VIERA, Fla. — His right elbow fully healed after October surgery to remove bone chips, Stephen Strasburg took the bullpen mound outside Space Coast Stadium on Sunday for his first formal throwing session of the spring.
What struck observers more than the fact Strasburg’s arm looked 100 percent healthy was the fact he spent much of the session working on some new techniques to help him better hold runners on first base.
“I saw today Stephen Strasburg, in his first bullpen session, varying his slide step and working on his looks to home plate,” manager Matt Williams said. “That’s the attention to detail we’re looking for. He’s concerned about it and he wants to improve on it. His first bullpen session, he’s working on it. I think that’s a really good thing.”
In his fifth camp as a member of the Nationals, Strasburg isn’t concerned with wowing coaches or onlookers with his fastball velocity or curveball break. He’s much more concerned with fine-tuning the little things that could help propel him from merely one of the sport’s better pitchers into one of its very best.
“The first couple years [of camp] it would be like: ‘Let’s go. The fans are watching, and you want to go out there and impress,’” he said. “I’ve come to realize there’s not a hitter in the box, and there’s still six weeks of spring training and I need to just get my work in. I wanted to take that kind of approach this year, just try to take baby steps and get a little better each day.”
Strasburg enters the spring on the heels of a 2013 campaign that can only be described as odd. In many respects, he was better than any previous professional season, posting a 3.00 ERA over a career-high 183 innings, allowing barely more than one batter per inning to reach base. But he also finished with an 8-9 record, the product mostly of poor run support, failed to reach the third inning in four starts and dealt with injuries to his side and elbow.
“I had to persevere,” the right-hander said. “There are a lot of things that didn’t necessarily go my way, and that’s fine. I think everybody’s going to have years like that, and I think I’ve become a lot stronger mentally from it. I think I’m much more capable of being able to roll with the punches that the season throws at you.”
Strasburg took care of the elbow injury with arthroscopic surgery shortly after the season ended and reported to Viera fully recovered, having already thrown off a mound seven times before Sunday’s session. That session included the usual 10 minutes of pitching, but it also included some extra emphasis from Strasburg on holding runners on first.
It’s been a problem for him throughout his career — opponents have been successful on 79 percent of stolen base attempts against him, well above the MLB average of 73 percent — and it’s something he knows he must improve.
“I think it was pretty apparent,” he said. “It’s not something I was blindsided by. I knew it was something I needed to work on. And I know it’s going to make me a better pitcher. Save some runs, and hopefully get some more double plays in the process.”
Strasburg noted that his lightning-quick ascension to the majors in 2010 may have contributed to the problem. Where most young pitchers perfect those kind of details during their multiple years in the minor leagues, Strasburg made only 11 professional starts before his much-ballyhooed debut for the Nationals on national television.
“I didn’t really have much time in the minors to work on the little nuances of pitching,” he said. “And that was one thing where I just compensated for it by just being really quick to home plate. And big-league baserunners, hitters, coaches, they’re going to pick up on that. They’re just going to cheat and sell-out. If I can’t even see where they’re at, they know I’m going to home plate, so they’re gone.”
It may seem like a small thing, but it’s potentially a critical thing to help Strasburg take that next step as a big-league pitcher. He has overcome the hype of his rookie season, Tommy John surgery, a controversial plan to shut him down in the middle of a pennant race and a disappointing follow-up season.
Now 25 and entering his fifth year with the Nationals, Strasburg hopes some attention to detail helps propel him to the next level.
“I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Williams said. “I think he’s certainly got fantastic stuff. He wants to be out there in a playoff situation, or Opening Day or whatever it is. That’s good.”