WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It’s the simplest pitch in baseball. A first-pitch fastball, preferably taken for strike one.
But it’s also the most predictable pitch in baseball. And it has burned Stephen Strasburg enough times over the years to convince him to start trying something different.
So during his Tuesday night outing against the Astros, Strasburg often eschewed that first-pitch fastball and instead opened up at-bats with a breaking ball or a changeup.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence throwing that in any count,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of early on in the game not getting too fastball-heavy. I think a lot of times when guys get me, it’s early in the count and early in the game. So from first pitch on, (the goal is) using all my pitches.”
Consider this just another step in Strasburg’s ongoing transition from one of baseball’s most feared power pitchers into the more well-rounded right-hander he hopes will enjoy sustained success well into his 30s.
The formula earlier in his career was simple. Get ahead with fastballs that stayed in the upper 90s and occasionally reached triple digits. Then put guys away with curveballs and changeups.
Trouble is, some hitters figured they might as well just go up there hacking against Strasburg and try to do damage on the first fastball they saw.
“I think my off-speed pitches are the stuff they don’t really want to get to,” he said. “I think that’s why they’re swinging early in the count, above league-average off me. I just have to do a better job speeding them up sometimes and slowing them down other times.”
The results Tuesday night - two runs on five hits, with four walks and six strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings - were a bit ragged. But Strasburg emerged from his third start of the spring feeling good both about the state of his oft-injured arm and his approach against Houston’s lineup.
“I saw him, for the first time today, walk off the mound with a smile on his face,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And that’s pretty good.”
Strasburg’s velocity, the subject of much scrutiny last September when his fastball dropped to the low 90s, returned to the 93-95 mph range in this start. It’s not the upper 90s he used to throw, but he’s also realizing this may be a smarter approach and lead to better results.
He’s throwing more two-seam fastballs, which may drop in velocity but add more movement than his four-seam fastball, especially coming in on right-handed hitters.
“I feel like I’m also in a good spot to where I’m not really worried about what’s on the radar gun,” he said. “Read the swings. If I can keep myself nice and fluid, I hide the ball better, it gets on guys better. And I think that’s way better than trying to throw it harder and fly open and show the ball earlier to get it there. It might look better on the scoreboard, but you kind of start to realize with those guys that are very deceptive, they hide the ball really well. As I’ve gotten older, I really try to hide the ball as best as I can.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes, but Strasburg is participating in his 10th big league camp with the Nationals. He’s come a long way since those 2010 days in Viera when every pitch he threw drew headlines.
He’s not the same pitcher anymore. But, to him, that’s a good thing.
“The benefit for me is, way back in high school and even the first part of college, I wasn’t necessarily a hard thrower,” he said. “I feel like I’ve always had pretty good command of my stuff and can make the ball move different ways. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize maybe it is better to stay under control and not just try to throw it by guys every time.
“These guys are big league hitters. It doesn’t really matter how hard it is if it’s right down the middle. If you’re missing arm side a lot, they’re going to make the adjustment. Try and save some in the tank for certain situations, but as you get older you start to realize how important quick outs are and not necessarily try to strike every guy out.”