WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The 10 minutes that Stephen Strasburg reared back and fired a baseball at catcher Derek Norris on Thursday morning will quickly be forgotten. There’s just too much baseball left between now and October to focus too heavily on however many pitches the right-hander could cram into 600 seconds.
But for a pitcher whose 2016 season ended prematurely in early September because of a torn pronator tendon in his pitching arm, cutting loose under warm but cloudy Florida skies had to feel good, even if Strasburg was his usual circumspect self when asked what he made of his first spring activity.
“Just continue the progression and continuing on from what I was working on in the offseason and coming into here,” he said.
Both Norris and Nationals manager Dusty Baker, however, were enthused by what they saw from the right-hander, who signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in May, when he was in the midst of a 13-0 start to 2016, then wasn’t healthy enough to pitch in the postseason.
“He looked like Stras to me,” Baker said. “That was very, very impressive to me. He told me he was ready and he worked hard this winter. He’s in great shape.”
“Strasburg looked great - all of his stuff,” said Norris. “He had command of all four of his pitches. Looked real sharp.”
When a reporter mentioned how happy he must have felt to be healthy on Day One of workouts, Strasburg pointedly responded that he’s posted for the start of just about every spring training.
“I don’t think that’s been the issue in past years,” Strasburg said. “Minus my Tommy John year, I’ve always been here Day One. Question is, I guess Day 162, or whatever it is with those off-days.”
Thinking big picture can be a challenge for Strasburg, who admits he’s sometimes impatient.
“I think I kind of catch myself wanting to see results immediately and I think it can be counterproductive when you don’t really look at the big picture,” he said. “So I have a tendency to want to see my pitches work the way I want them to every time. That’s fine, but it won’t necessarily work for seven months, so you just gotta kind of know when to take it back, and I think that’s something I’ll always struggle with. But we’ve got a great group of people here with a lot of knowledge and experience that can hopefully keep me from doing things that are counterproductive to staying healthy.”
To that end, Strasburg spent the offseason committed to a training regimen developed by strength and conditioning coach Matt Eiden that incorporated long-distance running into his winter workouts.
“At the start, I did a lot more distance running and then tapered that down into more sprint stuff,” Strasburg said. “But just really tried to do a lot more of the functional fitness type. It’s nice if you can do heavy weight on the bench, but if you can’t do X number of push-ups or pull-ups, it doesn’t really help you. So that was kind of the program they had going for me, was really trying to do a lot of the body weight stuff and strengthen that way.”
As a result, Strasburg looks trimmer and more cut, even though he’s added a few pounds to his slender frame and now weighs about 240 lbs. He went back to the season before his 34-start 2014 season, when he posted a 14-11 record, 3.14 ERA and led the National League with 242 strikeouts for a familiar training recipe.
“Just looking back on it, I think 2014 that I made every start, that was kind of one of the things I did in the offseason a lot was the distance running,” he said. “Not so much during the season. It was more purely because it was just enjoyable. I was just running at the beach, like just cruising, watching surfers. But I think there was something to it. It’s kind of corny, but they say the season’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And so I’m just training to sprint and I’m not close to being able to run a marathon. It’s kind of the same direction you got to go.”
Strasburg would run three or four miles on Wednesdays, then air it out to up to seven miles on Sundays, giving him ample time to recover.
“I wasn’t running a marathon, but I was getting up to six, seven miles,” he said. “For a guy my size, it takes three or four days to recover from it. But I think as long as I was able to do it, but then once I started to get more into throwing every day, I tapered it down so I did a little bit less - more sprint-type cardio, but on a daily basis.”
Oddly enough, Strasburg was embracing a training mantra from a couple of generations ago, when pitchers put in significant distance work to prepare for a season.
“I didn’t really talk to anybody regarding that,” he said. “I was just relying on the strength coach and kind of getting feedback. I was telling him what helped me in the past and really it was just working with him and ... starting this phase one and building up throughout the offseason. The last phase was fifth phase or fourth phase right before spring training. So hopefully in a good spot to start spring.”
As he said at Nats Winterfest, Strasburg expects to throw less of the slider he integrated into his repertoire last season. He’ll go back to being a three-pitch pitcher for the most part, employing a fastball, curveball and changeup.
“I think it was effective for the most part last year, but I didn’t have it when I first got to the big leagues and I didn’t have it any of the other years,” he said. “I think my changeup and my curveball are still above-average pitches that can get guys out, so I think I’m going to use it, but use my other stuff, too.”