For a pair of Nationals pitching veterans, it was a season opener that would probably be better forgotten. Despite populating the win column, the performances of both Stephen Strasburg and
For Strasburg, the start of his 2014 regular season was a laborious one, highlighted by a 26-pitch first frame and a three-run homer by Mets outfielder Andrew Brown. Despite settling down as the game progressed, Strasburg never appeared in full command of the game and a sluggish fastball (averaging 93.6 mph, a touch down from his 2013 average of 95.2 mph) only compounded the notion that he was without his usual A-plus stuff this game. For Clippard, it was a similar story - a rough outing also highlighted by a home run to go with erratic command of the strike zone with his pitches.
Despite a month-plus down in Viera, it appears the pair is still working on things; if you take a closer look at their pitch selections for their outings, you will find that the thing each is working on is another weapon or two in their repertoire. For Strasburg, it’s a slider, and for Clippard, it’s the continued honing of a split-finger fastball he began to flash late in 2013 to go along with a curveball he has flipped up to hitters sparingly since his days as a starter.
Clippard’s incorporation of off-speed pitches to go with his fantastic changeup is astute and is done to not only make his fastball and changeup better by changing planes and hitter eye-levels, but is also a admission that the fastball is losing some steam. The 2013 season saw his heater averaging 92 mph, down from his 2012 and 2011 seasons of 92.7 and 92.6 mph, respectively. With less velocity on the fastball comes less velocity difference between it and the changeup, and with this comes a greater reliance on location of the pitches, which has never been Clippard’s strength.
So in order to keep hitters guessing and missing on those chest-high fastballs and changeups that never quite make it over the plate, he has had to add a wrinkle, in the form of the split and curve. Looking at yesterday’s outing, Clippard threw two splits and two curves, each accounting for 15 percent of his 14-pitch outing. Compare that to throwing the split less than 1 percent of the time and the curve about 6 percent of the time in 2013 and we see that perhaps his first outing of 2014 was a sign of how Clippard will work hitters beyond the tried and true fastball up, changeup down pairing.
For Strasburg, the addition of the slider is slightly more puzzling. Already possessing three of the best pitches in baseball in the form of his four-seam fastball, curveball and straight-out-of-Looney Tunes changeup to go along with a formidable two-seam fastball, Strasburg didn’t really need to add to his repertoire more than he just had to trust what he had, despite some velocity loss, post-Tommy John surgery. Velocity loss that was still good for second place in the four-seamer velocity column for starting pitchers, two-tenths of a mile behind Matt Harvey’s 95.4 mph heater, mind you. For Strasburg, it’s been felt that an additional pitch wasn’t necessary, given the elite pitches he already has, and what was needed was a better understanding of what he could and couldn’t do physically post-Tommy John, and that it would be this that would allow him become the superstar everyone has envisioned he would be, more so than another pitch in the arsenal. Yet here we are, with a first outing that included about 11 percent sliders, used only against right-handed hitters and primarily ahead in the count.
While it remains to be seen if each hurler’s new offerings will continue to be effective pitches, we do find a divergent question for each: for Clippard, is it enough, and for Strasburg, it is too much?
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.