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May 25, 2012

Raising Aces

Stras Wars

by Doug Thorburn

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The Washington Nationals have cornered the phenom market in recent drafts, and 2012 is set up for outfielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg to begin their hostile takeover of the National League East. Harper made his D.C. debut four weeks ago and has impressed with his fearsome swing, cannon arm, and competitive moxie. Strasburg, on the other hand, is trying to recapture the success that he enjoyed in his own debut two years ago, when he pounced on the scene with such utter domination that he immediately vaulted to Ace status.

The former no. 1 pick's $15.1 million contract shattered Mark Prior's previous record for a bonus baby, not long Strasburg stole the title of “The Greatest College Pitcher of All Time” from the former Cub. The Strasburg hype machine was on overdrive during the summer of 2010—his final minor-league start was nationally televised, and the baseball used for the first pitch of his major-league career was put aside for the Hall of Fame museum. I was floored by Strasburg's inaugural MLB start, watching major-league hitters flail at devastating heat that jumped out of the rookie's hand as he struck out 14 Pirates. Stras showed impeccable consistency, poise, and preternatural command of one of the filthiest arsenals these eyes have ever seen.

Having already spent a year on the shelf recovering from the snapped UCL heard 'round the world, Strasburg is trying to avoid the injury-prone tag that tailed Prior his entire career. Stras underwent Tommy John surgery after just a dozen starts for the Nats, while carrying some of the same mechanical precursors that hindsight analysts have myopically blamed for Prior's woes.

Bridge to the present, where Strasburg has reassumed his position above the rest of baseball’s young hurlers. He is sitting on the second-highest strikeout total in the National League, trailing teammate Gio Gonzalez by five punchouts and 0.5 K's per nine innings. Stras had his work cut out for him in interleague action last weekend, looking to rebound from his shortest outing of the season against a Baltimore club that is, shockingly, fronting baseball’s toughest division.

The first inning of Sunday's game was a struggle for Strasburg as he battled the timing of his delivery and the location of his pitches. Pitch command is typically the last thing to come back following Tommy John surgery, but Strasburg's elbow had little to do with his inability to hit targets. On the first several pitches. Stras over-rotated the shoulders past his optimal release point, missing low and/or to the glove-side with a barrage of fastballs. He started 3-0 to Xavier Avery before the leadoff man singled on a full-count fastball.

Strasburg employed a slide step (top) with the runner on first base, which is a notable change from the abbreviated leg-lift that he utilized from the stretch in his rookie season (bottom). He was marginally quicker to the plate, though the lower lift and quicker foot-strike shortened his stride and tossed his timing consistency into the shredder. The arm failed to catch up to the timing of the lower body, resulting in under-rotated pitches that sailed up and to his arm-side. He also breaks his hands much earlier from the stretch in 2012, essentially separating hand from glove as soon as the front foot lifts off of the ground (the opposite of Max Scherzer). 

The first 10 pitches were all fastballs, sitting 96 and touching 98 mph, as Strasburg searched for his release point. Major-league hitters can hit 98 mph if they see it enough times in a row, and the O's hit the ball hard throughout the first frame, scoring a run on an RBI single by Nick Markakis, who was sitting dead red on the heat. Strasburg mixed in a few 80-mph breaking balls after the run scored, and got lucky when an under-rotated fastball to Adam Jones became a double-play grounder to end the inning.

Baltimore would tack on a pair of runs in the second, but the blame fell squarely on a Nationals defense that could not harness the leather, beginning with a wind-aided drop for a two-base error on Harper, followed by some shoddy infield defense on softly-hit grounders. Strasburg did a much better job in the second inning of featuring his 90-mph changeup with severe arm-side run, tossing three consecutive cambios to Wilson Betemit. Strasburg still struggled to command the fastball, but the change was nasty and he mixed in a handful of sharp breaking balls for good measure.

After spending three-quarters of the second inning pitching from the stretch, it was a relief to see Strasburg get back into the windup. Something clicked for S.S. in the third inning as he discovered his fastball timing, setting batters up with the heat before mowing them down with the change. He looked almost like vintage Stras, trading the breaking ball for el cambio to invoke over-the-top swings and to disrupt batter timing. The changeup was the only thing working against Chris Davis in the top of the fourth, and would continue to be Strasburg's most reliable pitch the rest of the game. The right-hander unleashed his most devastating breakers in the fourth inning, including a 3-2 hook that had Luis Exposito looking like a deer in headlights before the umpire signaled the end of the inning with a backwards K.

