Though the idea of pitching to contact had been stressed by the Washington Nationals since he initially joined the organization after being taken first overall in the 2009 Draft, Stephen Strasburg's pro career started with a fourteen-strikeout game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 8, 2010. He admitted afterwards that he sometimes got caught up in the moment and started to go for strikeouts, though he knew it wouldn't always be as easy for him as it was that night in front of 40,315 fans in Nationals Park in his major league debut.
"I just want to go out there and execute the majority of my pitches out there the way I can," the then-21-year-old right-hander told reporters, "and the strikeouts are more of an accident than anything. You want to go up there pitching to contact, wanting them to put the ball in play, and it happens some games, but not all the games are going to be like this." Strasburg made just eleven more starts that summer before suffering a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Though he hasn't matched or bested that strikeout total in the 74 starts he's made since his debut, Strasburg did strike 13 batters out twice in 2012 and he's hit double digits in Ks ten times so far in his career. Now-former Nats' skipper Davey Johnson said last summer that he thought Strasburg got caught up in the hype and high K totals once he started pitching in the majors and didn't back to being the pitcher the manager selected for Team USA's roster in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 until this season.
"[He went] away from contact," Johnson explained, "But when he gets back to attacking hitters and going right after them with good location, he's nasty. But his stuff was always pretty consistent. It's just his command when he tries to do too much."
The Strasburg that Davey Johnson was looking for finally showed up in an August 11, 2013 outing at home in D.C. against the Philadelphia Phillies which saw the now-25-year-old starter strike out 10, walk one and throw just 99 pitches in the first complete game shutout of his MLB career. "He's always, ever since I had him in the Olympics," Johnson said, "he's always showed great command of the strike zone with his fastball down in the zone and basically fastball, curveball. I don't think he threw that many changeups today, it was basically fastball, curveball, but he was both sides of the plate. When he's like that, I mean, he'll have low-pitch games. How many did he end up striking out, 12?"
He struck out 10.
"I mean, that's going deep in games," Johnson said after the record was corrected by a reporter, "low pitch counts and striking out that number. Instead of going up and trying to miss the bats, he was pretty much saying, 'Here, hit it.' Which is great."
After striking out 92 (12.18 K/9) in 68 IP in his first 12 major league starts and 197 (11.13 K/9) in 159 1/3 IP in his first full-season back from Tommy John surgery in 2012, Strasburg struck out 191 (9.39 K/9) in 183 IP (good for 4th overall in the NL in K/9 and 10th overall in the majors) and saw his GB% (Ground Ball%) go from 47.8% in his rookie campaign and 44.2% in his third season in 2012 to 51.5% in 2013.
That was the 4th highest GB% amongst qualified NL starters and eighth overall in the majors behind the likes of Wade Miley in Arizona at 52.0%, Andrew Cashner in San Diego 52.5%, Jeff Locke in Pittsburgh at 53.2%, Doug Fister (54.3%) and Rick Porcello (55.3%) of the Detroit Tigers, A.J. Burnett from the Pirates (56.5%) and Justin Masterson (58.0%) in Cleveland.
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Strasburg's fourth major league season ended with him at (8-9) with a 3.00 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 16 HRs (0.79 HR/9) and 56 walks (2.75 BB/9) allowed and 191 Ks (9.39 K/9) collected in 30 starts. "His numbers are indicative that he should have won 15 ballgames, at least," Davey Johnson told reporters after Strasburg's final start of the year, but he hasn't yet reached his ceiling in Johnson's mind.
"He's still, there's a few things that he could do better," the Nats' outgoing manager explained. "He knows what they are. He's a little too regular still at times," Johnson said, referring to Strasburg's tendency to fall into too predictable a pattern with runners on base, "but he's made improvements. He's getting to be the complete pitcher. He's awfully good as it is, but there's still more room in there for improvement."
There was one important change over the course of the 2013 season, however, as Johnson saw it.
"He's much calmer," the manager for two and a half of Strasburg's first four seasons said last September, "and he's not letting the little things bother him and he's right where he needs to be." Strasburg had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow in late October, but he's expected to be ready for Spring Training and the start of the 2014 campaign.
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