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Washington Nationals Spring Training Storylines: Stephen Strasburg’s health

It’s odd, but we’re told not everyone has been obsessing over the Nationals all winter, so we’re resetting the table with some of the top stories of the Spring as pitchers and catchers report today.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Considering how his 2016 campaign ended, it’s easy to forget that Stephen Strasburg started his seventh major league season (13-0) in his first 17 outings, with a 2.51 ERA, 2.93 FIP, 33 walks (2.59 BB/9) and 138 Ks (10.83 K/9) in 114 23 innings in that stretch, over which he held opposing hitters to a .195/.258/.307 line.

“The start of the year, [Stephen] is running the table,” Nationals’ Pitching Coach Mike Maddux told reporters this winter.

“Good gracious, he was [13-0]. We just stay out of the way. That’s kind of what we did. Stay out of the way.”

Strasburg struggled over his next few starts after that, however, and he landed on the Disabled List with elbow soreness in mid-August.

“Now you see some things and then when it takes a turn the other way,” Maddux said, “now you address some things or just talk about them and say, ‘Hey, maybe we need to tweak our work a little bit.’”

Strasburg lasted only three innings in his September 7th return to the rotation before he was lifted with what was eventually be diagnosed as a tear of the pronator tendon in his right arm.

Looking back on last summer, Strasburg said this winter that it was like two seasons that were “polar opposites.”

“I don’t know,” he explained. “I guess this is the cards that I was dealt. You had some highs and some lows and they were kind of all bunched together, so I’m just going to take what I did in the first half when I was healthy and the biggest thing is do everything I can to make the adjustments to stay healthy for the whole season next year.”

Strasburg pointed to the increased reliance on his slider, which he threw 17.1% of the time in 2016, up from 1.4% and 0.5% of the time in 2014 and ‘15, respectively, as he tried to explain what went wrong.

He threw his slider more than his curveball (12.7%), or his changeup (13.1%) last season.

“I think the biggest thing from last year is I had a new pitch and I probably abused it,” Strasburg said.

“So I need to go back to what I’ve thrown much longer and not necessarily stop throwing it, but just don’t let it take place of the other pitches that my body has been accustomed to for years.”

To be clear, he’s not putting the slider away.

“I’m not going to eliminate it,” Strasburg said, which will probably please Nats’ General Manager Mike Rizzo, who told reporters this winter that he liked what he saw with the slider in the righty’s repertoire.

“We saw it was a plus pitch. He was a four-pitch mix guy and I thought it elevated him to the elite status that he was at for most of the season,” Rizzo said.

What the Nationals do plan on doing, however, is mixing things up a bit with the way Strasburg prepares and works throughout the season.

“It’s his idea,” Maddux said. “So that’s what we’re going to do this year. Same things, Spring Training same way, but once we start the season we’ll maybe do a little different throwing program, save more bullets for every fifth day. It’s going to be his decision, we’ll do what works for him, but at the beginning of last year we stayed right on track with what we were doing because why wouldn’t you? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but then it broke, so let’s tweak it a little bit.”