Focusing on the fastball

For some time now, manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty have been trying to get Nationals pitchers to throw more fastballs.

Work off that pitch, they say. Establish the fastball, throw it for strikes, get ahead in counts and then mix in your off-speed stuff.

It’s a tried-and-true formula, one that forces hitters to put the ball in play, keeps pitch counts low and, when executed properly, gets the pitcher and his teammates off the mound quickly and back on offense.

For whatever reason, that message hasn’t completely gotten through yet.

There have been times when Nationals hurlers have heeded Johnson and McCatty’s advice. In Ross Detwiler’s last start, he threw 88 pitches. Of those 88, 78 were fastballs. The lefty was dominant over seven innings.

Stephen Strasburg’s last outing, 68 of his 91 pitches were fastballs. He excelled over six frames. Gio Gonzalez threw 71 fastballs in 101 pitches his last time out and was able to work eight full innings.

But yesterday, of the 207 pitches that Nationals pitchers threw, only 95 were heaters.

Astros hitters got a heavy dose of off-speed stuff, especially from Edwin Jackson (42 percent fastballs), Drew Storen (56 percent), Tyler Clippard (36 percent) and Craig Stammen (45 percent).

Jackson and Stammen managed to fare well relying so heavily on off-speed, but Jackson was forced out of the game before he’d completed six innings. Later on in the ballgame, Storen and Clippard really struggled to find the strike zone in the eighth and ninth inning.

Storen threw nine sliders in 11 pitches to start his outing, surrendering back-to-back walks.

Clippard hit a batter with a slider, walked a batter on four pitches after starting him with three straight changeups, and then gave up the game-tying run on a change.

Obviously, there are times when leaning on the off-speed stuff is the way to go. Scouting reports can tell pitchers that specific hitters prefer the fastball or situations can dictate that breaking pitches should be utilized more heavily.

By no means should pitchers completely abandon their off-speed pitches or shy away from using them early in counts. Clippard’s changeup is his out-pitch and Storen’s changeup/slider combo can be deadly.

But it seems like most of the time Nationals pitchers follow Johnson and McCatty’s advice, they find success. The more fastballs we see, the more success tends to follow.

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