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Strasburg’s dramatic turnaround a learning experience

Oct 2, 2015, 12:05 AM EDT

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ATLANTA — It was Memorial Day, and Stephen Strasburg was an utter mess. He was dealing with a variety of nagging-but-seemingly-minor ailments that either knocked him out of games early or resulted in opponents scoring runs in bunches against him.

Strasburg’s ERA stood at 6.55, a staggering 109th out of 110 qualifying major-league starting pitchers. And so observers near and far all wondered the same thing: Was this the end of Stephen Strasburg as we knew him?

Four months later, Strasburg answered that question as definitively as possible. After a dominant stretch of 13 starts as impressive as any other in his career, the Nationals right-hander resurrected his season and silenced whatever doubts had been placed on him.

And with one final dominant performance Thursday night at Turner Field — six scoreless innings during a 3-0 victory over the Braves — Strasburg put a stamp on the most unusual season of his career. From 3-5 with a 6.55 ERA on Memorial Day to 11-7 with a 3.46 ERA on October 1.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process,” he said.

Indeed he did. Strasburg learned two important lessons over the course of the last six months, one physical and one mental.

Start with the mental lesson.

“I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there,” he said. “There are times in the game when you can kind of let your focus slip just for a split second. And I made it a point to not let that happen, to just focus on each pitch and just let everything I’ve got go on that individual pitch and turn the page.”

It had been a longstanding issue for Strasburg. If one thing didn’t go his way, it would lead to two or three more things turning sour.

Not so much down the stretch this year. Strasburg allowed more than three runs only once in his final 13 starts, suffering through perhaps only one or two truly poor innings the entire time.

Now, for the physical lesson. After trying to pitch through on-and-off neck discomfort, which was the domino effect of a spring training ankle sprain that threw his mechanics out of whack, Strasburg realized more than arm ailments merit a break from pitching.

“You definitely use your whole body to throw, and when one little thing that’s not necessarily arm related occurs, you really have to figure out if that’s going to alter your [mechanics],” he said. “I want to compete every single time, because I’ve been around long enough that I know I’m not going to feel 100 percent every time. But I’ve got a little more insight on what’s OK and what I shouldn’t go out there with. I learned from it.”

It’s the kind of thing a pitcher perhaps can’t truly understand until it has happened to him, as Strasburg found out.

“Before, it was arm issues,” he said of previous seasons. “And I was kind of like: ‘Oh, my arm hurts, so I probably shouldn’t throw anymore.’ My arm’s felt good all year. It’s just been little nicks and bruises to other parts of the body that play a huge role. And I didn’t really understand it at the time.”

Strasburg understands it now. And as he prepares for a long winter back home in San Diego, he can take solace knowing he proved to himself and anyone else out there who doubted him that he’s still got it.

Would you believe he wound up posting a lower WHIP, opponents’ batting average, on-base percentage and OPS and a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015 than in 2014? Believe it.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was a good learning experience.”

  1. naterialguy - Oct 2, 2015 at 7:58 AM

    so……do they try to sign him long term or let him walk

    • ArVAFan - Oct 2, 2015 at 8:23 AM

      Well, if they let him walk, you can be sure they’ll at least make a QO. And he is post-TJ surgery, which does mean that he might not last as long as those pitchers who haven’t had it. Someone has statistics on that, I’m sure.

      Also, would he even want an extension? Or does he really want to pitch closer to home (i.e. CA) no matter what the money is?

      Pitchers help you win every five days, vs. every day for the position players. But there’s a reason that “you can’t have too much pitching:” except in those rare mutual hit-fests (i.e. 13-12 over ATL), starting pitching determines the outcome.

      On balance? Yeah, pay the man, Shirley (assuming he’ll accept). But take out a policy with Lloyd’s if the contract is longer than 3 years.

    • DaveB - Oct 2, 2015 at 8:25 AM

      Given that it’s Boras, it would take elite money over 7 years to skip FA. I still don’t trust that he will be healthy, consistent and elite over enough of that time to make it worth the risk.

    • natsguy - Oct 2, 2015 at 8:57 AM

      I suspect he would like to pitch in San Diego.

      • sec112 - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:12 AM

        People always talk about top free agents wanting to go near where they come from (or to their favorite team growing up), but they essentially never actually do that. Generally, they go where they will be paid, with some consideration (by most) of where they expect they are likely to win. Given those two facts, it would be surprising if Strasburg went to San Diego (except perhaps for his last few years after the big contract).

  2. bowdenball - Oct 2, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    For all the hype around the Nationals’ back to back #1 picks and how they’d change the team’s fortunes, we’ve never had a season of peak Harper and peak Strasburg leading the team to a successful season. When Harper arrived on the scene and gave the team a jolt in his ROY campaign in 2012, Strasburg was in his rehab/shutdown season. As Harper continued to improve in 2013, Strasburg suffered through perhaps his worst season. When the team won its second division title in 2014, Harper was suffering through his worst season. And this year Strasburg’s slow start was one of the factors that held this team back as Harper posted MVP numbers.

    Maybe 2016 is the season that we finally see what we’ve long waited for- a Cy Young caliber Strasburg paired with an MVP caliber Harper thrilling Nats fans for an entire six month season and hopefully beyond.

    • natsguy - Oct 2, 2015 at 8:56 AM

      In his rehab/shutdown he won 15 games.

