WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It may look a bit odd - pitching from the stretch, not a full windup, when there’s nobody on base - but in Stephen Strasburg’s mind, if that unconventional tweak can help make him a healthier and more effective pitcher, why not give it a shot?
“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” the Nationals right-hander said today after debuting his windup-less delivery during an impressive two-inning start against the Cardinals, “but trying to simplify things as much as I can and be able to repeat my mechanics.”
It would be foolish to judge the effectiveness of Strasburg’s new delivery based on two scoreless innings thrown on March 3 before a crowd of 3,975. It’ll take many more outings in Florida this month, then in much larger stadiums come April and beyond, to know what (if any) difference this makes.
But Strasburg is committed to the idea. And the Nationals are committed to letting him try it out.
“I feel like as I’ve gotten older, for whatever reason, the windup’s just been an issue, as far as getting that right feeling of staying on the mound, not drifting too much towards the first or third base side on my leg kick, and sticking the landing a little better,” he said. “So I just started doing it in the offseason. I feel like I’ve always been able to maintain my stuff out of the stretch, even when I would just slide-step exclusively. So I worked on it in the offseason. It felt good. It felt good today. So it’s just something I’m going to continue to work on.”
This was the first time Strasburg had faced an opposing team since Sept. 7, when his start against the Braves at Nationals Park was abruptly cut short by elbow pain. He was diagnosed with a partially torn pronator tendon, and though he resumed throwing off a bullpen mound during the playoffs he never made it back in time to finish the season.
Given his injury history and a desire to stay strong through the entire spring, summer and fall, Strasburg is making some changes this year. He’s planning not to throw as much in between starts, reducing some excess wear and tear. And he’s planning to reduce the usage of his slider, a pitch that was extremely effective last season but (he now admits) was the primary cause of his elbow discomfort.
To that end, he threw only one slider among his 23 pitches this afternoon: It bored in on left-handed slugger Matt Adams’ hands, causing him to foul it off.
“It’s a pitch that I still want to throw, because I think it’s effective, but (only) to certain guys,” he said. “I think I got into a habit of throwing it to pitchers last year. And it’s like, I don’t really need to do that. So it’s just trying to stick within the percentages that I know are good for me, and hopefully good for the long haul.”
The biggest change, at least from a visual standpoint, is the elimination of the full windup. Almost every starting pitcher in baseball uses it, but there has been a growing movement in the sport to switch strictly to the stretch because it involves fewer movements and thus has fewer potential problems.
Strasburg came up with the idea himself, watching Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco have success as starters without using the windup. He did some research over the winter, discussed it with Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux and decided to give it a try.
“I explained to him my thought process on it, and he was all for it,” Strasburg said of Maddux, who previously coached Darvish in Texas. “I think the biggest thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the mechanics look like, as long as you can repeat them. And I feel like at this point it’s something that I can repeat a little bit better than going out of the windup.”
Strasburg provided no reason not to support the idea during today’s game. He cruised through his first inning on 10 pitches, striking out both Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk using nothing but fastballs. He worked in a few off-speed pitches during the second inning and remained successful, bouncing back from Jhonny Peralta’s single by inducing a 1-6-3 double play from José Martinez.
“When he looks like he’s not trying is when he does his best,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s kind of just easy and lots of strikes. I think, for a first outing, first two innings, it was as good as you can get.”
Manager Dusty Baker was equally impressed and, while admitting the unconventional nature of it all, supports the endeavor along with his pitching coach.
“If Mike don’t have a problem with it, I don’t have a problem with it,” Baker said. “He threw pretty good out of it. So if he feels right and feels comfortable, continue to do it.”
There may be a certain stigma attached to pitching exclusively from the stretch - Strasburg joked that people think that’s something pitchers only do in Little League before they’ve learned proper mechanics - but it’s becoming more accepted in the majors.
And in the end, if the results are positive - who knows, maybe Strasburg will become an unlikely trendsetter.
“I was pleased with the way it was working today, but I’m not sitting there saying that everybody’s got to do it,” he said. “But it’s something that might benefit me, as long as I continue to work on it. As long as you get to that basic point of getting your leg kick and going, I can always revert back to the windup if I feel like I need to.”