Before finishing third in the voting for the 2017 NL Cy Young, 29-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg’s highest finish was ninth place back in 2014.
The Washington Nationals’ ‘09 No. 1 overall pick put together what was statistically his best season yet in 2017, going (15-4) in 28 starts, with a 2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 47 BB (2.41 BB/9), 204 Ks (10.47 K/9), and a .203/.265/.317 line against in 175 1⁄3 innings pitched, over which he was worth 5.6 fWAR.
Strasburg really turned it on in the second half of the 2017 campaign, going (6-1) in his final ten regular season starts, over which he posted a 0.86 ERA, a 1.96 FIP, 14 BB (2.01 BB/9), 76 Ks (10.96 K/9), and a .171/.231/.226 line against in 62 2⁄3 IP, 35 of which were scoreless over that dominant stretch.
He capped the season off with two postseason starts in which he gave up just six hits and two unearned runs, walking three batters and striking out 22 in Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS with the Chicago Cubs.
Now-former Nationals’ pitching coach, Mike Maddux, talked in an MLB Network Radio interview on Wednesday afternoon about the improvement he saw from Strasburg in their two seasons together in the nation’s capital.
“He’s a guy that has been blessed with great talent,” Maddux said. “He came up as a rookie and pitched like a veteran.
“Health has been his detriment, and the Tommy John [surgery], that’s — a lot of people have those, it’s not a big deal, but then it was a little thing here and a little thing there, but when that guy is on the mound, the team is better, he makes you a better ballclub.”
“We did a couple things with him,” Maddux said of some of the tweaks they made to the right-hander’s game.
“He wanted to do these things. And we just kind of expanded on what he did, added some stuff to his arsenal, go with a little philosophy change in pitching, and boy, second half of the season, he was as good as I’ve seen, as good as anybody has seen, sub-1.00 ERA, just dominant in the second half of the season. He put himself in a position to win the award.”
Strasburg, during the MLB Network’s broadcast of the Cy Young award announcement, was asked about the adjustments he made in the second half of the 2017 campaign.
“Just kept trying to build off what I did in the first half,” he said.
“Sometimes the ball bounces your way, and it just seemed to bounce my way a little bit more in the second half, but I still try to approach each start the same way.”
He also talked about his own evolution over the course of his career thus far, as he’s made the transition from a once-in-a-generation-type prospect to Cy Young finalist.
What’s changed in the eight years since he made his MLB debut?
“I’ve gotten eight years older, really,” Strasburg joked.
“I’ve really tried to learn as much as I can, and I’ve been very blessed to have pitching coaches over the years that have been really instrumental in my development.
“Steve McCatty and then even Mike Maddux as well over the last couple years. Being professional isn’t just showing up, and you really got to put in the work in the film room and in the weight room, and really come up with game plan and I feel like I’ve started to get a better idea of how to do that.”
Maddux said he thought the presence of 2017 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in the Nats’ rotation has played a role in Strasburg’s development as well.
“Him and Max at the top of your rotation, it was a lot of fun, and both of those guys carried the other guy to a high level of [competition] because there was no let-up in them.”
Nationals’ catcher Matt Wieters, in his own MLB Network Radio interview on Thursday, talked about what he saw from Strasburg in their first season working together, and what surprised him about the now-29-year-old righty.
“Just the amount of command he has with all of his pitches,” Wieters said.
“I always considered Stras to be a good command guy, but you don’t realize how well he can pitch backwards.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t see with guys who you just see throw 97 with a great curveball and a great changeup, but he can throw those in any count, and that’s just when as a hitter you kind of go up there and say, ‘This isn’t really fair today, because I can’t guess with him, and if I don’t guess right I don’t have a very good chance.’”
Strasburg, as Maddux mentioned, changed things up this season, pitching out of the stretch exclusively, and after he increased his use of his slider in 2016 (17.1%, up from 1.4% and 0.5% in the previous two seasons), dialing it back (6.8%), thinking it was behind injury issues he dealt with in his seventh major league season.
Strasburg relied on his curveball more (22.5% up from 12.6% in 2016), and increased his changeup usage (18.9% up from 13.1%), holding opposing hitters to a .214 AVG on his breaking ball and a .111 AVG on the change.
Strasburg and the rest of the Nats’ starters will be working with a new pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, and they’ll have Wieters behind the plate for a second straight season.
What changes, if any, will we see in 2018?