VIERA, Fla. - Stephen Strasburg’s repertoire already features a four-seam fastball that last season ranked second in the major leagues in average velocity among qualified starters. He has a sharp, knee-bucking curveball. And he has a changeup that often makes hitters look silly given how much movement it has and how fast it is relative to most changeups.
Today, during Strasburg’s first live batting practice session of spring, he showed off a new pitch - a slider, which he’s been working on this offseason and has thrown in his early bullpen sessions during camp.
Manager Matt Williams said he thinks Strasburg just threw four or five sliders today, but he liked what he saw of the pitch.
“I think he’s working on it with intent,” Williams said. “So he’s not just saying, ‘Oh, I want to throw this pitch and I’m just gonna throw it.’ He’s getting a sense of what it looks like to the hitter and how they react to it. He didn’t throw very many of them, but I thought it was a good pitch.”
Veteran catcher Koyie Hill, who was one of four hitters to stand in against Strasburg, along with minor league outfielders Brian Goodwin, Steven Souza and Michael Taylor, agreed with Williams’ assessment of the Strasburg slider.
“I thought it was good,” Hill said. “I think he feels comfortable with it. I think it’s a pitch that’s going to develop into something he gets more comfortable with the further into this whole thing that we get.”
Strasburg said the session felt good overall and that he’s right where he wants to be at this point in camp. He split his time on the mound evenly between the windup and the stretch today, but he took more time in between pitches when working out of the stretch and continued to focus on looking over at first base (at an imaginary baserunner) and varying his times to the plate.
Getting a chance to throw live BP after building up in the bullpen with no batter standing in there is a step forward for all pitchers at this point, and Strasburg was excited to get a different look with a hitter facing him.
“You go the whole offseason with nobody in there, so you just want to see where you want to start your pitches and what kind of movement you’re getting and see how the swings are,” Strasburg said. “I definitely ramped it up today. You always get in another gear when you’re out there pitching in a real game. So I put something into it today, got some good work in. I’ll just go from there.”
After watching Strasburg’s session and talking to Williams and players about it, two things stood out to me, specifically. The first is that Strasburg’s attention to detail impresses even those who share the same clubhouse as him. Souza, specifically, noted that Strasburg was displeased after throwing one particular pitch, even though Souza felt the pitch had good movement and location.
“It looked fine to me, but maybe it came off his fingers wrong or the spin was wrong or something and he turned to Paul (Menhart, Triple-A Syracuse pitching coach) and he wants to get it corrected,” Souza said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game, he could throw 20 pitches and nobody would say anything. But the fact that he’s always trying to get better, for me, especially as a young kid, it’s awesome to see.”
The other thing that I took note of when watching Strasburg’s session came after the left-handed-hitting Hill slapped a hard liner over the third base bag. As Strasburg got a new ball from Menhart and prepared to throw his next pitch, Hill shouted out to the mound that he had actually been trying to pull the pitch. The typically stoic Strasburg started cracking up, as did Hill and everyone within earshot.
“I like to see guys smile,” Hill said. “We can get caught up in this game sometimes trying to be perfect. Which is fine. But it’s nice. Even when you get out there and you’re starting to compete with each other and you’re starting to bear down, it’s still nice to stay humble and to laugh and make sure that we’re all out here together and on the same team.
“But it was good to see him smile and his shoulders kind of go down a little bit. That’s more of the development of him is being comfortable in his own skin and being comfortable in front of his teammates and on the mound. That tells me that everything has slowed down, which is a humungous thing, development-wise.”
Back to Strasburg’s slider, Williams was asked whether it’s at all a concern that a guy with three dominant pitches might start tinkering with something less-proven in a game, potentially opening himself up to some miscues instead of sticking with his bread-and-butter stuff.
“I think that he’s feeling it right now,” Williams said. “So I don’t think he’s said, ‘I’m going to throw this pitch this year.’ I think he’s trying to get a sense of what it would do for his repertoire here, and he’ll do it during the games in spring training. But like I said, today, out of how many pitches did he throw, thirty-something, four or five of them were sliders. I think he’s just trying to feel it and see what it would potentially do for him.
“Does he add it to his arsenal in his first start? Who knows? Because when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, he’s going to go with what got him here, for sure. But it may be a pitch that he can throw when he wants to, (and use it) as a show pitch to let the opposing hitters know that he’s got one. It just adds more to their brain. He’ll get a sense of that in spring training. Pitchers always come up with new things.”