For the first time since he debuted in the majors in June of 2010, Washington Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg will be working with a new pitching coach in 2016. The no.1 overall pick of the '09 Draft will have to get to know Mike Maddux, the coach Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker brought on to handle the impressive collection of arms the Nats have assembled.
Maddux will be prepared when the season starts, though he said last weekend he hadn't started pouring over film of his new staff yet.
As for Strasburg? "I've seen him pitch on TV one time, and usually when I see Stras it's on ESPN," Maddux said.
"So I've never really seen him maneuver a game, I've just seen highlights of a strikeout here and a strikeout there. I'm really looking forward to watching these guys."
"Just talking to him today he seems like a really nice guy," Strasburg said after meeting Maddux for the first time last weekend.
"Seems like he's pretty funny too. McCatty is the only pitching coach I've known professionally and we've shared more of a relationship than just being coach and player. I wish him the best. I hope he gets a job someplace else because he definitely deserves it. But it's new chapter. I'm open to learning from anybody. Obviously Mike comes with a good track record, so I'm excited to pick his brain."
Establishing a relationship with a new coach will take time, Strasburg explained, but he said it's important to develop a good partnership.
"I think a lot of it is just with time, it's something you don't really force," he said.
"I think communication is a good thing between the pitcher and the pitching coach. Especially for the starter. Just going over the game plans before the game, maybe mechanical tweaks.
"All of us here have been throwing and know our bodies the best and know how it should feel, so a lot of times it's us coaching ourselves and just picking their brains for enlightenment."
Strasburg had his own moment of enlightenment this past season, when he overcame a series of injuries which started with an ankle sprain in Spring Training. He landed on the DL twice, but finished strong.
"I've learned a lot about myself through this process," Strasburg told reporters late this season.
"I think it's obviously good to go out there with a solid outing, but I'm just trying to focus on what I can control and just give it everything I have."
"I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there and times in the game when you kind of let your focus slip just for the split second.
"And I made it a point to not let that happen and just focus on each pitch and just let everything that I've got go into that particular pitch and turn the page."
Strasburg finished his sixth major league season (11-7) in 23 starts with a 3.46 ERA, a 2.82 FIP, 26 walks (1.84 BB/9) and 155 Ks (10.96 K/9) in 127 ⅓ innings pitched, over which he held hitters to a .233/.278/.375 line.
Once the season ended, the right-hander had a surgical procedure to remove a growth from his back. He refused to blame what was described as a "knot" in his back at the time for his struggles in 2015.
"I'm not going to say that it was the reason for pitching poorly or anything," he explained, "but it was a fibrolipoma in my back and it was benign. It was above the muscle, so they didn't cut into muscle or anything.
"It was a procedure, all in itself, it took about fifteen minutes. And they said it's almost a 0% chance of coming back, so I was pretty much doing my normal stuff within a week."
So was it behind the upper back issues which resulted in one of his two DL stints?
"That was some of the symptoms I was feeling," Strasburg said, "but it wasn't so much localized in that area, it was more kind of affecting just the mechanics of how all the muscles were working around it. Everything feels great now. Been working out for a while now, so I'm just excited to get back to throwing and getting ready for Spring Training.
It could, potentially, be his final Spring Training with Washington if he and the Nationals don't work out an extension that keeps him in the nation's capital beyond 2016.
Nats' GM Mike Rizzo was asked during the Winter Meetings if he and Strasburg's representatives have talked about an extension?
"We've always tried to think about our core players, to extend them to contracts," Rizzo said.
"We tried it with several of the players that have left us for free agency in the past. I would conceive we would do the same for him."
Strasburg said he won't let concerns about his future beyond this season affect his approach to the 2016 campaign.
"I've found with pitching that I pitch better, I don't stress out as much, if I just focus on the now," he explained.
Asked if it was hard not to think about free agency or have it affect you, the now-27-year-old starter said it can have an effect if you let it, but it's not the most important thing on his mind.
"I went into this game, as a kid, wanting to play the game because I loved to play, because I'm competitive, because I want to win," Strasburg said.
"With this team, we have, obviously, the potential to win and do a lot of good things, so I'm just going to focus on that and winning cures a lot of things, so I'm just going to do everything in my power to get better and help this team win some games and when the time comes to make decisions, it will happen."