A non-draft-eligible college baseball player is not often thrust into the national sports spotlight, but in 2008, San Diego State University sophomore Stephen Strasburg introduced himself to the American baseball landscape.
In his first year as a full time starter for the Aztecs, Strasburg was doing things with his 100 mile per hour fastball that no one had seen before at any level. When Strasburg struck out 23 batters against the University of Utah on April 11, he got the full ESPN treatment. He was a phenomenon.
He was also the number one overall pick in the following year’s draft – a lottery won by the Washington Nationals. Strasburg continued his dominance throughout the minors, and within a year he made his MLB debut – striking out 14 and walking none in 7.0 innings. By August 2010, Strasburg was on the disabled list with a torn ulnar collateral ligament which required Tommy John surgery to fix.
From there Strasburg missed most of 2011, was infamously shutdown in 2012 in the midst of the Nationals’ first playoff run since they were the Expos, and the shine has come off the once-golden child. To be fair to Strasburg, he has pitched well, but the results have not been on the same tier as contemporaries Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Zack Greinke.
The 2015 season got off to a horrid start for Strasburg, and through 10 starts, his ERA was an unsightly 6.55. But as statistics are wont to do when confronted with small sample size irregularities, he regressed. For the rest of the season, Strasburg posted a 1.76 ERA, struck out 110 batters and walked just 12 in 82.0 innings.
After returning from the disabled list on August 8th with a strained oblique, Strasburg’s 1.90 ERA for the rest of the season ranked fifth in baseball behind Jake Arrieta, J.A. Happ, Kershaw, and Greinke. His 92 strikeouts trailed only Kershaw and Max Scherzer. This was the Strasburg we dreamed of seven years earlier watching his highlights at SDSU.
Off to a fast start through three starts in 2016 entering Sunday, the now 27-year-old Strasburg appears to have hit his stride and once again people are taking notice. What’s notable about Strasburg this year is not just that he’s kicked his performance into another gear, but that he has a new weapon in his arsenal.
His teammate Ryan Zimmerman calls it a "cutter/slider thing," Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux calls it a cutter that moves like a slider, and Strasburg swears that he’s not throwing a slider. If he’s not throwing a slider he’s doing a pretty good imitation.
Strasburg has toyed around with a slider in both 2014 and 2015 before abandoning it, but he is throwing this incarnation of the pitch harder and more frequently than in the past. PITCHf/x has the slider pegged at 86-92 mph, and Brooks Baseball has tracked his usage at 13.01 percent of pitches entering his start Sunday.
The low spin rate and relatively high velocity of Strasburg’s slider makes it reminiscent of the "Warthen Slider" taught by New York Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen and explored by Eno Sarris of FanGraphs last July.
But whatever the pitch actually is, it has been an effective weapon for Strasburg this year, and has helped him continue to elevate his game to a whole new level. It's not the reason for his rise to another tier, but his evolution will only serve to help him. By FanGraphs pitch values, Strasburg's slider has been the 30th-best in baseball – not bad considering this is the first time he is throwing it with any frequency.
What is likely more responsible for Strasburg's heightened success is that he's throwing in the strike zone more than before. Outside of 24.0 innings in 2011, Strasburg had never thrown more than 44.7% of pitches in the zone. Last year 50.0% of his pitches were in the zone, and this year that number has risen to 53.5%. League average is usually around 44-46%. It could be this new pitch is making Strasburg more unpredictable, giving him the ability to throw more strikes without a corresponding increase in hits, or it could be totally unrelated. Either way, his better control is already yielding dividends.
Opposing hitters are still swinging and making contact at the same rates, and they are striking out and walking at the same rates, too. Because of that, Strasburg has been able to get outs faster, keeping his pitch count down and limiting fatigue later on in games, allowing him to be more effective.
If Strasburg is able to keep this up, the result should be him sustaining his dominant pitching, and re-asserting himself as one of the game's elite arms.