ATLANTA - Stephen Strasburg hasn't been pitching at a Cy Young level thus far this season. But he also hasn't pitched poorly.
The latter point is one that Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty wants to emphasize.
McCatty passionately defended Strasburg this afternoon, saying that the expectations that media members and fans have placed on Strasburg have reached unfair levels, with it getting to the point that Strasburg almost is in a no-win situation.
"You guys put these levels on this guy that are almost unrealistic. You see something so talented, which he is, and when you saw that he was at times so good, you expect it every time," McCatty said. "... His standards are pretty high. I think your guys' standards are higher. That's my own personal opinion. I just want him to be him. I want him to be as good as he can be. Not what you guys expect.
"He's doing pretty good. Is he going to do better? Yes. Let's be realistic with the goals we think he should get. That's just my opinion."
Through six starts this season, Strasburg is 1-4 with a 3.13 ERA. Last season, he finished the year with a 3.16 ERA. This season, opponents are batting .231 off Strasburg. Last season, it was .230. Strasburg's walks are up a touch this season (from 2.7 per nine innings in 2012 to 2.9 per nine this season) and his strikeouts are down (from 11.1 per nine to 8.7 per nine). But McCatty is quick to point out that it's not like Strasburg has been knocked all over the park.
Strasburg certainly has lots of expectations put upon him from the outside, be it from media members or fans. But the right-hander also has incredibly high expectations for himself, something he's constantly battling.
When he allows a walk or surrenders a run, you can often see it affect him on the mound. Sometimes that works to his benefit, as he's able to dial things up another notch and get positive results. Other times, it can come back to bite him. Manager Davey Johnson said he wants Strasburg to have a little more fun. McCatty has his own request.
"I just want him to understand he's human," McCatty said. "... It's something hopefully he gets better with. He's pretty tough on himself. I wish that he wouldn't be that way, but that's part of his nature, that's part of what's made him as good as he is. And he's going to be better. I think he's going to be better when he's able to realize that this is a game that's built upon failure.
"He's going to have a lot of successes, but he's kind of a perfectionist kind of guy, and whatever he's set his mind to do, he's pretty much done. Sometimes at the big league level, this is pretty tough to do up here. ... Like I say, (media members) all say he's struggling. He's really not that bad. Could it be better? Sure. But it's really not that bad."
Strasburg's main issue this season has been the first inning. As I mentioned earlier today, Strasburg has posted a 10.50 ERA in the first inning this season and a 1.72 ERA from the second frame on. But McCatty is quick to defend Strasburg in that department, as well, while also saying the Nats are doing all they can to address the issue.
"There's a lot of guys (that deal with slow starts). This is not unique to him," McCatty said. "There's a lot of guys that were really, really good that the first inning would be a hard inning for them. You've got to work your way into the game kinda and see how it is. And then you look out there and it's the sixth inning and (Strasburg's) given up two runs. A lot of guys are like that, but sometimes you can have that little mental block about the first inning and going out there and fighting your way through it. That's just something he's got to learn how to do."
The Nats have tried different things with Strasburg in the bullpen before his starts, including having him throw a simulated first inning, in which he pretends like he's facing the first three opposing hitters during his warm-up tosses. McCatty has also had countless conversations with Strasburg, trying to tell him to find a way to better handle his emotions while maintaining his aggressive mindset.
McCatty also addressed Strasburg's mechanics, a hot topic among Strasburg's critics, who say that the right-hander falls too far to the first base side of the mound after throwing a pitch, indicating that he's overthrowing. Some scouts also feel that Strasburg's over-rotating, which puts more stress on his elbow and forearm.
"His mechanics are his mechanics," McCatty said. "Yes, he does pull off some pitches. He puts himself under unbelievable scrutiny to be perfect, which we always work to get over with. Do I like the fact that he does it or anybody does it? No. It's something we always fight against. But it happens.
"I'm not going to sit here and get all panicky about this. This is a young guy who is still learning what he's doing with the tremendous ability that he has. He's got to learn how to fight some of his own battles and learn how to get through them."