What Strasburg and Storen need to work on in Harrisburg

The Washington Nationals optioned Stephen Strasburg and re-assigned Drew Storen to Double-AA Harrisburg today, putting an end to what had been an exciting glimpse of the future in Viera. With only 14 combined innings pitched, the two first round draft picks of 2009 gave Nationals fans some strong hope for the second half of the 2010 season.

Storen will start the season in Harrisburg where he pitched 10 games last season. The 22-year-old bullpen hand will likely only see a few appearances in Harrisburg before getting the call to Syracuse. If he performs well there, he could conceivably be the Nationals set up man by late May, and their closer by the end of the summer depending on Matt Capps’ and Brian Bruney’s success. Storen has little left to prove at the Double-AA level, the righty pitched 12.1 scoreless innings there last season, allowing only three hits and striking out 12.

Storen has had mixed success this spring against Major League opponents, and at times looked slightly overmatched. This of course is to be expected, the future closer is only 22-years-old and less than a year out of college baseball. In five innings pitched this spring he struck out six, but walked three and gave up three earned runs with three hits. In the minors he will need to work on hitting his spots and cutting down on mistakes. Without overpowering stuff, Storen will need to be able to get ahead in the count and award no free passes.

A look at Storen’s projections show that there is little agreement on how ready he is to pitch in the majors:

CHONE: 29 G, 1-2, 5.88 ERA, 7.62 K/9, 5.19 BB/9, 5.25 FIP
ZiPS: 29 G, 2-1, 3.78 ERA, 8.64 K/9, 3.24 BB/9, 3.92 FIP.

The CHONE projection suggests that he still has a way to go in harnessing his control. As you can see their 5.19 walks per nine innings pitched is far higher than the ZiPS projection of 3.24. The higher FIP projection is also a result of missed spots which results in harder hit balls. ZiPS however thinks he should be ready to contribute right away. Either way, Storen will go down and work on his control, and will be up ready to make his mark soon.

Strasburg too will likely start the season in Harrisburg, his first official minor league stint. In nine innings Strasburg was absolutely electric this spring. The 21-year-old struck out 12 batters, walked only one, and allowed only two earned runs. More impressively, as Adam Kilgore points out, none of Strasburgs outs left the infield. Of his 27 outs he struck out 12, had one pop out, and forced 14 ground outs.

Of course there is still work to be done with Strasburg. His 12 strikeouts came against few top major league hitters, and he allowed two homers yesterday on what were likely a result of missed spots. For Strasburg it’s the age-old problem, when you throw incredibly hard, the ball tends to fly pretty hard off of batters bats when they catch up to the smoke. This problem can clearly be seen in the eight hits Strasburg let up in nine innings of work. None were off of solid contact, but they all found their way through the infield off of 96 mile-per-hour fastballs. The best way to fix this is for him to try and be more deceptive with his off speed pitches and pitch to contact slightly less.

Buster Olney of ESPN pointed out an interesting point; so far this spring Strasburg has looked relatively uncomfortable working out of the stretch. The reason? He’s not used to pitching with batters on base. While that answer may seem like a joke, it’s just the truth, in his years at San Diego State he was so dominant that he hardly ever had to pitch with runners on. It’s an important skill to work on and it’s something he will no doubt try and develop while in Harrisburg and Syracuse.

Minor adjustments aside, it is clear that barring a some sort of catastrophe or major set-back, Strasburg will be brought up as soon as the arbitration clock is set back. This means in about two months people will be lining the centerfield gate to see last years number one overall pick pitch in Nats Park. If the Nationals are able to play .500 ball until then, who knows what sort of spark Strasburg could provide.