Opening Day is here, and the Nationals will hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg to kick off the 2017 season. After a series of starts and stops in his career, Strasburg is hoping 2017 is the year it all comes together.
When Strasburg is healthy, he is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, matching teammate Max Scherzer nearly strikeout for strikeout. Health, of course, will always be the first question with Strasburg. His Tommy John surgery is in the past but only several months ago he gave all of DC a scare with yet another arm injury that ended his 2016 season prematurely. It appears that Strasburg has put that specific in his rearview mirror, but it joins a long list of ailments that have served to derail Strasburg’s career. Although most of those injuries have been minor individually, they have really limited him as Strasburg has only topped 200 innings pitched in a season once, all the way back in 2014. After signing him to a long term deal in the middle of last season, the Nationals’ brass is hoping the injury bug is finally behind Strasburg.
The long term deal is a gamble worth taking because Stasburg is a dominant pitcher when he can take the ball. In 2016, he posted solid a 3.60 ERA but a sparkling 2.92 FIP. Strasburg has consistently improved year in and year out, an impressive feat considering he was the number one overall draft pick and was considered one of the most sure-fire pitching prospects of all time. Those improvements continued into 2016 where he struck out 31% of batters faced, essentially the same strikeout rate as Cy Young winner Scherzer. On top of that, Strasburg is stingy in passing out free passes, walking opposing batters at a below league average 7% rate.
Strasburg hasn’t stopped tinkering to try and continue that improvement. In 2017, he’s implemented two major changes. First, he plans on dropping his newest pitch: the slider. A relatively new pitch for him in 2016, the slider ended up as Strasburg’s go to off speed pitch, an offering he threw 17% of the time. He cut back on his fastball and curveball usage to work in the slider more often. Despite it being a new pitch for Strasburg, the slider turned into Strasburg’s third most effective pitch, lagging behind his fastball and ever dominant change up. Despite that success, Strasbrug claims he will drastically reduce his use of the pitch this season. Although his injury from 2016 appears to be behind him, Strasburg thinks throwing the slider so often last year contributed to his injury and will leave the pitch behind. Strasburg was a dominant pitcher without the slider, so there is no reason to think that Strasburg can’t still be dominant relying solely on his fastball, curveball, and changeup.
After ditching the slider, it looks like Strasburg will also ditch the windup. It’s a change a lot of big name pitchers have made recently: Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, and David Price to name a few. The idea behind the change is simple: why work so hard at perfecting two sets of mechanics when it’s not required? The windup is an old-school concept and I can’t even tell you where it started. Strasburg clearly believes that ditching the windup and pitching out of the stretch 100% of the time will help repeat his mechanics on a more consistent basis. If Strasburg can simplify his approach mechanically, perhaps it will help him limit the hard contact that has plagued him in the past.
It’s not a new refrain, but it really is true that the only thing holding Strasburg back right now is health. The concern that sits in the back of everyone’s minds will likely never go away as long as Strasburg is toeing the rubber, but the hope that he is finally beyond those concerns will also never leave. With a fastball that still sits in the mid to upper 90s, a physics-defying curveball, and his patented low 90s changeup, the stuff has never been a concern. Will 2017 finally be there year where stuff and health come together?Tags: 2017 player previews, Nationals, Nats, Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals