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Stephen Strasburg's Learning Curve And A Chat With The Cat

A week of chatter about Washington Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg ended with the Nats' 24-year-old right-hander shutting the Miami Marlins out for six innings on Sunday.

August 5, 2012;Washington D. C., USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws a pitch during the game against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE
August 5, 2012;Washington D. C., USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws a pitch during the game against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

• Month-to-Month, Start To Start: Stephen Strasburg was named NL Pitcher of the Month for the month of April. In the first month-plus of the 2012 season, the right-hander, who turned 24 on July 20th, had a 1.13 ERA, a 1.81 FIP, 0.88 WHIP, six walks (1.69 K/9) and 33 K's (9.56 K/9) in 32.0 IP. In five starts and 26.0 IP in May he had a 4.50 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 1.38 WHIP, 11 walks (3.81 BB/9) and 36 K's (12.46 K/9).

Strasburg threw 6.0 scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins on July 15th in his 18th start of the season. The next game he went out to the mound in Turner Field in Atlanta and allowed eight hits, three walks and four runs in 5.1 IP over which he struck out five, threw 103 pitches and struggled with his command. Then he had an 11-K, seven-inning outing against the New York Mets in which he gave up just four hits and one run.

It's been a predictably up-and-down, (but mostly up, honestly) year for the '09 no.1 overall pick in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery. After he gave up eight hits and six runs in 4.0 IP Tuesday against Philadelphia, however, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson wasn't willing to blame his no.1 starter's issues solely on the surgery he's still rehabbing from this season. "Obviously he didn't have his best stuff," the Nationals' manager told reporters, "and his location wasn't real good. Some pitch selections. We know the hitters. We go over them, and he was fighting himself. Just a young pitcher. Lost a little poise. That's part of the growing up."

• 7/31/12 vs Philadelphia: Strasburg gave up back-to-back one-out singles by the Phillies' Juan Pierre and Chase Utley but got a double play grounder from Ryan Howard to end a nine-pitch first. He gave up a leadoff double in the second and two outs later started veteran infielder Kevin Frandsen with a 95 mph first-pitch fastball that went out to right-center for an opposite field home run. It was Frandsen's first major league home run since 2007.

In the third inning, Strasburg "missed" with a 2-2 curve to Pierre. The next pitch was a full-count fastball the Phillies' outfielder sent back up the middle for his second single off the Nats' right-hander. Pierre stole second, then third, and scored on a throwing error by Jesus Flores on the play at third. Strasburg was down 3-0 and frustated with the error, the strike zone, something. It was showing. He issued a two-out walk before he completed a 21-pitch inning.

Philliles' outfielder John Mayberry doubled on a 97 mph 2-1 fastball from Strasburg in the fourth and scored one out later when Cliff Lee hit a 94 mph 1-0 fastball through second. 4-0. A fly to left by Jimmy Rollins bounced off the wall in right, out of Bryce Harper's reach, and Harper crashed hard into the wall attempting to catch it. One run scores, 5-0 and then another as Philadelphia's speedy shortstop rounds the bases for an inside the park home run. 6-0 Phillies. Strasburg retired the last batter that inning, but Davey Johnson decided his pitcher was done for the night.

When asked if it was just an off night by a pitcher on his way back from Tommy John, however, the Nationals' skipper said he didn't see how it was related to Strasburg's surgery. It was just an off night by a major league pitcher. "It's just a long grind," Johnson explained, "and you can't be totally dominant every time you go out there. And he expects it of himself and when he makes a bad pitch and a guy hits it out of the ballpark it kind of makes him try harder and it's just a part of learning." That "bad pitch" to Frandsen was a 95 mph fastball, but it was belt-high and outside.

According to his catcher that night, Jesus Flores, Strasburg was simply struggling with his control against the Phillies. "He was leaving the ball up," Flores told MASN's Kristina Akra, "and the other team, they have good players and good hitters, and his breaking ball tonight wasn't as he usually throws them and I guess we were kind of used to throwing fastballs."