      • bowdenball - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:15 AM

        Yeah, 2012 was probably the closest we’ve come to having both guys make major contributions. But Harper was also not nearly the contributor he is now- he was a solid bat in the #2 spot, but really not much more than that. Basically he was Anthony Rendon without the infield defense. His slash line was .270/.340/.477- the .340 OBP looks particularly funny these days.

      • Doc - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:11 AM

        So what does that prove Capt. Obvious?

    • Guapo - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:08 AM

      Yup. To have a championship season, everything needs to come together. Performance, health, etc. ’15 wasn’t that season for the Nats, but they should fare better in ’16. Hopefully, all the injuries are out of the way, the new SS won’t kick 15 balls in April, and they won’t have a closer interested in choking out the MVP.

      • ArVAFan - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:19 AM

        From your keyboard to the baseball gods’ ears.

    • veejh - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:22 AM

      Amen, brother.

    • alexva6 - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:06 AM

      2013 was his worst season? lowest ERA, lowest H/9, lowest WHIP of his career. only the W/L record was a negative

      the fact is that he will always be remembered for the way he came on the scene. he will always be misunderstood because his is not outgoing.

      he has been remarkably consistent and may have turned the corner for being the dominant No. 1 that he was projected to be.

      • bowdenball - Oct 2, 2015 at 1:36 PM

        Wasn’t just his W/L- his peripherals in 2013 were also weak, at least by Strasburg standards. Lowest K/9 and highest BB/9 rate of his career. And he beaned a lot of guys too, which was just kind of weird. Almost one every other game.

  3. veejh - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    “I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there,” he said. “There are times in the game when you can kind of let your focus slip just for a split second. And I made it a point to not let that happen, to just focus on each pitch and just let everything I’ve got go on that individual pitch and turn the page.”

    Kind of seems like Stras has admitted that he was a head case and has gotten that under control. No?

    • NatsLady - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:03 AM

      Hey, Gio. You listening to this?

  4. tcostant - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:49 AM

    Offer $150M/6 years this offseason!

    • jd - Oct 2, 2015 at 11:22 AM

      +1

  5. adcwonk - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:54 AM

    I don’t know if this has been mentioned or not, but Ramos catches (pun intended) a whole lotta grief here for his defense — thought I’d post this from WaPo:

    [Randy Knorr said,] “The highest percentage of people throwing. The second least wild pitches in the league. The least amount of passed balls. And in the last year, he’s caught two no-hitters.”

    A deep look at Ramos’ season shows he has been a solid defensive catcher in some ways. His biggest asset has been his right arm: He leads the majors in caught stealing rate (45 percent) among catchers with a minimum of 40 attempts.

    • NatsLady - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:02 AM

      Agreed. His problem is more with agility (or judgment?) in the catch-and-tag plays. Also, I wonder about his calls to the pitcher to throw to third base on bunts. Again, judgment. So there’s room for growth.

      • adcwonk - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:19 AM

        Agreed. He doesn’t seem to be strong in the catch-and-tag plays. My point, though, is that just because he has a weakness there doesn’t mean his overall defense stinks — apparently he’s among the very top (which surprised me, frankly) in the other defensive metrics.

      • jd - Oct 2, 2015 at 11:23 AM

        All true. But offense this year was offensive.

      • sec112 - Oct 2, 2015 at 1:45 PM

        But the thing is, there just aren’t many catchers who produce much offense. Depending on which stat you choose to focus on, even in this frustratingly unproductive year, Ramos is still in the in the top half of catchers in offensive production, and maybe even sneaks into the top 10 (including only those who primarily play the catcher position).

  6. NatsLady - Oct 2, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    Luck, also, you need lots and lots and lots of luck. You need to face the elite pitchers when they have an off-day. You need to NOT trade for Carlos Gomez (who looks to be a MONSTER next season) and by accident get Cespedes whose fire briefly burns white-hot. You need the weather to cooperate, and so forth. You need a manager who ONLY makes a few dumb moves, and who keeps control of the massive egos that are in that clubhouse. And the dumb moves don’t cost games, or, only a couple of games. You need to get lucky and find relievers who are both healthy and effective–and have nerves of steel. And et cetera.

    • kkpp3 - Oct 2, 2015 at 10:53 AM

      Well said. Luck presents a team with challenges and opportunities. Seems to me that how a team reacts to those moments is a big factor in whether or not that team succeeds. Did the Nats cope as well as other teams did in those situations? I’m not sure they did.

      • NatsLady - Oct 2, 2015 at 6:02 PM

        To be honest, I don’t think they did. There was WAY too long a period of “plenty of time, plenty of talent on this team,” while fans were screaming for more urgency. It goes all the way back to the off-season, when surgeries were delayed and spring training shortened or non-existent for key players. If Michael A needs knee surgery, have it in October!! Don’t wait all winter, and then come limping to Viera.

      • NatsLady - Oct 2, 2015 at 6:04 PM

        Well, the Nats got “lucky” on the Clippard trade, in that Escobar didn’t turn out to be a clubhouse cancer and he’s had a career year. But between Clip gone and Stammen injured the bullpen was very thin. They got unlucky in that Janssen couldn’t even come close to doing the job, though I will say he tried. So, I’d say they had a mix of luck… but didn’t overcome the bad luck.

    • adcwonk - Oct 2, 2015 at 11:01 AM

      Good point on the manager. Terri Collins has been excoriated for years, constantly, continually, as being dumb, rigid, etc. Until a few months ago.

      Winning make you look really smart. Losing makes you look dumb.

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