Today was a big day for baseball and an especially big day for the Washington Nations: the debut of top prospect Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, the #1 pick in last year’s draft, is 21 years old and is easily the most anticipated pitching prospect of the last few years. There is good reason for the hype. Strasburg is armed with an upper-90s fastball, a high-80s to low-90s changeup and one of the prettiest curveballs a rookie has ever thrown.
The only comparison I can really think of for Strasburg’s fastball is the two-seam fastball of Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez. Both pitches sit in the high 90s and both have good movement. In fact, looking at pitch f/x information on Brooks Baseball we see that Strasburg threw 60 fastballs and averaged just over 97.5 mph while reaching 100.1.
His average horizontal break of -7.22 and average vertical break of 7.24 make this pitch’s movement quite similar to Ubaldo Jimenez’s two-seam fastball which is averaging 96.6 mph with a horizontal break of -7.7 and a vertical break of 6.0 this season.
Strasburg actually throws two different fastballs, but pitch fx picked them all up as four-seam fastballs so these numbers will actually be slightly different once the pitches are classified correctly. Either way it’s clearly poised to be a dominant pitch.
Strasburg also threw 25 curveballs, which are nice and fast at an average speed of 82.2 mph with an average vertical break of -8.1. For comparison Adam Wainwright’s excellent curve averages 73.9 mph and -8.2 of vertical break. Yeah, this kid can pitch.
Strasburg faced 11 lefties and 13 righties. He gave up 2 hits to each side of the plate and struck out 6 lefties and 8 righties.
Many young pitchers have great stuff but one thing which sets Strasburg apart is his command of all of his pitches. At such a young age we can see that Strasburg was throwing lots of strikes. He got 16 swinging strikes inluding 5 on the 25 curveballs he threw and threw 65 total strikes in his 94 pitches overall. Let’s take a look at his location by pitch type and batter handedness, courtesy of the Bloomberg Sports Professional Tool.
First off let’s look at his release point. Unlike Mets’ pitcher Jonathon Niese who has a significantly different release point for his curveball we can see that Strasburg is pretty consistent. He does release the curveball a little higher than the fastball but the gap is not nearly as big as Niese and this probably doesn’t tip the pitch to the batter.
Against right handed batters Strasburg threw mostly curveballs and fastballs, especially early in the count. He did throw a couple of changeups but they were mostly late in the at bat (only 1 changeup against righties came in the first 3 pitches of any at bat.)
He threw his fastball (red) inside or right over the middle most of the time. Usually it’s not a great idea to throw your fastball middle-middle but when it is 97-100 miles per hour with good movement the same rules don’t necessarily apply. While a number of these pitches were put in play (the ^s) he also got a number of called strikes (|s) and a few swinging strikes (-s.)
His curveball (green) was usually located right over the midde of the plate but once again he got mostly called strikes when throwing it middle-middle. It was only when the curveball was low that Pirates batters swung at it. They were completely unable to put it in play regardless and the best outcome they got was a ball which happened when he went low and outside with the pitch.
Pirate righties could not lay off the changeup (blue) when Strasburg threw it over the middle of the plate. He got three swinging strikes on 4 changeups to right-handed batters. Coming in at 90-91 mph the pitch must have looked like a fastball right the middle, until the bottom dropped out and the batters swung right over the pitch.
Against lefties Strasburg used his changeup a bit earlier in the count and threw less curveballs.
We can see that he really kept his fastball away from lefties. It looks like he tried to throw a few inside but could not keep it near the strike zone. Strasburg generated a lot of swinging strikes on fastballs both away and low in the strike zone against the Pirates left-handed batters.
He mainly threw his changeup over the middle of the plate (though he did mix a few higher ones on the outside part of the plate) and while Delwyn Young took one of the changeups deep I don’t think it was a bad pitch at all. He probably meant to place it a little lower but odds are that pitch is called a ball if Young doesn’t swing.
His curveball was once again mostly over the middle of the plate though he did throw a few inside as well.
One of the few things which I’d like to see, is for Strasburg mix up the location of his curveball more. Batters did not swing at his high curveballs today but if he keeps throwing so many of them right down the middle of the plate, I think they will have a chance to catch up to it. It’s only one start but it’s something which I noticed while watching the game and which was backed up by the pitch f/x data. Comparing it to all the curveballs which Adam Wainwright has thrown so far this year we can see that Wainwright throws his curve lower in the zone more often and spreads it out a bit more.
Strasburg might not yet have the feel to throw his curve to the sides of the plate. It will be interesting to watch this in his next few starts. The ability to throw this excellent pitch anywhere in the strike zone would help Strasburg greatly.
One thing which Strasburg did spread out well was his strikeout pitches. Not only did he get strikeouts on all three types of pitches he also got them pretty much everywhere in the strike zone (and sometimes out of the strike zone.)
Two of the hits off of Strasburg came on fastballs in that middle zone (both to righties) and two came on off-speed pitches low in the zone (including the highlighted changeup which the HR was hit off of.) Once again I don’t think this was a bad pitch – Delwyn just got the best of him.
All in all Strasburg made a highly successful debut. His fastball was electric, his curve was nasty and his changeup was faster than a league average fastball. I’m looking forward to seeing how batters adapt and how Strasburg improves as he gains more experience. It’s always fun watching a phenom and I’ll be watching closely as more data becomes available.