"It's just experience," Davey Johnson told reporters in the post game press conference, "He's a smart pitcher. He'll learn from that. With all the expectations and all the hype that brought out, he has that bar way up there too and so when he's not hitting his spots, he's not missing the bats, he loses a little bit of his cool demeanor." The Nats' manager has talked at times about ending some starts early when possible and saving innings for Strasburg, who is on an innings limit this season, but Johnson wasn't trying to do that in Strasburg's last start against the Phillies.

"He'd given up eight hits in four innings," Johnson said, "and he was fighting it, so it's time to shut it down."

D.C. GM Mike Rizzo agreed with the Nats' manager, telling MASN's Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo in an appearance after the trade deadline last week that it wasn't about Strasburg's arm in the start vs Philadelphia, but more an issue with locating his pitches.

"'He had trouble locating his fastball," Rizzo said, "and got a little breaking ball happy I thought early on and it just kind of snowballed from then."

As the Nats' GM reminded viewers, Strasburg still hasn't pitched a complete season at the major league level. He's still young. He's still learning. "What we forget is that he is a very young pitcher," Rizzo said, "I forget it myself sometimes. This is an ultra-talented guy and he's done so many great things in his young, young career that we forget [that] this guy is in his first full season of pitching in the major leagues. He's never pitched over 128 innings in his lifetime. We all have lofty expectations for him, but we also have to remember that he's a 24-year-old guy in his first season in the major leagues. He's going to make mistakes with pitches, he's going to learn from the rough outings that he has and he's going to take it and run with it."

The Template: Mike Rizzo. Davey Johnson. Scott Boras. Ask anyone involved with Stephen Strasburg about the plan to shut the 24-year-old right-hander down this season with the Nats in the midst of their first run at a postseason berth and you'll find that they are all in agreement. It's not an ideal situation but it's best for the young pitcher long-term. Inevitably, in any conversation on the subject, Jordan Zimmermann's name will be brought up. The 26-year-old right-hander went through the same process. Tommy John surgery. Rehab. An innings limit in his first full-year back. Then full-strength at Spring Training the next season with no limitations. Zimmermann's being mentioned as a potential Cy Young candidate this year.

While the Nats' skipper and GM were reluctant to tie Strasburg's recent struggles to his recovery from Tommy John, Zimmermann told ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan this week that the occasional control issues Strasburg's experienced are something he went through himself in his first full-year back in 2011.

"I didn't have my best stuff all the time and as you saw last night, I don't think he had his best stuff," the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick said referring to Strasburg's rough outing against Philadelphia, "And he's a really competitive guy and he gets frustrated when he doesn't have his best stuff. So we sat down and we talked with him after the game and I kind of just told him, 'You're going to have times like this and you're going to have bad games throughout your career. You can't be perfect every time. Sometimes you have to give the other team credit and if they hit the ball they hit the ball, but more times than not, you're going to dominate the other team, but there's going to be some hiccups along the way."

Zimmermann threw 31.0 innings at the end of the 2010 campaign when he returned to the Nationals after the surgery, rehab and 39.2 IP in the minors as Strasburg did in late 2011, though for Strasburg it was 20.1 IP in the minors and 24.0 to end the year in D.C. A 25-year-old Zimmermann returned to the mound in 2011 for 26 starts and 161.1 IP in which the right-hander was (8-11) with a 3.18 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 31 walks and 124 K's, but as he told ESPN980's hosts, his control was in and out all year. "I felt strong last year," Zimmermann said, "but there were some games where I just felt like I couldn't locate anything and so far this year I've been feeling great every game and being able to locate all my pitches throughout the year so far."

Through 22 starts and 139.1 IP for the Nationals this season, the 26-year-old Zimmermann is (8-6) with a 2.45 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 25 BB (1.61 BB/9) and 95 K's (6.39 K/9) with the ERA the NL's second-lowest and MLB's third-lowest and the 1.61 BB/9 a career low.

