Stephen Strasburg missed significant time in 2018, dealing with right shoulder inflammation and what was described as a cervical nerve impingement in his neck which kept him off the mound (outside of one start) between June 8th and August 22nd. Strasburg returned to the rotation in late August and made eight starts down the stretch, posting a 3.43 ERA in 44 2⁄3 innings.
His velocity in those outings wasn’t what he was used to, but the right-hander and a few members the Nationals’ staff said there were valuable lessons to take from what he did accomplish in those starts.
“It hasn’t quite been what I’m accustomed to,” Strasburg told MLB.com at the end of the 2018 campaign.
“But at the same time, I think it shows that when I get older, and the stuff does tend to go down, that it still plays. It’s just a little bit of confirmation, and I think I’ve got more in the tank for sure. I’ve got to get it back this offseason.”
“It’s kind of at the point where it’s going to take probably an offseason to get the stuff back,” Strasburg told reporters in mid-September.
“Instead of trying to reach back for it and not make pitches, you just have to pitch where you’re comfortable at and not really look at the [radar] gun too much.”
“After he came back his velocity was down a little bit,” Pitching Coach Derek Lilliquist said in a December 2018 interview, “... but we were trying to get him to a spot where he’s not being over-aggressive to get out of his mechanics, trying to find that comfortable fine line of best stuff, best command as opposed to just best stuff with no command, so we kind of pulled the reins back to find that click and I think he found that click without his best stuff and he was getting outs without his best stuff, so I think that was very positive and — coming back into Spring Training — I think his velocity is going to be right where it needs to be.”
“He did dip,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said this winter, “and I think rest and the way — I’ve watched him work out. He stayed here in Washington, he’s been working out, and he’s been doing unbelievable, so I think the velo will be back. The other thing that helped him, because he didn’t have his velo, he actually pitched, and he really felt like, ‘I can get guys out without having to throw 97 MPH,’ which was kind of nice, so in his mind, he feels really good about that.”
Strasburg finished the 2018 season (10-7) in 22 starts, with a 3.74 ERA, a 3.62 FIP, 38 walks (2.63 BB/9), 156 Ks (10.80 K/9), and a .240/.302/.409 line against in 130 IP.
When he spoke to reporters for the first time at Spring Training on Wednesday afternoon in West Palm Beach, FL, Strasburg was asked if he felt like his old self again now that he’s had the winter off to recover from the issues he dealt with last season.
“‘Old self’? I don’t really know like what that necessarily means,” Strasburg said, “... but I think mechanically I feel much better than I was at this point last year. It seemed like for some reason I was having a tough time being consistent with mechanics and executing. That’s seemed to come back pretty fast this time.”
As he’s said in previous seasons, his goal each year is to stay healthy and on the mound so he can contribute what he can, and nothing has changed as he prepares for 2019.
“As a starting pitcher, you want to be one of those horses that can go out there and make every one of your starts and give the team some quality innings,” Strasburg said. “It kind of throws a wrench in the plans when guys go down and you have to have other guys step up to cover the slack. But we have a lot of depth on this team too. I’m just going to do my part and trust that all the hard work I put in during the offseason is going to pay off.”
Strasburg discussed the rotation depth he mentioned at another point in the conversation with reporters, when he was asked about additions the Nats’ front office have made to the big league roster over the winter.
“[GM Mike Rizzo] is always good about putting a competitive talent team out there. It’s our job to go out there and play the way we know how to play,” he said.
Asked if he’d changed anything up in terms of his preparation this winter, Strasburg said he was always open to ideas on how he can get better, though he didn’t share any specifics on what if anything he did differently.
“I would say I always try something new, because it seems like I’m still working on figuring out the puzzle,” he explained.
“But I think this year was really productive and I kind of hit the ground running once we were done in Colorado last year. I started putting the wheels in motion.”
Nationals’ Manager Davey Martinez liked what he saw from the now-30-year-old righty in his first bullpen session of the Spring.
“He looked great. Felt great. He looked like his body was under control,” Martinez said. “I mean, he worked diligently, he stayed in Washington this year and really worked on getting a little stronger, building some muscle. What I noticed today, his bullpen seemed like it was kind of effortless, and the ball was coming out really well, so that was a good sign.”
Strasburg threw 42 pitches according to his manager’s count. His manager was asked if he expected to ‘09 No. 1 overall pick’s velocity to be back up in the high 90s again.
“I don’t know if he’s going to get back to the 97s, 98s, stuff like that, he may top out at that,” Martinez said, “but I just want him to be aware that, hey, what he did last year, coming back, I think he realized that he can pitch, he can do other things, and that helped him out a lot, so I think going into this Spring he’s aware of that and he’s going to go out there and compete and he learned by it, I know he did, and like I said, he worked diligently this winter on getting stronger, and he looks great.”