Nationals

Nationals

With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we’re ranking the Nationals’ 10 biggest strengths that we’re looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Kicking off the top three is Stephen Strasburg’s nasty changeup.

Stephen Strasburg’s best pitch wasn’t supposed to be the changeup.

When he was selected first overall by the Nationals out of San Diego State in 2009, Strasburg boasted a four-seamer that touched triple digits, a sinker/two-seam fastball that wasn’t too far off the century mark and an offspeed pitch that moved so much people weren’t sure whether to call it a curveball or slider.

He had a changeup, but it wasn’t nearly as developed as his other pitchers and he only really used it to give opposing hitters a different look before blowing a fastball by them.

“I remember Pudge [Rodríguez] catching me the first couple of bullpens [after I was drafted], and he was just raving about it,” Strasburg told The Washington Post in March. “And I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ I felt good about throwing it even though I hadn’t used it a ton. And then once I got to the big leagues, he was calling it a lot, and I was like, ‘I’ll throw whatever he calls and just go with it.’”

 

Fast forward to present day, and Strasburg’s changeup is not only the most difficult of his pitches for opposing batters to hit—it’s the best pitch in his arsenal.

Now let’s not undersell the importance of Strasburg’s other pitches. His fastball is still the table setter, adjusting the eye level of opposing hitters and opening the door for his other offerings to go to work. He throws that curveball (as it’s since been classified) more often than anything else. And the sinker plays a big role in his game plan against right-handed hitters.

But none of them stack up quite like the changeup.

Last season, opponents hit just .144 off his change—the lowest batting average against any of his pitches. Of the 827 changeups he threw, batters swung and missed at 200 of them (24.2 percent, the highest whiff rate in his arsenal).

Even when they did manage to make contact, the ball didn’t go far. Nearly 64 percent of Strasburg’s changeups that were put into play ended up on the ground and only 20 percent were line drives. And yes, both of those numbers were the best of any of his pitches.

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The thing is, Strasburg’s changeup isn’t one of the best of the game because it has the highest spin rate or moves the most. While Patrick Corbin’s slider is the best of its type, especially compared to other lefties, Strasburg’s changeup is valuable because of how he uses it.

Strasburg usually starts off an at-bat with either fastball or a curve, mixing in the occasional sinker if the batter hits right-handed. He’ll throw the changeup at lefties regardless of the count but usually sticks with those first three pitches when he falls behind. But when he gets to two strikes, the gates open up and Strasburg turns to either the changeup (lefties) or curveball (righties) to finish the job.

Yet the threat of the fastball is always there. Strasburg still throws the four-seamer 27.5 percent of the time with two strikes, compared to his curveball at 32.2 and changeup at 31.5. Unfortunately for opposing hitters, waiting on the fastball often spells some ugly looking swings.

Strasburg maintains the same arm slot for his changeup that he uses when he throws both his fastball and curveball. The ball is released at the same point, cutting down on the amount of time opposing hitters have to distinguish what type of pitch is thrown. Then it follows the same flight path toward the plate.

That is, until it completely falls off the table.

The ball cuts toward his arm side, which means it dives down and away from lefties and down and in to righties—a lot like a cutter but with less speed. Strasburg throws it with as much strength as he does his fastball but the grip allows the ball to slip out of his fingers with a lot more movement; sometimes even Strasburg doesn’t know where it’s going.

 

As his changeup has developed over the years, so has Strasburg as a pitcher. No longer reliant on an upper-90s fastball to punch hitters out, the Nationals’ right-hander has shown the maturity to handle big moments and come through under pressure. Once a rattled starter who would allow two-run innings to turn into four-run innings, Strasburg is confident in his pitches to get him out of jams.

Especially the one that wasn’t even supposed to be his best pitch.

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