One noticeable secret to his success in 2019 is that he has altered his pitch usage. Strasburg re-introduced his two-seam fastball on a consistent basis for the first time in several seasons. The addition of the sinker has forced hitters to guess more and has made it more difficult to figure out what the right-hander is trying to do on the mound from pitch to pitch.
According to Brooks Baseball, Strasburg is employing the sinker 18.4 percent of the time this season, 335 pitches. In 2016, he threw the pitch six times total. In 2017, the two-seam was not thrown enough to be tracked. In 2018, Strasburg used the sinker just seven percent of the time, or 152 pitches the entire season.
“He uses his sinker more,” said Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart. “He’s able to ride up and in to righties. The sink hole, if you are familiar with that term. But what he’s really doing is Stras is using his off-speed more. That’s probably the biggest change. He’s making it difficult for the opposing teams to know what’s coming. He’s not being predictable.”
Strasburg’s big three pitches are the four-seam fastball, the changeup and the curveball. This season, he has thrown the curveball 30.1 percent of the time. That is way up from 19.6 percent curveball use in 2018.
Strasburg’s changeup has stayed steady at 19.3 percent usage per game. His four-seam fastball usage has dropped from 44.9 percent in 2018 to 31.5 percent of offerings this season.
That is where the two-seam fastball, which has sink action, comes in. The sinker has picked up the slack.
“A couple of years ago I started using it,” Strasburg said of the sinker. “Last year I kind of got away from it. It’s a pitch that complements my other ones pretty well. You look around the league and there are guys that are fastball hitters, and at the same time four-seamers don’t struggle with two-seam. So, I think when you have that variation and you have confidence to throw either one, depending on who you are facing, it can really be used to your advantage.”
In Strasburg’s last outing against the Marlins, on July 3, he threw 7 1/3 shutout innings, allowed only two hits, walked two and struck out a season-high 14.
Several times he would throw fastball, changeup and curveball back-to-back-to-back for strikeouts. Marlins hitters had trouble picking up what was coming at what time.
“At the end of the day, Stras has got three major pitches,” said Nationals catcher Yan Gomes. “That’s why these guys are elite pitchers. We don’t make an adjustment until they make an adjustment. If they’re not going to swing at a heater in we aren’t going to not stop throwing it in. I’m not going to just use the other side of the plate because we’ve used in so much. You keep going because these are all elite pitches. Whether or not you know it’s coming, it’s still hard to hit it.”
Strasburg said a key to beating a hitter is showing all his pitches, but also moving the ball around the plate. Not letting the hitter key on a particular quadrant of the strike zone.
“Pitchers get into trouble when you stick to one side of the plate,” Strasburg said. “A lot of hitters these days, they have all the gear on. They still need to be made aware that you’re going to pitch inside. When they can eliminate that one side of the plate they’re able to lean out there a little bit more and stay on your off-speed stuff.
“It’s always been an important part of the game, pitching inside. If you hit them, you hit them, but you also have to let the hitters know that you are going to go in there hard.”
But how does Strasburg make it look so easy?
Sometimes hitters can figure out a “tell” from a pitcher. Either picking up the spin of a ball out of the pitcher’s hand or a different look in the approach that enables a hitter to figure out which pitch is coming. But with Strasburg on July 3, and pretty much the entire season, it has been hard for hitters to know what is coming.
Strasburg humbly admitted his effortless work against the Marlins was just a game in which he was on. But Menhart believes there is another reason why all of Strasburg’s pitches are hard to pick up.
“It was that night,” Strasburg said. “It’s always a work in progress, and you just try and look for consistency as best you can, but know that over the course of a season some days you’re going to have all your pitches and some days you’re not. So you still got to go out there and compete with what you have.”
“He has very good lower-half usage,” Menhart countered. “It’s very consistent. And when that gets off-kilter, in-game adjustments are necessary. The sooner he realizes that he is off even a little bit, that’s what makes a big leaguer.”
It is a lot about the core of the pitcher. Menhart said Strasburg’s power and strength come from his legs, his lower half. This helps him drive through each pitch. It also helps Strasburg maintain consistency when his pitch count gets to 100 in the seventh inning.
“Pitching for all these years, you just know that you got to use your legs,” Strasburg said. “Over the course of the season you got to make sure that you do everything that you can to keep them nice and flexible and strong. Over the years you develop a program. Sometimes you have to make some tweaks to it, listen to your body a little bit. But for the most part, the strength (is built) in the offseason, and during the season it’s about maintaining as best you can.”
Strasburg is 10-4 with a 3.64 ERA in 18 starts this season, with 138 strikeouts. He trails only Max Scherzer in the National League for strikeouts (181), and is tied with the Mets’ Jacob deGrom. His WHIP of 1.04 is fifth best in the league.
Strasburg has already matched his win total from 2018, with 73 regular-season games left to play. Nationals manager Davey Martinez believes the major reason for Strasburg’s unhittable start is being in the strike zone with all three of his main pitches.
“The biggest thing with all his pitches is the ability to throw strikes with them all,” Martinez said. “He could fall 1-0 and throw a curveball for a strike. Throw a changeup for a strike. It doesn’t matter. That’s why he’s been so effective. He’s been around the plate with all his pitches. Working ahead in counts.
“His pitch efficiency has been really, really good,” Martinez continued. “Kudos to him because he’s worked diligently on his mechanics, honing in on his mechanics, repeating those mechanics throughout the game. That allows him to be in the strike zone that (much) more.”
The fastball-changeup-curveball combination has always been lethal for Strasburg. Add the sinker and the hitter is in a difficult spot.
“You get comfortable knowing what a guy has and his usage,” Menhart said of the addition of the sinker. “Now he’s making that adjustment and making it very difficult for them to even guess.”
Strasburg has not reached 30 starts in a season since 2014. Take the work Strasburg has done in the offseason to build and maintain his lower half, add to that his decreased reliance on the four-seamer, and you have a formula that points toward the big right-hander returning to that start number by the end of 2019.
“It just shows the kind of work that he puts in,” Gomes concluded. “He’s got a very good feel for every single pitch. I think once we find some sequences that work, he’s able to execute them.”