding drop, as well. The interplay between the two pitches is the same as it always was and that is encouraging.
The next area for investigation is pitch movement. It’s entirely possible that a pitcher’s velocity is fine, but his movement is down. Strasburg counts on his changeup and curveball being chase pitches, so if either of them weren’t biting as they have in the past, it would follow that he’d induce fewer empty swings. Again, that is not the case. The following tables from Brooks Baseball show Strasburg’s horizontal and vertical movement, by season, for all his pitches. Understand that a negative number for horizontal movement means it’s moving in on righties, while a positive number denotes movement away from righties. Vertical movement here also includes gravity.
Strasburg’s movements have varied from season to season, as you would expect, but they’re generally within one standard deviation of the mean. He’s also getting hitters to swing at 30.1% of his pitches that aren’t in the strike zone, which is down from last year but right in line with 2012 and '13. In other words, the movement on Strasburg’s pitches this year is statistically similar to where it has been when he has dominated hitters in previous seasons.
Next, we move on to command, and this is where we start making some headway. Command and control are two different things. The latter is simply throwing strikes. The former is putting the ball where you want it. Strasburg is struggling a bit with that this season. The easiest way to see that is by comparing his zone profile from his first four starts this season to the rest of his career. Here, you can see that he’s missing in the zone more than in the past.
Opposing hitters have a contact rate of 91.8% on Strasburg’s pitches in the strike zone this year, up from 86.6% for his career. That’s a 6% jump and something you just don’t see from a pitcher of Strasburg’s caliber, unless he’s routinely missing spots.
Let’s turn to another GIF from the Red Sox game earlier this year as an example. Strasburg faced Ryan Hanigan with runners on the corners and two outs. He had already allowed one run in the inning and was looking to escape against a hitter he had struck out earlier. Strasburg got ahead of Hanigan 0–2, yet kept pumping strikes over the plate. He doesn’t need to waste a pitch, but anyone with his off-speed repertoire would benefit from changing Hanigan’s eye level. Strasburg doesn’t do that here. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, he misses badly with a fastball that Hanigan lines into right for an RBI single.
You can see from where Wilson Ramos set up that Strasburg missed his spot by nearly the entire width of the plate, getting the pitch back over the middle when it was supposed to be on the outer third. It resulted in the Red Sox’ fourth run of the game and also made them 5-for-11 against Strasburg with runners on base. And that, combined with Strasburg’s old BABIP nemesis, best explains why his vanity numbers are so bad through four starts.
Strasburg is carrying the weight of a .403 BABIP right now, a number that is ridiculous on its face. It’s even more asinine when you consider that he has allowed just a 20.8% line-drive rate. What’s more, his strand rate is at an anomalously low 63.1%. Indeed, hitters are slashing .429/.478/.476 against Strasburg with men on base. With men in scoring position, the slash line jumps to .444/.483/.519. For his career, Strasburg has allowed a slash of .250/.314/.380 with men on, and 248/.318/.363 with men in scoring position.
It’s a different story, as well, when no one is on base. Strasburg has allowed a .237/.297/.339 line with the bases empty. This suggests that there might be something wrong mechanically when he’s in the stretch, but we already checked that out, illustrated with the GIFs against Nady from last year and Betts from this year. From the time he comes set all the way through his follow through and falling off to the left side of the mound, Strasburg looks identical this year to how he has in the past.
This, again, speaks to his trouble with command in the zone, but it also reflects just how unlucky he has been this year. The latter concern will work itself out. The former is up to Strasburg, and he’s certainly up to the task. Let’s bring back that Betts GIF from earlier.
This is something that Strasburg simply doesn’t do on a regular basis. What we’re used to in this situation is the way he toyed with Andre Ethier in a game against the Dodgers last year. Here’s a high-leverage situation, with the Nationals protecting a one-run lead in the sixth inning, and men on first and second with two outs. Strasburg has just walked Yasiel Puig after a long battle. His first pitch to Ethier is a well-spotted changeup on the outside corner. The outfielder rolls over it harmlessly to end the inning on a 4–3 groundout.
The pitch is probably a bit higher than Strasburg wants it, but the fact that it’s in the right spot east to west means that Ethier can’t do a thing with it. This is the sort of command we expect to see from Strasburg. Luckily, mechanics, velocity and movement aren’t giving him any problems this year. Given that command and luck are really the only areas where Strasburg needs to improve to get back to his previous level of production, there should be better days in his immediate future.