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Stephen Strasburg's striking preference: groundball outs

Three starts, 9 innings, 149 pitches and 1 at-bat into his Washington Nationals career, Stephen Strasburg has basically been everything the Nationals hoped he would be.

For a bounty of reasons, Strasburg will certainly not be starting the season in major leagues. Pitching is not one of them. In those 149 pitches, there is nothing more Strasburg could have done to prove himself capable of pitching in the major leagues. "No," Manager Jim Riggleman said, "not really."

The Nationals' brass will meet tomorrow to determine his next start, but, really, what's the difference? Strasburg is going to start in the minors, and when he gets to the majors, he's going to be really damn good. He continued to make that clear tonight, even after the JV version of the St. Louis Cardinals hit two first-inning solo home runs, one of them by Tyler Greene on the first pitch of the game.

Strasburg surrendered those two runs and not much else. He allowed two more hits, both singles, throwing 53 of his 73 pitches for strikes. He struck out eight, including seven of the final 12 batters he faced.

Strasburg's nine innings represent one complete game, 27 outs. Even after his huge strikeout performance tonight, the most impressive statistic may be this: None of those outs have come on fly balls to the outfield. He struck out 12, induced 14 groundouts, and got one measly popup.

"It says my ball is moving to force weak contact," Strasburg said.

That is not accident. Strasburg has the arm and the stuff to try to strike out anyone he wants in any situation. "He knows what he's doing," said Ivan Rodriguez, who caught Strasburg tonight for the first time. "He's got tremendous major league talent. He's going to go to the minor leagues and do some starting. He's going to come to our team very soon. The kid's amazing."

But Strasburg, who became known for mind-boggling strikeout totals at San Diego State, prefers one-pitch outs. He is going to strike out a lot of batters, and most of those will be on accident. He wants to be a groundball pitcher. "Weak contact," not whiffs, is what he's after.

In the Arizona Fall League, Strasburg focused on "changing where I want the ball to kind of enter the strike zone, if that makes any sense," Strasburg said. "Kind of changing the depth on it." He wants the ball to be moving down as it crosses the plate, so it looks good enough to swing at while being a chore to hit hard.

"I'll just throw it over that plate and let them get themselves out," Strasburg said. "Whatever is going to take to stay in the ballgame longer, you know? As a pitcher, you want to go the whole game. It's a lot more pitches to try and strike everybody out. It's not going to cut it. You want to go deep in a ballgame.

"It's a great feeling to know that you're going to throw a pitch right over the center of the plate, and they're going to hit to shortstop, to second base, a weak groundball. It's a part of pitching. You can go out there wanting to blow guys away, but they're going to catch up to it sooner or later. Part of pitching is where you keep going out there. They know what's coming, but you locate it in a way that they still can't get to it and make you pay for it."

In an at-bat against Jason LaRue, Strasburg threw 10 pitches, LaRue fighting off a barrage of sinkers foul. Strasburg wanted a groundball but threw another sinker that "moved a little bit more than the rest," Strasburg said. Strike three.

"I think he realizes it's going to be less taxing on his arm to get some groundball outs," Riggleman said. "I'm sure he's satisfied either way. If he had a preference, I think he'd take the groundballs."

Strasburg had another first tonight - he dug into the batter's box and hit. He ripped a one-hop line drive to shortstop. He never hit in college, and he last batted in his junior year of high school. He joked earlier that he was a good enough hitter that they didn't let him hit his senior year.

"I didn't go up there with too much expectations," Strasburg said. "It's been about six years since I faced a pitcher. I was just able to go out there, and I squared one up. Unfortunately, I didn't beat it out."

Strasburg laughed, comfortable with what he had done, the routine he has fallen into. Before the game, pitching coach Steve McCatty was asked about Strasburg's hitting debut. "I'm not too worried about that," McCatty said. "I'm worried about if he can pitch. And I know he can do that."

By Adam Kilgore  |  March 19, 2010; 11:00 PM ET
Categories:  Stephen Strasburg  
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Next: Today's lineup (UPDATED)


This may have been chewed up and spit out earlier, and my apologies if it has:

If the Nats' brass concluded over the winter that Dukes was not to be the regular RF, why was there no more aggressive attempt to shore up a key offensive position?

I have to assume that many of us here hoped (perhaps not expected, but hoped) that Dukes could produce numbers comparable to what Willingham did last season. Now, we have to really stretch to believe that Maxwell or Bernadina could provide anywhere near the same (forget Harris or Tavaras doing it).

I'm not one to be pessimistic, but this is not a cause for optimism.

Posted by: nats24 | March 19, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Two-four, I don't think they decided it over the winter, but the thought had to have occurred. I can only assume they figured they could find someone like Dye if it came to that.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | March 20, 2010 12:05 AM | Report abuse

This is just a general comment: Dukes and last year Milledge are guys who are not "cutting the mustard" with the Nats new brass. Fans should be celebrating this new found approach and not questioning. Let's give Rizzo's approach a few years

Posted by: jbfromfc | March 20, 2010 12:48 AM | Report abuse

I went to the game tonight--it's going to be fun watyching Strasburg get better. It's a neat experience to watch him pitch. On the other hand, I'm really worried about Burnett.

Posted by: djorl | March 20, 2010 12:53 AM | Report abuse

Hey Gang...I know it's early..(4:30, so literally as well as figuratively!).....Walter Johnson. Hope we can get more'n one title
Go Nats

Posted by: zendo | March 20, 2010 4:50 AM | Report abuse


This doesn't really answer your question but, based on Rizzo's comments, he hadn't really made up his mind over the winter. It looks now as if he had given himself the deadline of one day before Dukes's contract for 2010--March 17 was it?- kicked in to make a decision. Rizzo mentioned that baseball was a game of adjustments and that Dukes had really not adjusted to the pitchers' adjustment to him in 2009, which basically neutralized his power. I think Jaybee was correct that the Nats' brass really wanted Dukes to make those adjustments to his hitting at Licey in the winter league and continuing into spring training. For whatever reason, it didn't happen at Licey and the results in Viera presumably spoke for themselves. So that's why Rizzo pulled the plug on the Dukes experiment when he did.

But this of course doesn't answer your question of why a backup plan wasn't in place. Rizzo had to know that it wasn't a sure thing that Dukes could make the adjustments. Is he confident that, by using the RFers he has on hand, he can replicate Dukes's acceptable 2008 slugging pct. throughout the 2010 season? Or, knowing that these guys will probably put up (at best) anemic numbers like Dukes did last year, is Rizzo willing to settle for that? Or does he have a surprise up his sleeve, which we hope isn't named Jermaine Dye?

Posted by: CapPeterson1 | March 20, 2010 5:46 AM | Report abuse

Well, going into the season with RF unsettled is kind of a Nats tradition, no?

Posted by: JohnRDC | March 20, 2010 6:48 AM | Report abuse

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