This adjustment took Strasburg to the next level

November 10th, 2019

It’s hard to dream up a better heading-into-your-opt-out season than the one just had. Durability questions? Strasburg led the National League with 209 innings. Postseason mettle? If 2015 and ’17 didn’t answer that, Strasburg went 5-0 in October and won the World Series MVP Award.

Strasburg put his best foot forward, and then some. But while his timing as a free agent is perfect, the same could be said for whoever signs him. The Stephen Strasburg who went 94-52 with a 3.14 ERA from 2010-18 was an excellent, often elite, starting pitcher. But the reason he could stay that way well into his next contract? Less heat, more hooks.

Strasburg made the curveball his primary pitch for the first time in his 10-year career in 2019, and it was the curve that helped him become “Stephen Strasburg, postseason legend.” In Game 2 of the NLDS, Strasburg threw that pitch 40% of the time -- and nearly 64% when he was behind in the count -- to beat the Dodgers and even the series. He leaned on it even more five days later in Game 5, especially in the later innings, to keep Los Angeles in check before Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick hit their famous home runs. And Strasburg’s brilliant performance in World Series Game 6 came down to two strikeouts: The first when he got Carlos Correa fishing on a curveball way out of the zone to keep the Nationals within reach, and then with a perfectly executed hook to José Altuve with the go-ahead runs on base.

At 31 years old and several arm injuries removed, Strasburg isn’t the same kid who flashed 100-plus mph at Triple-A Syracuse. Instead, he’s a mature pitcher who transitioned at exactly the right time. Two different ailments sapped Strasburg of both time and velocity in 2018, and his four-seamer yielded the Majors’ third-highest hard-hit rate and a .526 opponent slugging percentage. His 3.74 ERA was shocking, especially for an NL Cy Young Award finalist from the year before.

“There comes a point in everybody's career where you don't have the fastball that you can just blow by guys all the time,” Strasburg told the Washington Post last month. “You have to learn how to pitch a little bit more.”

Luckily for Strasburg, he had two top-shelf secondary pitches right in his back pocket. You might have known about the changeup that dominated the Cubs in the 2017 NLDS, but the curve was extremely good, too.

Lowest SLG allowed on curveballs, SP, 2017-18
Min. 175 AB
1. Corey Kluber (CLE): .174
2. Blake Snell (TB): .203
3. Charlie Morton (HOU): .235
4. Strasburg (WSH): .239
5. Aaron Nola (PHI): .253

Those are four of the very best curveballs a pitcher wants to be associated with, and in retrospect, it’s a no-brainer that Strasburg would want to throw that pitch more. He certainly did this year, transforming his hook from spike pitch in 0-2 counts to a throw-it-any-time offering. Hitters are armed with more information that helps them lock in on certain pitches in certain areas. Strasburg’s new mix combated that head-on.

Even with increased exposure to the curve this year, opponents didn’t fare any better, slugging .239, whiffing on nearly 40% of their swings and taking just three of Strasburg’s 1,000-plus hooks over the fence.

“It’s got such late movement and bite and sharpness to it [that] it’s very difficult to hit, even if you know it’s coming,” Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart said of Strasburg’s curve last month. “It was just a matter of using it more.”

Pitching with his lowest average fastball velocity, Strasburg still posted his best whiff-per-swing rate and the second-best chase and ground-ball rates of his career. A drop-off in his heater could have scared off suitors this winter, but his adjustments helped his fastball “play up,” and now he’s lined up for big dollars instead. Throwing less max-effort heat could also save Strasburg some wear and tear on his arm, and the Nationals cited his new, “extremely regimented” routine between starts for his durability this year. Indeed, it was the righty’s first season since 2014 without a day on the injured list.

A better routine, and a more sustainable approach. Whether it’s the Nats or someone else, whoever signs Strasburg might be getting him at the perfect juncture of his career.