It's a stretch, but Stephen Strasburg has a plan to finally stay healthy
It’s April 3, 2017, in Washington, D.C., and for the first time in three years, Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals‘ Opening Day starter. But that’s not all that’s different. As Strasburg toes the rubber in the top of the first and prepares to face Miami Marlins leadoff man Dee Gordon, he does so from the stretch. Gone is the windup he has been using his entire career — the windup he and the overwhelming majority of big league starters use whenever the bases are empty. He retires the Marlins 1-2-3, throwing 13 of 17 pitches for strikes. He throws 17 of 17 pitches from the stretch.
Make no mistake, Strasburg is prepared to do whatever it takes to stay healthy. Even if it means nonstop stretching. For the first time in his career, Strasburg is pitching exclusively from the stretch. It’s a decision he made this past winter after yet another frustrating season in which his tantalizingly talented but perpetually pained body failed to make it all the way from April to October without incident.
“Injuries are a part of baseball, and I’ve had my fair share,” says the 28-year-old hurler, who last year started out as strong as few pitchers in baseball ever have (he became the first National League starter in more than a century to win his first 13 decisions), only to break down as the season wore on. He hit the disabled list on three different occasions — once in late June for an upper back strain, once in late August for elbow soreness, and once in early September for a strained pronator tendon that ended his season prematurely and had him watching from the sideline as his teammates got bounced by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. This past offseason, with the aftertaste of that bitter pill lingering, he decided it was time for a change.
“I’m not saying that pitching out of the stretch is going to cure it all,” says Strasburg. “But I think guys who are healthy, they’re very good at repeating their mechanics. There’s no compensation, no variation in where they’re landing, how their arm’s working through their delivery, whether they’re changing their arm slot or falling off too much or flying open. I think if I can continue to work on getting as consistent and efficient as possible with my delivery, I think it puts my arm in the best position to put less strain on it. That’s my best chance of being durable.”
Durability is something sorely lacking in Strasburg’s career. A former first overall pick out of San Diego State and arguably the most touted college prospect in the history of the game, he electrified as a rookie in 2010 before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and undergoing Tommy John surgery that September. Although he has been one of baseball’s best starters when healthy — since debuting, he ranks eighth in ERA (3.17), third in WHIP (1.09) and first in K’s per nine (10.5) — it’s the whole staying healthy part that has proved tricky.
In eight-plus big league seasons, Strasburg has made nine separate trips to the DL. Aside from 2014, when he posted every fifth day for six months and led the NL in strikeouts, he has never had a season in which he started more than 30 games or worked more than 200 innings. Perhaps most importantly, even though Washington has reached the playoffs three times in the past five years, Strasburg has a grand total of one postseason start to his credit. In related news, the Nats are still searching for their first-ever playoff series win. All of which has Strasburg searching for a way to steer clear of the training room.
“I’m a believer that it doesn’t really matter what your mechanics look like,” says the 6-foot-4 righty, who inked a seven-year, $175 million contract extension last May. “Everybody’s going to nitpick, especially guys who do get the injury bug. It’s like, oh, there’s a mechanical flaw. But you watch guys out there who you can’t teach the way they throw, and they manage to stay healthy. They’re very unorthodox, but they’re good at doing the same thing every time.”
So this past offseason, Strasburg decided that the easiest way for him to do the same thing every time was to do away with the full windup. Only he didn’t bother to tell anybody. In February, when he reported to spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, and threw his first few bullpen sessions (a February staple where four pitchers work side by side at the same time), the change went unnoticed. When the Nats held their first intrasquad scrimmage and Strasburg worked one inning entirely from the stretch, pitching coach Mike Maddux just assumed his hurler was doing some fine-tuning. Routine spring maintenance. Before long, though, it became clear that the windup had gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Just like that, Strasburg was all stretch, all the time. For what it’s worth, his coach is all-in on the tweak.
“He caught everybody off guard,” says Maddux. “But once we found out he was going to do it, I supported it.”
It’s a road Maddux has been down before. A former pitcher who spent 15 seasons in the majors, he jettisoned the windup about halfway through his career and worked only from the stretch until he retired. Along with current big-name starters like Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco, both of whom work solely from the stretch, Maddux is aware of the benefits of keeping it simple. “With the windup, it’s harder work getting to your balance point. Nothing happens until you get to your balance point. Everything else doesn’t mean diddly-squat. All that matters is getting to your balance point and then going downhill.”
“When the Nats held their first intrasquad scrimmage and Strasburg worked one inning entirely from the stretch, pitching coach Mike Maddux just assumed his hurler was doing some fine-tuning. Routine spring maintenance. Before long, though, it became clear that the windup had gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Just like that, Strasburg was all stretch, all the time.”
Still, getting to that balance point has proved increasingly tricky for Strasburg. “As I’ve gotten older,” says the eight-year vet, “whether it’s my transition, or getting my foot in the same position every time, for whatever reason it just became more of an issue trying to get that same feeling on the rubber on my turn. Getting that consistent spot to where you feel comfortable on the rubber, then lifting your leg and going.”
Based on early 2017 returns, Strasburg is feeling pretty darned comfortable. For the first time in his career, he has lasted at least seven innings in each of his first three starts. In those outings, he has thrown a total of 301 pitches — just the second time he has ever topped the 300 mark in his first three turns. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether the stretch will translate to long-term durability. In the meantime, it’s providing ancillary benefits.
“Hitting is timing, and pitching is altering timing,” says Maddux. “He’s changing looks, mixing in the high leg kick and the slide-step. That keeps hitters from really locking in like they do when you’re in the windup. He’s getting a lot of pitcher-favorable swings.”
The numbers back up Maddux’s observation: Through his first three outings, Strasburg’s line drive rate of 13.8 percent was in the top 10 among NL starters and far below his career mark of 21.2 percent. In 21 innings, he’d posted a 19-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and worked to a 1.00 WHIP. What’s more, contrary to the perception that less windup equals less power, Strasburg’s velocity is as good as ever: According to Brooks Baseball, his fastball is averaging 95.8 mph, the highest in his first three starts since the 2013 season. In other words, when it comes to Project Strasburg Stretch, so far, so good.
“Arm strength-wise, the stuff’s still there, if not better,” says Strasburg. “I never really did the old-school windup. I wasn’t really trying to gain momentum. That whole step and transition wasn’t really generating anything. For me, when I can get into a comfortable balanced position with my leg kick and drive down the mound under control, then at the end let it go — that’s just letting the body work.”
The Nationals can only hope that Strasburg’s body continues to work.