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Command, Slider (?) burn Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg Tuesday

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A week after leaving his start against the Miami Marlins after three innings with what the Nats called a shoulder blade issue, Stephen Strasburg lasted just 3.1 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. This time he got pulled based on merit rather than injury.

In Tuesday's 14-6 loss to the Diamondbacks, Stephen Strasburg's mechanics looked off. His command looked terrible. He was even changing his repertoire.  Nothing worked.
In Tuesday's 14-6 loss to the Diamondbacks, Stephen Strasburg's mechanics looked off. His command looked terrible. He was even changing his repertoire. Nothing worked.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After leaving his previous start with what was reported to be a lingering shoulder blade issue, Stephen Strasburg returned to the hill for the Washington Nationals last night.  He did not appear to reaggravate the injury.  That's about the only good thing that can be said about his performance.  Already trailing 5-2 in the fourth inning with runners on the corners, Strasburg hung a first pitch slider to Diamondbacks' slugger Mark Trumbo.  Trumbo did what any decent major league hitter would do and blasted it off of the facing of the second deck.  That ended Strasburg's night prematurely for the second straight week.

It was an eventful night for the 26-year-old former top overall pick.  He didn't look comfortable with his mechanics on the mound, though at least he didn't fall off to the left grimacing in pain as he did for his entire outing against the Marlins last week.  As you would expect from a pitcher struggling with his mechanics, both his command within the zone and his control overall were off.  Strasburg threw two pitches in this game which hit the dirt about halfway to the plate.  Let's look at his strike zone plot.......

When Strasburg was missing, he wasn't exactly missing close to the zone very often.  I get the whole nibble and try and get them to chase philosophy, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.  Getting hitters to chase out of the zone kind of requires a pitcher to be around the zone, and Stras just wasn't on Tuesday.  When he did find the zone, we'll see that he wasn't exactly pitching near the edges much either.  Sixteen of his seventy-two pitches (48 strikes) were within six inches both vertically and horizontally of dead center.  Stras does have the stuff to be constantly attacking the zone, but middle-middle is a bad place to be living even when you're fastball is averaging 96.2 MPH.

Finally, we'll find the oddest thing of the night.  Since I'm using Brooks Baseball to show you his strike zone plot, let's see what they have to say about Strasburg's repertoire....

His fourseam fastball generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has slightly above average velo. His curve is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' curves, is slightly harder than usual and has slight glove-side movement. His change is thrown extremely hard, is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' changeups and has slight armside fade. His sinker (take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 13 of them in 2015) is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sinkers, results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers and has slightly above average velo. His slider (take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 2 of them in 2015) is thrown extremely hard, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sliders, is an extreme flyball pitch compared to other pitchers' sliders, has less than expected depth and has primarily 12-6 movement.

Strasburg has played around with a slider a few times in the past, but it's never really been a big part of his arsenal.  In fact, per Brooks Baseball, Strasburg threw his slider 10.78% of the time last March, 7.68% of the time last April, 0.20% of the time this April, and 1.56% of the time so far this May.  Apart from that, Strasburg has zeros across the board for his slider usage.  There's a reason for that........

I can't find a way to isolate this so that we can just look at the sliders, but let's just say that we're looking at those red squares on the above graph.  Let's note:

  1. The lack of vertical movement on the pitch.  Most pitchers sliders do have a little drop to them... otherwise it would probably be classified as a cut fastball.  Strasburg threw nine pitches classified as sliders Tuesday.  None of them really had much sink to them
  2. The lack of horizontal movement on the pitch.  Of the nine sliders that Strasburg threw, one broke seven inches.  The other eight broke less than three inches, including one that pretty much stayed completely straight and a backup slider that actually broke an inch back the other way

So Strasburg's slider had almost no vertical movement and very little horizontal movement.  It was basically a 90 MPH hanger in most of the cases that he threw it.  Here's what big league hitters do to hanging sliders....

They do this......

Yep... That's a 90 MPH hanging slider middle-middle.  Chris Owings drilled it into the gap.  Here's what a hitter with power does to them......

That's the kind of bomb we usually only see from Giancarlo Stanton.  Mark Trumbo sat on a slider with no movement and absolutely drilled it.  That's the pitch that mercifully ended Strasburg's night.  Hopefully it will be the last slider that Stras attempts to throw in 2015.  He'd thrown a whopping two sliders prior to Tuesday night, and there's a reason.  It's just not even a moderately effective pitch for him.

Why Strasburg and Wilson Ramos decided to feature the "slider" so heavily last night is anyone's guess.  The Diamondbacks did send a lineup with seven right-handed hitters against him, so maybe the gameplan was to sneak up on them with a pitch that he doesn't throw very often.  The slider is generally a good weapon against same-handed hitters.... at least good sliders are.  Sliders break down and away from same-handed hitters, so they're generally going away from their happy zone.  When you don't throw a very good slider (and Strasburg certainly doesn't... or hasn't throughout his career), you're leaving yourself at risk.

I'm hopeful that the Nats' battery didn't decide to feature the slider because Strasburg felt more comfortable (mechanically?  physically based on his "shoulder blade issue?") throwing that than throwing his curveball and changeup more often.  If he's compensating for this nagging injury by not throwing his usual arsenal, he should be placed on the disabled list.  Changing his arsenal to use a pitch that isn't very good isn't going to get him healthier.  Rest and rehab will.

Until we hear more (haven't we uttered that phrase before in Natstown?), I'm just going to chalk this up to a miserable start from a pitcher dealing with some slight nagging injuries.  Stras has been rough so far in 2015, but this isn't the first time he's hit a rough patch.  It won't be the last time either.  Hopefully that's all it is....