Stephen Strasburg’s Magnificent and Surprising Wednesday

Maybe it was the antibiotics, maybe it was the shame. Whatever the reason, Stephen Strasburg pitched Wednesday and offered an extraordinary performance, particularly given the context.

Strasburg gave us his Jordan-with-the flu, Reed-coming-out-of-tunnel, Gibson-homering-on-zero-healthy-legs, Schilling’s-bloody-sock moment on a dreary, blustery afternoon at Wrigley Field.

Largely because of Strasburg, there will be a Game 5 in this series. Against the Cubs last night, Strasburg surrendered just three hits over seven shutout innings, striking out 12 while conceding just two walks. Over two starts and 14 innings in the NLDS, Strasburg did not allow an earned run, striking out 22 and walking just three. He’s pitching as well anyone on the planet.

The Nats right-hander provided us with one major plot twist. A day earlier, Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Strasburg was “under the weather” and would be held back for a potential Game 5. Then things changed.

That was the big surprise. The other was his diving changeup, a pitch that seemed to fade away at a right-angle trajectory at times.

Strasburg has a good changeup — one of the game’s best, in fact. But he doesn’t employ it all that often relative to the quality of the pitch. He also has a hammer of a curve and a premier fastball, off of which the curveball plays. And because of his total package of filth, Strasburg’s changeup is perhaps one of the game’s most overshadowed pitches.

Of Strasburg’s 106 pitches Wednesday, 32 (or 30.1%) were changeups. Previous to last night, he’d thrown the changeup at a rate of 30% or greater in just one career regular-season start, way back in his rookie year on June 28, 2010, in Atlanta (31.5%). He’d thrown the pitch at a 20% rate or greater in just eight starts this season.

He had his normal fastball velocity Wednesday and command of the pitch. He still had his hammer of a curve, but perhaps he surprised the Cubs with the quality and frequency of the changeup, his third plus-plus weapon. (Strasburg’s fastball, curveball, and changeup all produced linear-weight values of 10 runs or greater this season.)

As good as Strasburg is, perhaps he can find another level by leaning on his darting, fading changeup more often. While it was exceptional Wednesday, it’s typically very good.

Strasburg’s change was tops among starters this season in whiffs-per-swing rate (50.6%), according to the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, four percentage points higher than second-place Jake Faria’s (46.2%) and ahead of the bat-missing version thrown by Dallas Keuchel (44.2%).

Last season, Strasburg’s changeup ranked second among starters in whiffs-per-swing rate (45.5%). It placed fifth in 2015 (42.45%).

The pitch also induces weak contact. Over each of the last three seasons, Strasburgh’s changeup has produced at least three ground balls for every air ball. In each of the last two years, it’s produced line-drive rates of 16%, an excellent number for a pitcher.

It has, in short, always been a weapon. On Wednesday, it enjoyed increased usage and a national spotlight.

Strasburg’s changeup features some of the top horizontal run away from left-handed hitters in the game, about nine inches every year (9.04 inches this season — 24th in the game) and three inches of drop (also above average).

Consider some of these soul-crushing, fade-away offerings against left-handed-hitting Cubs from Wednesday…

And Strasburg’s final pitch of the day, fittingly, was a bat-missing changeup ….

While Strasburg could perhaps benefit from throwing the pitch more often, he did record one of the highest changeup usage rates of his career this season (18.8%), up from 13.0% last year and 13.7% in 2015. He’s also used the pitch more often against right-handers.

Of Strasburg’s total offerings, only 2.79% were changeups to right-handed batters in 2015, a figure that increased to 4.23% in 2016 and 7.72% in 2017. As Eno wrote last April, some pitchers have developed a new approach to the changeup; more right-handed pitchers are willing to throw the pitch to right-handed batters. That runs against conventional wisdom, but it also gives batters another variable and movement to consider.

Strasburg has been among those pitcher willing to stray from convention. For example, he got Kris Bryant swinging over the top of two right-on-right changeup in the fourth for a strikeout:

And again in the sixth:

He also induced weak right-on-right contact with the pitch in a key situation in the second, wisely choosing not to throw the free-swinging Javier Baez a pitch in the strike zone with runners on the corners and two out. The situation was about the only jam in which Strasburg found himself in Wednesday.

It was one of only two balls put in play against the changeup, the other being a weak ground out by Jon Lester. Again, Strasburg threw 32 changeups, 15 for swinging strikes, two were put in play, and weakly contacted. That’s domination. That’s a great effort from one pitcher, from one pitch.

Strasburg surprised us Wednesday. After all, he pitched.

And then he surprised the Cubs with a filthy, darting changeup. (Although, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise.)

Sick or not-very-sick, he rose to the moment. Perhaps he began to hammer away at what might be an unfair reputation regarding his reliability. Should the Nationals advance, they’ll have one of the game’s best pitchers throwing as well as he ever has.

Strasburg has a chance to create a new reputation this October.

We hoped you liked reading Stephen Strasburg’s Magnificent and Surprising Wednesday by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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stever20
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stever20

If the Nats can somehow win tonight w/o using Scherzer, their pitching staff would be set perfectly for the LCS. Scherzer 1, Roark 2, Strasburg 3. Even if Scherzer goes, he could possibly go in game 2 of the LCS- setting up pretty well for the series.

binqasim
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binqasim

Oh God, let’s not get ahead of the game. I am not thinking NLCS until Cubs are one strike away while down 10 runs in the ninth. Hope Nationals change the narrative tonight like Strasburg did yesterday.

stever20
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stever20

trust me, I know. It’s been 20 years since a team from DC has made just the conference finals.

Pig.Pen
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Pig.Pen

Perhaps you’ve forgotten Pete Kozma. Even if they’re one strike away, I’m still not thinking it’s a done deal. 2012 proved 1 strike away is still not close enough for the Nats.

binqasim
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binqasim

I will never forget Pete. He is the reason that my margin is at least 10 runs.

signedepsteinsmother
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signedepsteinsmother

When the Cubs win tonight w/o using Q….