WASHINGTON – By this time last year, Stephen Strasburg had thrown 139 1/3 innings. Four starts remained in his season. Strasburg does not think about getting shut down much anymore.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You can’t change the past.” But he can process the difference between then and now, the way he feels physically stronger and less mentally drained.
“I definitely feel a lot better than I did,” Strasburg said Wednesday afternoon. “I think there was a lot more stress last year. My mind was pretty tired at this point last year. I still have a lot of work to do. I’m excited to go out there and get after it every fifth day.”
Strasburg “absolutely” feels stronger now, he said, and it shows in his performance. He is lasting longer — he needed 24 starts to throw 1391/3 innings by this point last season, and this year he has 146 1/3 innings in his first 23 starts. He is pitching better — he had a 2.91 ERA on this date last season; now he has a 2.83 ERA.
The ability to perform without the knowledge his season will end early, and without the attendant hoopla, has helped.
“I couldn’t really pinpoint it, but I could say that’s a big difference,” Strasburg said. “It probably could have been because it was my first full year in the big leagues. I think I’ve learned along the road how to prepare just a little bit different. What to expect in the dog days of summer. You got to change your workout program, especially in July and August. You start to be in survival mode when you get to September.”
Saturday in Atlanta, Strasburg will come off the first complete game of his career. Just 13 innings shy of his 1591/3 total from last year, he could surpass his innings total from last season in his next two starts. “It’s kind of what they were hoping for shutting me down at 160,” Strasburg said, “so when I get to that number I’m not on fumes.”
Strasburg has dominated hitters in a different way this season. He has 9.41 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranks ninth in the National League. But for him, it represents a significant drop. Strasburg struck out 11.13 hitters per nine last year. He identified two reasons for the difference.
“I’ve tried not to waste pitches with two strikes,” Strasburg said. “I’d say I probably could have thrown a couple pitches to guys throughout the year and struck them out. But I decided to go more in attack mode, keep pounding the strike zone. I guess that’s one thing. I just know that my change-up is not where it was at all last year for most of this year. It’s just now started to come back to me. I know that’s a pitch I do strike a lot of guys out on.”
Strasburg may be allowing more contact, but it is the right kind of contact. His ground ball rate has shot up from 44.2 percent to 51.2 percent, 12th in the majors. He is burning worms like a sinkerballer and striking hitters out like a flamethrower. The only three pitchers who rank in the top 12 in the majors in ground ball rate and strikeouts per nine innings are A.J. Burnett, Felix Hernandez and Strasburg.
Strasburg’s batting average on balls in play has shrunk from .311 last year to .264. This year, his line drive rate is 16.6, lowest in the major leagues.
There is little question Strasburg has become a better pitcher this season. But with the Nationals out of contention and with no shutdown debate to be had, Strasburg has operated mostly outside of the spotlight. He’s just fine with that.
“That’s just how it is. I’m perfectly OK with it. I like just being another guy in the rotation. I like being in the trenches with these guys every day, battling.”