VIERA, Fla. - Slowly over the last couple of years, one aspect of Stephen Strasburg’s game has jumped out at him as an area that has to be improved. The numbers show it, and the results within games have made it plenty evident.
Strasburg needs to get better at holding runners.
The right-hander has only picked off one runner in his career, and of the 38 runners who have attempted to steal off Strasburg in his 75 big league games, 30 have been successful, a 72 percent success rate. Pitching coach Steve McCatty has tried to get Strasburg to focus on the running game and improve in that area, but the message hasn’t really stuck. Until recently, that is. And entering spring this year, Strasburg has made getting better at holding runners his top goal.
“I think it was pretty apparent,” Strasburg said. “It’s not something I was blindsided by. I knew it was something I needed to work on. And I know it’s going to make me a better pitcher. Save some runs and hopefully get some more double plays in the process.
“There’s going to be games where I’m not necessarily striking everybody out or missing a lot of bats and that’s where being comfortable, knowing where the runner is, setting him up almost to where he’s not just able to get a free bag, just stealing it with ease, and just wait until the next pitch so where maybe I can get a ground ball and get a double play.”
So there was Strasburg this morning, during his first bullpen session of spring, adjusting the way that he comes to a set position when in the stretch. There he was varying his times to the plate and working on his slide step. There he was looking over his left shoulder, imagining there was a runner taking a lead off first base, even though through the only thing of note to his left was Jordan Zimmermann, throwing a bullpen session of his own a mound over.
All of that was noticed by manager Matt Williams, by the way. And it indicates just how focused Strasburg is on improving the way he holds runners this year.
The change isn’t anything mechanical or anything to Strasburg’s positioning, per se. It’s more about the way that he comes set and the level of attention he’s paying to the runner on first.
“I’ve just got to identify his lead a little better,” Strasburg said. “If I focus on that, then I can kind of gauge how far off the base he is, instead of just playing guesswork. If he’s moving, I’m going to know exactly how far off he is when I delver the pitch, too. ...
“I think it takes a little while for a lot of guys (to adjust to holding runners as a professional). Because the way college ball and high school is, you really don’t have to worry about it. If you pick over, the coach is going to call a sign to throw over. And that’s that. So you’re just looking for a sign. My situation, I didn’t really have much time in the minors to work on the little nuances of pitching. And that was one thing where I just compensated for it by just being really quick to home plate. And big league baserunners, hitters, coaches, they’re going to pick up on that. They’re just going to cheat and sell out. If I can’t even see where they’re at, they know I’m going to home plate, so they’re gone.”
Sounds like a mature way of viewing things. And given that this is Strasburg’s fifth spring training with the Nationals, he’s starting to become, strangely enough, one of the players with the most experience around the Space Coast Stadium complex. He’s now learned how to deal with spring training and all that comes with it, and seems to be maturing in that aspect, as well.
“I think the first couple years it would be like, let’s go, the fans are watching and you want to go out there and impress,” Strasburg said, putting air quotes around the word “impress.” “I’ve come to realize there’s not a hitter in the box and there’s still six weeks of spring training and I need to just get my work in. I just wanted to take that kind of approach this year, just try to make baby steps and get a little better each day.”
Here’s more from Strasburg, who was plenty engaging today when he met with reporters:
On whether he’s gotten used to the hype and attention that he always gets: “I don’t think it’s really changed. Even in college, people are going to say what they say. People are going to hype me up if they like me, they’re going to try to bury me if they don’t. That’s just the way it works. I don’t really pay attention to it. I just focus on what I can control, and that’s the effort I put out here every day. I’m trying to go out there and compete, help this team win some games.”
On his takeaway from last season: “I think I had to persevere and there are a lot of things that didn’t necessarily go my way and that’s fine. I think everybody’s going to have years like that, and I think I’ve become a lot stronger mentally from it, so I think I’m much more capable of being able to roll with the punches that the season throws at you.”
On trying to work deeper into games: “I think it’s a combination of mental and just command in the fastball and just really having one of those years. I felt like I did a pretty good job going deep in the games for the most part last year. I think there was a couple of outliers in there - where the weather was, like, rain, or getting pulled after one for some reason - that kind of throw it off a little bit. But I thought for the most part I was able to get to the seventh a lot of the time, and for the National League, the way it was last year when I really wasn’t pitching with many leads, it’s kind of hard to go nine when you’re pitching behind the other team and your manager wants to get a pinch-hitter in there hoping to hit a homer and give me the lead.”
On how the bone chips in his elbow affected him last year: “All I can say is that I feel 10 times better now. In the process, I didn’t really know what was going on, so I felt like I was able to go out there and compete and pitch at a high level. I’d say it just affected my mechanics more than anything, which in turn affected command of pitches.”
On whether last year will fuel the Nats in 2014: “I think it will be great. It seems like guys are showing up early. Guys are ready to work. There’s definitely a little bit of edge to camp, and I think it starts with the manager on down. I know Matt was a fierce player, just watching him when I was younger, and I think he’s going to instill that same type of intensity in our ball club.”
On his impressions of Williams: “I like him a lot. I talked to him a little bit at the Fan Fest, and I like how we have the short meetings going over everything we’re going to do each day beforehand, and he seems to have a pretty good sense of humor, too.”
On Doug Fister: “I’ve known a little bit about Doug just from mutual friends, and everything they say is that he’s an awesome guy in the clubhouse and super humble and I know we’re going to hit it off well. I also know that he’s a really good runner, he can hit a little bit, and he can hold runners really well, so I might be picking his brain.”