The game's climax came with the Nats batting in the bottom of the fourth inning. Battery-mate Jesus Flores had circled the based on a bomb to right-center when Strasburg strode to the plate to face Wei-Yin Chen. Stras closed his eyes and put his weight into an 0-2 swing, and when his eyelids opened he saw nothing but standing fans and outfielder's backs. Confused, he started toward first base, and by the pace of his stride it's possible that Strasburg thought he was in a dream-state as he rounded the bases for his first major-league home run.

Strasburg embarrassed Chen once again in the top of the fifth, following consecutive pinpoint heaters with a sick 79-mph curve that will give the opposing hurler nightmares for the rest of the interleague season. Stras recorded six strikeouts in a span of eight batters and retired the last 10 hitters he faced, but the crowd was surprised when Tom Gorzelanny came out to start the sixth. It turned out that starter was dealing with tightness in his biceps, and manager Davey Johnson opted to remove his prized pitcher for precautionary reasons after 90 pitches.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

55

Torque

80

Posture

65

Release Distance

60

Repetition

50

There is no need to adjust your monitor, those numbers are not a typo. Stephen Strasburg is major-league average or above in every critical category, and the scary part is that the above scores represent a step down from his grades as a freshman. His torque ranks among the best in baseball, with Aroldis Chapman as the only pitcher that clearly has him cracked. Stras has excellent posture with plus-plus balance when the gears are clicking. The only drawback on Sunday was his consistency, with timing that varied based on the inning, the pitch type, and the stretch versus the windup. The relatively low repetition grade is essentially the average of his 40-grade consistency in the early innings and the 60-grade timing that was on display in the third and fourth. The key difference was his pitching from the stretch, where the newly minted slide step exacerbated already shaky timing in the first two frames. But Strasburg was smooth sailing once he rediscovered the windup in the third inning.

Pitchers don't throw 100-mph fastballs into a teacup without incredible mechanical efficiency, though the mechanics report card does not address the precursors to injury, so Stras is not yet out of the woods. Last week, I wrote about the crossover influence of specific injury precursors, as a heavy scapular load will often combine with an inverted-W, and the excessive torque can lead to elbow-drag as the throwing arm reaches maximum external rotation. All three of these elements have been identified in various circles as links to future injury, and Strasburg exhibits the trifecta to varying degrees on different deliveries. Despite many attempts to pinpoint a lone gunman for his busted UCL, the crux of the matter is that the three precursors are intertwined.

"I've been throwing this way my whole life. I'm not going to try to reinvent the wheel." Stephen Strasburg

The knee-jerk reaction to Strasburg's situation might be to have him ditch the scapular load and the inverted W in favor of a safer delivery, but the I-W is an element of his personal signature while the scap-load has a positive impact on his pitch velocity. Nobody told Stras to lift his elbows above the shoulder line and it would be very difficult for him to adapt to arm action that went against signature. He might never reach his velocity ceiling without a scap load, and any alterations would require months or even years spent adjusting to the timing and sequencing of his new delivery.

The act of throwing 100 mph is going to place a significant kinetic toll on a pitcher's body, and the athlete needs to have the structural integrity to withstand the rigors of his own delivery, which boils down to functional fitness, as well as mechanics and workloads. Strasburg is a fascinating case when you consider his background, going from 90 mph and undrafted out of high school to triple-digit smoke within two years at San Diego State. That is an insane velocity jump in a very short period, and one wonders if the connective tissues in his throwing arm have developed the resistance necessary to keep pumping the 99-octane gas.

The “biceps tightness” that ended Strasburg's day was a stark reminder of the fragility of his $15 million appendage. The Nats would be wise to proceed with caution in Strasburg’s first year back from Tommy John surgery, and to remain wary of injury cascades and factors of fatigue. Pitching while fatigued carries exceptional risk when mechanical precursors are present, and in September the team may have to weigh its 2012 title hopes against the future of its pitching rotation.  

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Mark Prior,  Stephen Strasburg

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