It feels like just yesterday that Stephen Strasburg made his debut for the Washington Nationals. He mowed down the Pittsburgh Pirates with an electric arsenal that included a 98mph fastball, 82mph curveball, and 90mph changeup.
Even as recently as 2017, he was able to average 96mph on his fastball, 83mph on the curveball, and 89mph on his changeup. He even incorporated a 90mph slider to give his arsenal a bit more bite.
Unfortunately, he’s suffered through more than his fair share of injuries that have taken their toll. He has ended up on the DL 11 times in his career with various issues, including a few to his shoulder and elbow.
Then, after a cervical nerve impingement last season, his velocity dipped again towards the end of the season.
In his last eight starts, his fastball averaged just 93.3mph, slider 86.8mph, curveball 80.1mph and his changeup was 87.2mph.
But surprisingly, he was actually slightly more successful with the lower velocity.
Even though all his pitches were down about 2mph from earlier in the season, he posted an ERA of 3.43 compared to 3.90 beforehand. He also struck out 11.08 per nine innings after posting a 10.65 K/9 in his first 14 starts.
So although he may not necessarily be back to his old self with the dominating fastball velocity, he can clearly still succeed.
“Old self, I don’t really know like what that necessarily means,” Strasburg said at the start of Spring Training. “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.”
His manager, Dave Martinez echoed the same sentiment right at the start of Spring Training. He’s looked forward to the new version of his potential second ace.
“I don’t know if he’s going to get back to the 97s, 98s,” Martinez said. “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.”
“He’s going to go out there and compete and he learned by it,” Martinez elaborated. “He worked diligently this winter on getting stronger, and he looks great.”
So while the velocity is at a similar level to the end of last season this spring, the success seems to have carried over too. So far during Spring Training, Strasburg has yet to allow a run in six innings, striking seven.
That included a largely positive outing against the St. Louis Cardinals in which he was the first Nats’ pitcher to go four innings this spring.
“It was good to be out there in kind of a jam, a lot of pitches in the first inning,” Strasburg said following the start. “Other than the walk, I felt like I was attacking the strike zone pretty good, but didn’t realize I had thrown that many until after the fact.”
“Having those types of innings is good, and then being able to go out there and kind of make the adjustment. I was pretty happy with it, arm felt really good.”
There are still over two weeks to go until the start of the season, and Strasburg hopes that he can continue to refine a few more mechanical things and his pitch sequences.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Strasburg said. “There’s definitely sequences that we were working on today and I’m going to continue to work on them, and the execution is going to be a continual work in progress.”
After the addition of Patrick Corbin in the offseason, it takes some of the pressure off of Strasburg heading into 2019. But if he can carry over his spring performances into the summer months, it will help the Nats’ rotation stack up with any team they face.
However, as it has been his entire career, being healthy as much as possible is what is likely to define his season. The right-hander knows this better than anyone.
“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 earlier this spring.
“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.”
He’s failed to make 29 starts in any of the last four seasons, and has only started at least 25 games in one of those four seasons. It’s gotten to the point where management and fans alike seemingly plan for the inevitable injury that sidelines him.
But, there’s a case to be made that the lower velocity will put less strain on his body and he will try and pitch within himself a little more this year. And his early-year bullpens bode well on that front too.
“He looked like his body was under control,” Martinez said after a workout in February. “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.”
With the loss of fellow number one overall pick, Bryce Harper, this offseason, Strasburg moves a little more into the spotlight on a team that wants to emphasize pitching. But after injuries have taken their toll, we may see a slightly different version of the team’s longest-tenured pitcher.