Zimmermann, who was, of course, shut down at 161.1 IP last year, was asked by the ESPN980's Sports Fix hosts how he would've reacted to being shut down in a pennant race:

"It's a tough one because obviously we weren't in it. And I don't really want to be in the shoes that Stephen's in right now, but obviously looking back at it, them shutting me down I think was the right thing. But if we were in the same situation obviously I'm probably going to go up to the manager and say something and try to talk [Rizzo] into letting me go longer. But you've got to look at it as he's only 24-years-old and he's still young and you don't want to really take the risk of him having another major surgery or something go wrong and there you sit and his career is ended."

• McCatty on Strasburg: Nats' pitching coach Steve McCatty talked to Strasburg after the starter's rough outing against the Phillies. They talked for forty-five minutes according to McCatty, who shared the story with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier in an interview last week. Strasburg's pitching coach's take on the occasional issues? "He's learning to pitch at the major league level and it's not fun. It's not easy," the former major league pitcher explained. Strasburg didn't have the luxury of learning the things he's learning now in the minors. Strasburg threw just 51.1 innings in the Nats' system before making his MLB debut in June of 2010, a year after he was drafted out of San Diego State University.

Strasburg was injured late in 2010, he rehabbed in 2011 and then restarted in 2012. "This is Stephen's third year, basically," McCatty said:

"And for having a lack of minor league experience, reading bats, combinations of pitches, [knowing] the tendencies of what a guy wants to do, learning the guys, he hasn't had the opportunity and basically he's just out-stuffed them. So now it's in the process of learning what he is and what he can do, and how to use it and he's going to have games where... like the Mets two starts ago that he was lights out. Just lights out. And then the other day he struggled. And for him it's really kind of hard too, because he knows what he's done in the past, what he expects of himself, but sometimes he expects a little bit more because of what's written about him, said about him, and Strasburgmania and all that. You've just got to calm down a little bit and let it go and relax."

Strasburg's still learning according to his GM, teammates, manager and pitching coach. There will be ups and downs, the control will come and go at times, but even with the occasional struggles this season, the right-hander entered play on Sunday in the nation's capital with an (11-5) record, a 3.12 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 33 walks (2.45 BB/9) and 154 K's (11.42 K/9) in 121.1 IP. "When it's on, boy it's on," McCatty told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s hosts, "And even when it's off, it's not that bad. And I know it bothers him, but I said, 'Hey look, you're (10-5) with a 2.00-something ERA, that might be unacceptable for you, but for a lot of us that played and are playing, we'd be pretty happy with it." Not Strasburg.

• Start No.22: The Nats' 24-year-old right-hander was (1-0) in two starts against the Nats' NL East rivals from Miami so far this season, before Sunday's outing in Nats Park, having walked two and K'd 13 while allowing 10 hits in 12.0 scoreless innings against the Marlins in 2012. He'd also shown a tendency to bounce back after rough outings as's Mark Zuckerman noted before Sunday's game in Nationals Park:

Strasburg bounced back from the rough outing against the Phillies with 6.0 scoreless innings against the Marlins in the series finale with Miami, walking one, striking out six and earning the win to improve to (12-5) while getting his ERA on the year back down under 3.00 at 2.97 at the end of the game to go along with a 2.69 FIP, 34 walks (2.40 K/9) and 160 K's (11.31 K/9). And that's after a string of starts against the Nats' other three NL East rivals in which Strasburg had given up 20 hits and 11 runs in 16.1 IP over which he'd posted a 6.06 ERA. As the Nats' skipper told reporters after Strasburg had a strong outing on Sunday against the Marlins, it's all part of the learning curve and building toward the future for the 24-year-old right-hander. Even if it's tough to deal with a struggling Strasburg at times.

"You don't really want to get close to him," Davey Johnson joked, "Because he's very cognizant of every little thing that doesn't got the way he plans, the pitch and the sequence, and that's why I say, the experience this year, getting 30 starts or whatever, it's like money in the bank."