Stephen Strasburg Is Different And The Same And Amazing

Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws in the third inning against the Houston Astros at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

Early indications are that Stephen Strasburg has changed a little bit after his Tommy John surgery. But don't you worry, he's still one of the great wonders of the world.

I don't know who came up with the word "Strasmas", and I can't speak to what it meant to other people. For me, though, it fit perfectly. I don't root for the Washington Nationals - I almost never watch the Washington Nationals - but back in 2010, I couldn't wait to watch Stephen Strasburg. There comes a point in almost everybody's life at which he or she loses that childlike, enthusiastic anticipation of Christmas morning. I had a childlike, enthusiastic anticipation of Stephen Strasburg. Being able to watch Stephen Strasburg pitch was the equivalent of receiving a gift.

Then, you know, baseball happened. Stephen Strasburg was a Faberge egg, and the Nationals placed him on a cushion in a locked display case in a room without a door in a house no one visits on a hill that's an island in shark-infested waters. Then there was an earthquake and Strasburg needed major repairs. Nothing you can do about an earthquake. Still. It's the year 2012. Nice going, science.

As much as Tommy John surgery has practically become surgical fast food, there were concerns about how Strasburg would recover. Would he ever recover? Would he recover most of the way, but not fully? Had the world already seen the best of Stephen Strasburg, or was the best of Stephen Strasburg still yet to come?

Strasburg's back now, as you know. He's on an innings limit in 2012, but he's in the Nationals' rotation, after returning to the majors last September. He made 12 big-league starts before getting hurt, and he's made eight big-league starts after coming back. Even though this might not be fair, how do the two Stephen Strasburgs match up?

At a glance, you think, wow, Strasburg's really lost something. His average fastball is down about two miles per hour. His average curveball is down about three miles per hour. His groundball rate is down from 48 percent to 38 percent. His contact rate is up from 73 percent to 78 percent. There's a lot of information in this paragraph, and you're forgiven if it didn't all sink in. In short, Strasburg's changed. His performance recently isn't what his performance was.

But that's not where we stop. We don't say "Strasburg's changed for the worse" and leave it there. That would be too simplistic, especially because Strasburg might still be working his way back to full strength. Strasburg has changed. Strasburg is still among the most purely fantastic starting pitchers in the world.

Before Strasburg got hurt, he had the fastest average fastball of any starter. Since coming back, Strasburg has thrown the second-fastest average fastball of any starter, and the guy ahead of him is out after having a Tommy John procedure of his own. Strasburg has thrown two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. Remember how Strasburg was known for his power and his command? He's still got power, and he's still got command.

And that's not all. To go along with his mid-90s heat, Strasburg has a few other weapons. Allow me to demonstrate with my only weapon, by which I mean .gifs:

Strasburgmets

Curveball!

Strasburgmets3

Changeup!

Strasburgastros

Curveball!

Strasburgmets2

Changeup!

One of the reasons for Strasburg's velocity drop is because he's throwing more two-seam fastballs now, instead of four-seam fastballs. The idea is to make him more efficient, so he needs fewer pitches to get through each inning. One of the reasons for Strasburg's contact-rate hike is because he's throwing more fastballs overall at the expense of off-speed stuff, again in the name of efficiency. Fastballs are easier to put in play, and the Nationals hope they're put in play weakly. Strasburg's off-speed stuff is ... well I don't know how you'd ever put one of those pitches in play.

You can roll your eyes at the notion that the Nationals are encouraging Strasburg to pitch to contact. Strasburg didn't pitch to contact as a rookie, see, and he was incredible. But the idea isn't to have every pitch put in play. The idea is to reduce wear and tear. Strasburg clearly still has strikeout stuff. That's in his back pocket for when he needs it, or wants it.

I'm going to dust off a classic blogger technique and compare two players without telling you who they are. I will then reveal their identities after you have observed the comparison, thus blowing your mind. Prepare for that. You might want to lay down a tarp.

Stat Pitcher A Pitcher B
Avg. Fastball 95.0mph 95.6mph
Strike% 66% 66%
Contact% 78% 78%
Groundball% 41% 38%


One of those pitchers, obviously, is Stephen Strasburg since coming back from Tommy John surgery. The other pitcher is 2011 Justin Verlander. In 2011, Justin Verlander won the American League Cy Young, and the American League Most Valuable Player. Maybe you didn't agree with one or both of those awards, but the general point is that in 2011, Justin Verlander was outstanding. Possibly the most outstanding.

Verlander was and is a workhorse. Just the other day he threw a 131-pitch complete game against the Royals. Strasburg isn't going to be that kind of workhorse soon, and he might never reach that level. But if you can be Justin Verlander for 90-95 percent as long as Justin Verlander, congratulations, you are amazing.

Stephen Strasburg got drafted, came up, and looked positively unhittable. Strasburg then underwent major surgery, and since returning to the major leagues, he's compared closely to Justin Verlander. Stephen Strasburg is different, in that some elements of his performance are different. Stephen Strasburg is the same, in that he's an unbelievable talent who makes for some can't-miss pitching, for Nationals fans and non-Nationals fans alike. The great worry was that Strasburg would get hurt, and that his career would be derailed before we got to see the heights he could reach. Strasburg got hurt. He's still going to reach for those heights. Nightmare averted, unless you're a hitter.

***


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