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Strasburg's affinity for strikeouts may be hurting development

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers to the plate during the first inning against the Pirates on Saturday, May 4, 2013, at PNC Park.

Perhaps no pitcher in baseball history had a more anticipated debut than Stephen Strasburg. Billed as a once-in-a-generation arm, Strasburg was not only a former No. 1 overall draft pick who possessed precise command of an upper 90s fastball and plus off-speed pitches, but no similar talent had debuted in such a media-saturated era.

The hype was immense. Yet during his debut June 8, 2010, against the Pirates in Washington, Strasburg exceeded the hype.

Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates over seven innings, allowing two runs. Lastings Milledge whiffed on a fall-off-the-table curve to end the first. Ronny Cedeno had no chance against a 91 mph Strasburg changeup (yes, changeup) in the second, and Jeff Karstens but could do nothing but watch, or perhaps just hear, a 101 mph fastball buzz the outside corner in the fifth.

It was a remarkable first impression. But it was a debut Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he believes has negatively affected Strasburg.

“I thought all along one of the things that hurt ‘Stras' early on was when he struck out 14 the first game he was up here,” Johnson said. “He's still leaning toward missing bats rather than (pitching to contact).”

Nearly three years later, Strasburg again faced the Pirates on Saturday. This time it wasn't hype hovering over the right-hander, it was this question: What's wrong with the former wunderkind? Strasburg is 1-4 this season.

Strasburg led major league starting pitchers with 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings last season, when he was controversially shut down in September as a precaution in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. He entered Saturday with the highest strikeout rate among starters in MLB history (10.88).

But nearly three years after his debut against the Pirates, Strasburg has yet to pitch into the eighth inning of a major league game. He logged seven innings Saturday, allowing five hits and four runs while striking out eight. He threw 95 pitches. His inefficiency is discussed as much as his electric stuff.

Strasburg entered Saturday throwing only 57 percent of first pitches for strikes, ranking 74th among major league starters. Though his fastball velocity has declined from a 97.3 mph average in 2010 to a 95.5 mph average this season, his stuff remains elite. Still, he has been surprisingly hittable — he's often falling behind batters. Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes hit his first home run of the season off Strasburg on Saturday. Starling Marte also homered.

“It goes back to (focusing on) missing the bat,” Johnson said. “The toughest guys I ever had to face threw the ball in the strike zone early enough that you didn't get to see many pitches. As a hitter, the more pitches you see that miss the zone, the more your timing gets better.”

Johnson said the Nationals have preached to Strasburg about pitching more to contact. The Pirates have delivered a similar message to their staff, which entered with the fewest innings pitched by starters in the league.

Strasburg said he felt he made progress Saturday. He said his arm felt fine after feeling some forearm tightness during his last start.

“I feel like in the past if I gave up that many runs, usually I'd have over 100 pitches through six,” Strasburg said. “I just try to do a better job of pounding the strike zone.”

Johnson said it's important to remember Strasburg is still just 24.

“What a lot of people don't realize is that he's still very young in his big league career,” Johnson said. “He's still learning.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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